City Manager Sheryl Sculley (center) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg (right) listen to staff presentations during City Council's fiscal year 2019 budget goal-setting session. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

During an eight-hour budget planning meeting Wednesday, most San Antonio City Council members supported staff recommendations for housing initiatives, increased spending on street and sidewalk projects, more police officers, and better compensation for City employees and council aides.

A 5 percent local homestead tax exemption didn’t make the cut, as only two members, Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10), out of 11 supported such an exemption.

City staff will formulate a budget proposal based on these priorities over the next two months. City Council will review and possibly amend the proposal in August and vote on the 2019 fiscal year budget on Sept. 13.

Much of the conversation Wednesday focused on housing – specifically the city’s affordable housing gap. Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force is weeks away from producing formal policy recommendations, and the costs to implement them remain unclear.

The City’s General Fund this year will have $13.2 million more available than at budget adoption after all other obligations are subtracted. Council largely agreed that money should go toward fulfilling a $110 million commitment Nirenberg has called for to increase the street maintenance budget from $99 million.

“We’ll target streets in the greatest need of improvement, regardless of council district boundaries,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. Last year, surplus monies went to the districts with the lowest average street conditions. Districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 received $35 million among them this year and will receive an additional $35 million during 2019 as part of that commitment.

Brockhouse and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) both prefer the “greatest need” method to allocate the $11 million, but only Brockhouse suggested using the second $35 million-by-district funding similarly – citywide.

“We need to re-look at the entire equity conversation,” Brockhouse said. City Council agreed to further discuss and analyze the so-called “equity lens” used in the 2018 budget and across City departments.

Brockhouse was the only Council member to speak up in favor of funding 25 additional police officer positions for fiscal year 2019.

The City can’t keep up with vacant uniformed positions in the San Antonio Police Department as it is, City officials and Council members said, so that money might be better spent filling the vacancies it has instead of making that gap between funded and filled positions wider.

Crime has decreased this year in San Antonio by 24 percent compared to this time last year, said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh, adding that calls for service decreased by 9 percent and arrests are up by 13 percent.

Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

“We didn’t really hear that Council members wanted more police, but rather a more aggressive plan to fill vacancies,” Sculley told the Rivard Report. That is, save for the exception of Brockhouse’s funding preference and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran’s (D3) request for a substation in her district.

During these annual goal-setting sessions, City Council members simply signal support or disagreement of budget priorities – they don’t vote.

Consultant Francisco Gónima, the meeting’s facilitator, said priorities require a “critical mass” of support before being included in the budget proposal. “If you’re alone in the wilderness, we’re going to move on,” he said.

Perry and Brockhouse were “alone in the wilderness” of local homestead exemptions on Wednesday. While most Council members agreed with City staff’s analysis that an exemption would disproportionately affect the budget compared to the minimal tax savings for residents, they argued that every little bit helps when property values increase.

The City collects 22 cents of every property-tax dollar; the rest is collected by Bexar County, the Alamo Colleges District, independent school districts, the San Antonio River Authority, and other agencies. The City has no control over school district tax rates, Sculley said, that continue to rise to make up for lost revenue from the State.

“You want affordable housing, but yet you can’t reduce our homeowner’s tax rate,” Perry told the Rivard Report after the meeting. “Every other rate [SAWS, CPS Energy bills] has gone up over the years … we had a surplus and we could have at least given a 5 percent exemption” instead of allocating that money to street improvements.

“You can’t pry their fingers off of a dollar here in the City,” he said.

Taxpayers could gain anywhere from $27 annually, on a $100,000 home valuation with a 5 percent exemption, to $558 per year, for a home valued at $500,000 with a 20 percent exemption, the City’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said. Meanwhile, the City would forgo substantial funding for its administrative and public services – $6 million to $44 million, he said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) suggested the City use a $5,000 exemption for homestead property taxes, but that idea did not gain other Council members’ support.

Nirenberg called the 5-percent local exemption proposal more “symbolic” than effective.

San Antonio is the only major city in Texas without a local homestead exemption, but it does offer exemptions for people with disabilities as well as exemptions and tax freezes for senior citizens.

Brockhouse called the City’s disability exemption “woefully inadequate” compared to other cities.

A higher disability exemption could be feasible, but it would require more analysis than time allows for this budget cycle, most Council members said.

Council also reached a “critical mass” of consensus for additional support for SAPD’s Mental Health Detail, programs that combat domestic violence and partner abuse, and additional funding ($10 million) for VIA Metropolitan Transit to reduce wait times for passengers at bus stops.

While almost every Council member asked for new projects and initiatives, none suggested cutting specific programs – save for Brockhouse, who proposed an overhaul to trim “the fat” off services the City provides. He made a similar request during budget discussions in 2017.

For the next two months, Sculley will work with department heads to find savings and budget tweaks to make the Council’s priorities a reality, she said.

“We’ll use technology to make improvements, we’ll do some things differently,” Sculley said. “We’re going to work it all summer.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com

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