The City of San Antonio will move forward with four different annexation processes for areas outside city limits after City Council voted 8-2 in favor of the plans on Thursday. But as part of the "compromise plan," as Mayor Ivy Taylor referred to it, a densely-populated residential area on the Northside around U.S. Highway 281 won't be considered for annexation again until 2034.
After hours of passionate testimony from nearly 65 people, a majority of whom live in the Interstate 10 West area slated to become part of San Antonio in 2019, most Council members agreed annexation is necessary in order to afford the costs of safely servicing these areas and maintaining the "Military City USA" moniker.
City staff explained that without annexation, residents and businesses in these areas would continue to use City services without paying into the system through property taxes. Many homeowners in the I-10 West area argued that they consider themselves, as their addresses reflect, Boerne residents and never planned on living in San Antonio. Several called the annexation a "hostile" takeover and resident Sherri Lorber vowed to "vote against (City Council's) interest" if annexed.
A handful of citizens spoke in favor of annexation.
"As elected officials, our top responsibility is to ensure the safety of citizens in the area," Taylor said. "Although you may live outside the San Antonio (city) limits at this time, we are all part of the same region, and maintaining San Antonio's financial strength ultimately has an impact on everyone that lives in this region."
Over the next 20 years, the City expects an additional $100 million from the I-10 West and U.S. 281 commercial corridor combined. Thursday's action was not the final decision on whether to annex these and several tracts of land on the Southside; while City staff develops a service plan, public hearings and final votes will take place over the next three years. (See an overview of the areas and annexation timelines below.)
The City can't hold an election that allows residents to vote on their own annexation.
"Do we want to have that growth organized or disorganized?” Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) rhetorically asked his Council colleagues, citing concerns that unplanned growth surrounding military bases, such as that in the I-10 West area near Camp Bullis, will cause the base to close. "Like it or not, we are a growing metropolitan area."
Council members Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Ron Nirenberg (D8) voted against the measures.
"These communities can and should continue to thrive on their own tax base, and we should allow them to do that," said Nirenberg, whose district might include much of the nearly 15-sq. mile I-10 West area. "We still have not addressed the policy that would double, triple, or quadruple the amount of impervious cover that would be permitted on some parcels as soon as annexation takes place."
Similarly, Gonzales isn't convinced that annexation is beneficial to all neighborhoods.
"Annexation has not delivered on its promise" to spread services evenly throughout the city's 10 districts, Gonzales said. "I don't believe it's equitable."
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said the City was giving the U.S. 281 area special preference because that group of neighborhoods was able to afford lobbyists that advocated for its 17-year "non-annexation agreement."
"As much as I want to use the term 'compromise' that we've arrived at today," Saldaña said, "it doesn't feel as much as a compromise as much as it feels like capitulation to well-paid lobbyists who are serving their clients' interests.
"I think it's unfair we're treating these two areas differently," he added.
That being said, he still voted in favor of the annexation "compromise" because the City needs the budget to continue servicing these areas. Unlike other states, Texas does not divert revenue to compensate cities for providing services outside their official limits, he said.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) bristled at the notion that Council was bowing to lobbyists.
"It's a bunch of malarkey," Krier said, with all due respect. He defended the process behind the plan's discussions and financial modeling.
Fire Union to File Restraining Order?
City Manager Sheryl Sculley addressed allegations that the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFFA) is contemplating a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the plan to annex the U.S. 281 North area.
The police union and City Council recently finalized a five-year contract after a prolonged, at times bitter, negotiation process. The fire union has yet to come to the table.
"While we have not seen any document outlining the (fire) union’s legal arguments," Sculley said, "we firmly believe that the actions contemplated by the proposed annexation plan are consistent with both the (collective bargaining agreement) and state law. The City of San Antonio has had a similar service agreement with the City of Converse for 10 years. More importantly, the CBA has a defined process to address compliance issues related to the CBA. If the firefighters’ union attempts to enjoin the City then they may be purposely circumventing that process.
"We stand ready to defend our position in case the union goes forward to attempt to obtain a TRO," Sculley concluded.
A statement released by SAPFFA President Chris Steele Thursday afternoon made no mention of the TRO, but claimed the City's plan to spread and share resources in the new area will be inadequate.
“When minutes matter most during critical emergency situations, first responders will be even further away from being able to provide lifesaving assistance that all City of San Antonio residents are entitled to,” Steele stated.
Police Chief William McManus and Fire Chief Charles Hood told City Council that the additional resources allocated to them by the City to service these new areas will allow them to maintain response times and service levels provided to other parts of the city.
"We are going to have adequate resources to respond," Hood said.
Several citizens cited a perceived workforce shortage of the police and fire departments and an inability to attract new hires.
Both Hood and McManus refuted these claims when Taylor asked them to address these concerns from the dais.
"Our academy has been maxed out," McManus said.
Annexation: This Ain't Over
In 2014, City staff originally proposed annexation of 66 sq. miles, most of it outside Loop 1604, by the end of 2016 (see map below). Those plans were delayed in 2015 after concerns were expressed by residents, Mayor Taylor, and other stakeholders. Tech Bloc, the tech industry advocacy group, commissioned an independent study that produced far more pessimistic financial projections than the City’s commissioned report. Both were released earlier this year.
The Annexation Technical Work Group was formed to review the various reports and financial estimations and recommend a path forward. Upon its recommendations, the I-10 East, Alamo Ranch, and U.S. Highway 90/Loop 1604 areas were dropped, and the group was able to settle on the "compromise" approved Thursday. The financial estimations for the dropped areas will be revisited and reanalyzed in the coming years.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance took a stance against the annexation plans.
"The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance considers this rush to annex the I-10 West and U.S. 281 North parcels – the only sites proposed for annexation that lie over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zones – to be the direct result of undue influence of vested interests who will prosper from unfettered high density development in this environmentally sensitive area," said Executive Director Annalisa Peace. "We resent the charade of engaging 'citizen input' in a process that did not reflect our concerns."
Taylor took issue with Peace's characterization of the process as hasty and opaque.
"It's been since 2014 that we have been debating, deliberating, and discussing (annexation)," Taylor said. "I feel that we have really strongly scrubbed the numbers and we have tried to balance all the various needs that have come up."
Top image: Residents that live near I-10 West collected thousands of signatures and rolled them out onto the floor in City Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.