Wednesday marked one of many more steps in a lengthy and at times complicated process that reignites a deceptively simple, yet age-old question: How should we divvy up our money?
City staff revealed preliminary 2017 Municipal Bond project estimates and spending priorities to City Council that would direct more than half (54%) of the historic $850 million bond to street, bridge, and sidewalk projects throughout San Antonio while dividing up the rest between investments in drainage and flood control (17%), parks and recreation (14%), facilities (12%), and other neighborhood improvements (4%).
The biggest bond program in the city's history will ultimately go before voters in May 2017, but not before an extensive public vetting process and City Council approval.
(Read More: Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?)
The question of how to divvy up funding comes with another age-old concept: The needs and wants vastly outweigh the resources, as City Manager Sheryl Sculley routinely reminds the Council. Tensions are already building between districts and Council members that want to ensure an equitable distribution of public dollars.
"In some ways we're kind of battling against history," said Mayor Ivy Taylor. "You go back some decades and some parts of town didn't receive some of the attention that was needed, and so we're still trying to play catch up. I think that's what makes this conversation difficult. Acknowledging that is definitely going to be an important step."
Amid these categories lie $328 million worth of so-called "transformational" projects, most located in the city's urban core, that are considered to have a citywide impact.
- Zona Cultural area streets: $43 million
- Broadway Corridor streets and amenities: $43 million
- World Heritage area streets, sidewalks, parks, and cultural arts center: $37 million
- San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and area streets and drainage: $36 million
- Neighborhood improvements, housing bond: $30 million
- Affordable housing bond could be between $10-25 million, leaving the rest for other improvements like sidewalks, relocation assistance, property rehabilitation and purchase, etc. Read more here.
- Hemisfair internal streets and Civic Park: $26 million
- Port San Antonio drainage: $24 million
- Brooks City Base streets: $23 million
- Alamo Plaza public areas: $22 million
- Brackenridge Park improvements and San Antonio Zoo parking garage: $19 million
- Hardberger Park land bridge $15 million
- Convention Center area streets: $10 million
Click here to download the presentation given to City Council.
Most of these projects leverage – or at least plan on leveraging – other City, State, federal, and private sector investments. For instance, the Alamo Plaza funding will tie into the in-progress Alamo Plaza Master Plan that has already gathered private and public funding; the $175 million San Pedro Creek Improvements Project will still have a gap to fill between the City's bond funding and the County's $125 million commitment; and Hardberger Park's land bridge is estimated to cost around $23 million.
But the bulk of the divvying, according to City officials, will be done by citizens in this initial stage. The bond committee's project recommendations will go to City Council, which will likely make adjustments, in late January 2017 or early February to get on the May ballot.
Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) and Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who represent Northside suburban districts largely outside of Highway Loop 410, expressed some concern that the rough draft of the bond program favors urban core infrastructure and major projects.
Krier noted that more than half of the "transformational" projects are in the urban core, save for Port SA, Brooks City Base, and Hardberger Park. This might make the bond program seem "unbalanced" and, therefore, a hard sell for his constituents.
"I am a huge advocate, and have always been, of downtown," Krier said, adding that the projects in the immediate downtown area add up to more than $180 million. "(That amount) is a big slug for one sector of the city and all of us, in theory, benefit from a healthy downtown ... but in fact, I'm going to be getting feedback from voters in my district about the proportionality of that."
Projects that have demonstrable State and federal dollars dedicated to them will be an easier sell, Krier said. The rest of the funding needed for the Hardberger Park land bridge, which straddles Districts 8 and 9, will be raised by the private sector.
"If there was a way to pull (private dollars) into the argument (for these downtown investments)," he said, "that would be helpful. I suspect there's an opportunity to do some private fundraising and/or matching of bond money with projects like HPARC (Hemisfair) and Brackenridge Park."
Gallagher isn't fundamentally against investment in downtown either, he said, but what made him pause about the preliminary recommendations is the "fairness of the distribution of the bond money."
He has sat on previous years' bond committees before and remembers the struggle to balance the needs citywide. The big ticket items, Gallagher told the Rivard Report after the meeting, will likely resonate with District 10 residents as catalytic projects. At the very least they will see places like Hemisfair Park and the Alamo as places they would take visiting friends and family, he said.
"The problem is, though, they are also looking at the potholes, the broken bridges, the flooding problems, and (say), 'What should we be spending our money on?'" he said, adding that striking a balance between those needs and investing in larger projects will be key in creating a bond ballot that everyone can vote for.
Gallagher and several other Council members are holding off on judgement of of the bond priorities until the bond committees have had a chance to weigh in first.
"It's really their guidance that we're looking for," he said. "What does drive a lot of the decisions I make is the feedback I get about the lack of investment in infrastructure."
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) recognized that there will be some imbalance between district funding, especially when it comes to major project investments.
The Alamo, for instance, is technically in District 1, but every Texan has ownership of it, Saldaña said. "It's a difficult conversation to have ... everyone is well within their rights to ask about the overall rough proportionality (of funding) in their districts, but I think you have to be clear that this (bond) will have a citywide impact – San Pedro Creek being (another) example."
For 163 citizens – members and chairs of various levels on five different bond committees – the next several months will be spent attending at least six public meetings and sorting through proposed priority lists compiled by Council members and City staff. Each funding category has its own committee that Council members appoint three committee members to while the mayor appoints two co-chairs.
Mayor Ivy Taylor released her picks for committee co-chairs Wednesday afternoon.
- Parks & Recreation Committee: Coca-Cola Government Relations Director Luisa Casso and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard
- Facilities Improvement Committee: San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association Executive Director John Clamp and Chelsea's Catering & Bar Service Director Joe Linson
- Streets, Bridges & Sidewalks Committee: Tech Bloc CEO David Heard and San Antonio Medical Foundation CEO Jim Reed
- Drainage & Flood Control Committee: San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos and local attorney Alex Perez
- Neighborhood Improvement Committee: San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside Executive Director Jackie Gorman and Greenboro Homes President Jim Leonard
Several Council members have already selected their 15 citizen representatives while others are still coming up with names. The bond program tri-chairs are SA Tomorrow Tri-Chair Darryl Byrd, marketing and communications specialist and SAISD Foundation Co-Founder Carri Baker, and IBC Bank Senior Vice President Eddie Aldrete.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley reported that 91% of the 140 projects that were part of the 2012 Municipal Bond are either completed or underway and the final projects are nearing the end of their design phases.
Completion of the last bond program on time and on budget adds to voter confidence in the next cycle of projects, Sculley said.
Top image: Rendering of the proposed land bridge at Memorial Park in Houston as part of its $200 million master plan. Image courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz.