Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
City Council discussed what to do with $4.1 million of the City’s $2.8 billion fiscal year 2019 budget Wednesday, with a general consensus emerging in favor of funding all 21 amendments officially proposed by Council members.
From $200,000 for the Westside Arts Coalition to build capacity, to funds to reduce homelessness encampments and prevent panhandling, to possibly more than $900,000 for an aggressive intervention program for families dealing with asthma, the programs and initiatives represent more than $4.2 million in funding requests. Now City staff, under the direction of City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Council, will work to fit all the requests into the budget, slated for Council approval on Sept. 13.
Each year as the City’s budget proposal approaches completion, Council members submit budget requests for projects and initiatives large and small, hoping that their asks make it into the final proposal. That bucket of General Fund cash left over for such spending, which typically comes from previously uncounted revenue from CPS Energy, has been been about $10 million the past two years.
These conversations – each Council member jockeying for funding their projects – can get heated. Last year, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) likened this phase of the process to The Hunger Games. This year, however, Council and staff seemed confident that all projects could be funded.
Receipts from CPS Energy yielded an additional $3.1 million more than expected since the original budget proposal was released on Aug. 9, Sculley said, but the City will likely have to dip into its $1 million contingency, or emergency, fund for the rest.
“It does give me a little pause,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said of tapping that emergency fund. The fund was established in 2015 after the Memorial Day floods to ensure that the City had a $1 million cushion for unforeseen events.
“We escaped this week largely unscathed,” Nirenberg said, referring to flooding on Monday and Tuesday.
But most line items proposed are “high-impact” projects, he said, adding that he was glad to see the Westside Arts Coalition have “its day in the sun … [as an organization that strives to] incite the conversation of equity in the arts community.”
Click here to view a list of amendments.
Most Council members expressed support for increasing funding for the Pediatric Managing Asthma Through Care Management in Homes (PMATCH), the Southside First small business development initiative, and St. Vincent De Paul’s free meal program at Haven for Hope’s outdoor sleeping area.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) added two amendments during the meeting: $60,000 for a homeless outreach position in his district that would connect homeless populations living in encampments to resources and another $360,00 for a drainage project. The latter, Sculley said, could likely be funded with contingency funds in the capital budget.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) proposed decreasing funding for a park in his district in order to fund a new employee, either for the City or through another agency, that would work to improve employment rates for military veterans and their spouses.
“If you leave the military, we want you to stay here,” Brockhouse said, noting San Antonio’s “Military USA” moniker. This new employee would coordinate other ongoing efforts, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative, which announced San Antonio as the country’s first Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone earlier this year.
According to a Hiring Our Heroes report, military spouses, who typically move often, face a 16 percent unemployment rate, more than four times the national average of 4 percent.
Nirenberg agreed with Brockhouse and called for City staff to look into funding that position through other means rather than cutting the district’s parks budget.
The mayor also agreed with Brockhouse that the City should look into higher cost of living adjustments for its more than 12,000 full-time employees.
It’s too late to start that conversation this year, Brockhouse said, but the 1 percent annual adjustment for employees who are no longer eligible for routine raises isn’t enough. They are eligible for bonuses – as much as $800 this year – but Brockhouse would like to see a 2 percent cost of living adjustment instead.
This year, starting wage for all City employees was increased to $15, an initiative that gained momentum in 2015.
The budget includes $17.1 million more funding for affordable housing initiatives and assistance programs for a total of about three times the city’s housing budget in previous years. The Housing Policy Task Force produced a report this year outlining a $20 million per-year investment to close the housing affordability gap. Council is expected to accept the policy framework outlined in that report on Thursday.
If approved on Sept. 13, this budget would be the first to prioritize housing.
Developed with community and Council member input, the budget is almost 6 percent more than the 2018 budget and includes more funding for streets, sidewalks, police and fire departments, animal care services, and more.