Council Sets Budget Priorities: More Cops, More Sidewalks, and Revisit Social Services

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City Council meets to set its budget priorities for the 2017 fiscal year. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

City Council meets to set its budget priorities for the 2017 fiscal year. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After subtracting money dedicated to capital projects and other restricted funds that are still to be determined, San Antonio City Council – with the help of staff and citizen input – will settle on final numbers in the $1.2 billion 2017 General Fund budget.

More than a dozen spending priorities were discussed and debated during City Council's all-day budget goal-setting session Wednesday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Much of that discussion focused on basic infrastructure improvements, notably sidewalks.

City staff also is being asked to review funding of social service agencies, which drew sharp opposition from some Council members who fear the consequences of a reduction or elimination of money for so-called "Community Safety Net" programs for domestic abuse victims, senior citizens, and at-risk youth.

In contrast, there was overwhelming support for San Antonio Police Chief William McManus's request to add 25 officers to the City's police force each year for the next five years.

City staff was tasked with weighing those priorities and differences before delivering a proposed budget for City Council review on Aug. 18. Public meetings will be held Aug. 22-29 at different locations throughout the city. The SASpeakUp public awareness and budget input campaign will also kick in again once the proposed budget is finished. After several more work sessions with Council, a final draft will emerge on Sept. 15 and placed before Council for consideration.

Click here to view the City's timeline.

SAPD's budget proposal, which includes 10 additional vehicles, would "maintain our level of service" for the city's growing population, McManus said, and cost about $30.7 million over the next five years. But the City's fiscal year 2017 budget and five-year projected spending do not include hiring additional police officers.

When the 2017 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, the contracts between the City and the police and firefighters unions will have been expired for two years. An evergreen clause allows the old contracts to stay in effect for 10 years or until new agreements are made, but a lawsuit now on appeal by the City challenging the constitutionality of such clauses has led police union officials to declare they will not return to the negotiating table unless the suit is dropped. The firefighters have yet to meet with the City.

Ballooning health care costs for uniformed employees continues to be the issue, and City manager Sheryl Sculley and senior finance staff members say those unbudgeted costs have to be brought under control in order to find new funds for priorities like more police or sidewalks.

In other words, without a new collective bargaining agreement that gives budget planners reliable numbers, there is no way to add officers or more infrastructure spending and still meet the legally-mandated balanced budget.

City Council has set a ceiling on public safety spending of 66% of the General Fund budget. This year, public safety is a fraction above 66% and the City's Office of Management and Budget calculates it will be 66.4% in 2017.

"We have to have a settlement before we could do that," City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the Rivard Report after the meeting. "Because under evergreen we can't afford to hire (more police officers) we're already over 66%. ... We're hopeful that we're able to settle it so that we can add more."

City Council could direct staff to increase public safety spending to pay for more police officers, but that would put the City's Triple A bond rating at risk, Sculley has said. That also would require decreased spending on infrastructure, Code Enforcement, Human Services, or parks, the arts, and libraries.

Graphic provided by the City of San Antonio.

A breakdown of the 2016 fiscal year General Fund budget. Graphic provided by the City of San Antonio.

McManus' call for more police officers increases pressure for the City to resolve its deep-seeded issued with the police union. Meanwhile delicate, court-mandated mediation talks have taken place behind closed doors.

"I am assuming, Sheryl (Sculley), that had we been able to get a reasonable resolution to our contract dispute two years ago we would be in a better position to fund 25 additional officers per year," Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said during the meeting.

"That's true," Sculley said, followed by a heavy pause.

She did not take the opportunity, as she often does, to further dig in to the trials of budgeting around the evergreen clause or outline the City's lawsuit.

(Read More: Police Union and City Officials Are Talking, Quietly)

San Antonio is Missing 2,177 Miles of Sidewalks

The number one priority for citizens is streets, according to surveys collected by the City online and at various public engagement and information sessions. This continues the demand for better infrastructure seen in preliminary 2017 Municipal Bond discussions and priorities set in the FY 2016 budget.

Bond discussions are still in the early stages, but there is discussion, Sculley said, of reserving $100 million of the anticipated $850 million bond specifically for sidewalks.

"If we want to develop sections of programs specifically for sidewalks," she said, "that's the kind of direction we're looking for today."

At the end of the day, there was a general consensus among Council members to augment General Fund allocation to sidewalks with money from the bond.

Transportation and infrastructure projects funded through the City's 2017 budget fall in line with goals of the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan that is still in draft form, said Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie.

(Read More: Revisions Underway on Draft of San Antonio’s Comprehensive Plan)

Social Service Agencies: 'Stand on Your Own'

Council members took a survey in February that asked them to prioritize local social service agencies that receive about $20.1 million from the city every year. More than 60 compete via a review and scoring process by category: Children & Family Services, Youth Services, Community Safety Net, and Workforce Development.

The biggest changes should come to the Community Safety Net and Workforce Development organizations according to the Council survey: decrease the former by $1.3 million and increase the latter by $1.2 million.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Council also discussed the possibility of adding four-year term limits for agencies or programs.

The current process sends a message to nonprofits that they will "have funding for ever and ever and ever," Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said. "I think it's absolutely essential that we establish some kind of term limits. If we don't do that we're making a huge mistake on behalf of the tax payers. Somebody has to say, after a while, 'you've got to stand on your own and run your organization and quit depending on the City which is behind on trying to fix potholes."

Council members Ron Nirenberg (D8), Roberto Treviño (D1) and Rey Saldaña (D4) took special issue with such a shift in priorities and defended the long term funding of some agencies.

"I look at the big problems that Bexar County and San Antonio have in terms of our socio-economic disparity," domestic violence, and child abuse, Nirenberg said, "and I think it is a mistake for us to believe that these issues are going to be addressed without our intervention."

The Community Safety Net nonprofits that received funding in FY 2016.

The Community Safety Net nonprofits that received funding in FY 2016.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Joe Krier (D9) joined Gallagher to emphasize the importance of workforce development as a tool to lift populations out of poverty.

"I agree that nonprofits do a lot of work in very critical areas helping families who are at risk," Taylor said, "(But) poverty is a key driver for many of the needs that we serve through (this funding)."

Poverty is best addressed through education, workforce development, and youth programming, she said, and highlighted My Brothers Keeper of San Antonio as an example. The initiative dedicates its time and resources towards improving life outcomes and closing the opportunity gap for boys and young men of color.

While not all council members agreed and there wasn't an official vote, there seemed to be a consensus in the room to increase focus on the workforce development and youth investments and keep the investment categories as proposed on Wednesday.

Click the links below to download the presentations given to City Council members during Wednesday's meeting:

Budget and Financial Policy Issues (Introduction, SA Speak Up)

City Infrastructure & Transportation (ADA Ramps, Lone Star Rail District, Debt Issued)

Public Safety Needs (SAPD and SAFD)

Neighborhood and Social Services (World Heritage Office, Tricentennial, Air Quality)

Other Polices (Smart City, Economic Development, Center City Development)

 

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

 

Top image: City Council meets to set its budget priorities for the 2017 fiscal year.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive.

Police Union and City Officials Are Talking, Quietly

Mayor Offers ‘Olive Branch,’ Police Union Says ‘Absolutely Not’

City Council: Let’s Focus on the Basics with $750 Million Bond

Revisions Underway on Draft of San Antonio’s Comprehensive Plan

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