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The first of five community meetings on the City’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget took place at Claude Black Community Center on the Eastside Monday evening.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley reviewed budget highlights in front of more than 80 residents who attended the meeting.
The City received budget input from more than 5,000 residents via its online community feedback service, aptly named #SASpeakUp, as well as through quick surveys at several public events throughout the summer.
Both Mayor Ivy Taylor and Sculley urged attendees to comment on the budget by filling out questionnaires, which are also available at all City libraries and senior centers, on site. Attending residents were also encouraged to meet with representatives of several City departments after the budget meeting.
“This is your chance to provide additional input,” Mayor Taylor said. “We’re making great efforts to get out across the community,” adding that this kind of outreach intends for “a budget that is reflective of our collective community priorities.”
However, attendees did not get to openly comment or ask questions on the budget during or after the presentation, which displeased several residents.
“I was disappointed we didn’t get to speak,” said Shirley Ellis. “It’s not a hearing or an open house, it’s a presentation.”
Several attendees lingered after the budget presentation in order to speak with City department representatives and other community members.
The results of #SASpeakUp? San Antonians want to see basic City services prioritized in the 2017 budget.
The $2.5 billion total budget allocates $79 million to nearly 1,000 street and sidewalk projects all over the city, and $1 million each to the School Pedestrian Safety program and to the Vision Zero initiative. These separate initiatives aim to improve pedestrian safety around schools and achieve a goal of zero traffic fatalities.
“This allows us to address many of those basics we address all the time in order to keep our neighborhoods strong and safe,” Taylor said in her brief remarks at the beginning of the meeting.
“We continue to invest in streets and sidewalks, things that most residents frequently ask about – ‘My sidewalk needs repair, my road needs fixing,’” added Sculley.
Sculley’s PowerPoint presentation mentioned a handful of the Eastside road improvement projects that would be funded by the new budget. They included parts of Foster Meadows, South New Braunfels Avenue, St. Charles and St. James streets as well as area sidewalk projects on Gulf Street.
Residents also called for increased public safety, which both Taylor and Sculley assured would be reflected in the proposed budget.
The City’s spending on police, fire, and emergency medical services is just under 66% of the $1.14 billion general fund budget – numbers that were major talking points during contract negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officers Association.
The mediated settlement pact, ratified by the police union Aug. 11, allows the City to propose a budget with a pay raise for officers as well as an increase in staff. More specifically, the budget supports 32 new officer positions, nine new park police officers, and 42 positions for the emergency call center.
The budget also supports continued implementation of body cameras and a pilot program for gang violence intervention.
Because the City and the local firefighters union have yet to work toward a new collective bargaining agreement, the new budget reflects the existing pact’s evergreen clause.
The new budget includes funding the 51 firefighter positions added in the current fiscal year, retrofitting 46 fire stations with engine exhaust renewal systems, providing 1,200 firefighters with a second set of bunker gear, as well as adding firefighter and EMS classes.
Sculley went on to address quality of life issues that residents brought up in budget pre-planning meetings.
The 2017 budget would allocate $900,000 for maintenance of new greenways and new park development. New park amenities, including a new pavilion at Menger Creek, and additional trailheads with parking, water fountains, and signage on linear creekways along Leon Creek and Medina River, would also be funded.
The budget would pump $900,000 into animal care, including two new animal care officers in neighborhoods with high stray animal populations and three positions to support the grant-expiring return-to-owner program.
The animal care services boost would also support 5,000 additional spay/neuter surgeries and enable the collection of 2,000 more stray animals.
Libraries, including operations for new branch libraries in District 2 and 6, computer and furniture replacement at all branches, and security camera and access card systems, are estimated at $3 million.
The budget directs $980,000 for the addition of five senior services positions and funding of operations at the Southside Lions Senior Center, which is slated to open next winter.
Delegate agencies such as youth agencies, workforce development organizations and programs, and domestic violence prevention services will see an increased allocation of $21 million.
The budget would provide $3.8 million for the World Heritage designation area surrounding the Alamo and four Southside Spanish-colonial Missions. This includes $2.8 million for roads and sidewalks around the missions, $500,000 for work plan implementation, and $250,000 to help develop businesses that support cultural heritage tourism.
“Smart Cities” technologies such as WiFi at city parks, solar-powered benches, and informational kiosks will run close to $13 million.
The budget proposes a 1% cost-of-living adjustment for all City employees, continuation of the tenure-based step pay plan, and performance pay for professional staff and managers. Moreover, it requests six additional weeks of paid parental leave, 24 hours of wellness leave, tuition reimbursement for trade certifications, and a new housing incentive program for uniformed police and fire employees to relocate within city limits.
Attendee Joseph Oubre said he appreciated the expansion of paid parental leave for City employees.
“I admire that,” Oubre said. He and Shirley Ellis, two of several attending members of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS)/Metro Alliance, also support the continued funding of workforce training and development programs such as Project QUEST.
There were no proposed increases to property tax or the solid waste rate, but by the end of 2017, San Antonio solid waste rate payers will be converted to the “pay-as-you-throw” program.
The proposed stormwater operating rate increase would generate $3 million which would enable enhancements to storm drain tunnel maintenance and new capital projects.
Sculley said the new budget complements the implementation of the recently adopted SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan. The budget will fund two senior planners to oversee its implementation, as well as the introduction of the plan’s regional centers which are projected at $250,000.
City Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) said he felt encouraged by the number of people who showed up for the City’s first community budget meeting. “It’s great to meet people who get involved in the budgeting process and speak up to impact the budget,” he added.
Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle also spoke to the importance of gathering community input. He said City staff surveyed visitors at public venues and events in the urban core for their thoughts on budget priorities throughout the year. “We went to where the people were,” he said, adding that this approach more than doubled the amount of respondents the City received in planning its 2016 budget.
But Oubre and Ellis expressed disappointment that residents did not get get to openly address the budget after Sculley’s presentation. Instead, they were encouraged to meet representatives of several City departments.
Laura Morales, Government & Public Affairs communications strategist, said a traditional question-and-answer format would have allowed only a few questions from a few residents. This open house format provides more face time between City officials and residents, she added.
“With the open houses, residents can talk in-depth with City staff at each of the department tables about individual issues and provide feedback,” Morales said.
“There are plenty of ways to speak up—through surveys, online comments or face-to-face conversations. We welcome all feedback on the budget and are glad to see the number of residents engaged this year is breaking records.”
The four other community budget meetings will be held Tuesday, Aug. 22 at the Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, Thursday, Aug. 24 at the Northeast Tool Yard, Aug. 29 at Normoyle Community and Senior Center, and Sept. 1 at the Southside Lions Community Center. There are no current plans for community meetings in the city’s urban core.
City Hall will host public hearings on the proposed budget Aug. 31 and Sept. 7. The Council will give a final decision Sept. 15. More resident input can be provided at www.saspeakup.com.
Top Image: A San Antonio Fire Fighter walks into the Claude Black Community Center for the 2017 Budget Open House. Photo by Scott Ball.