Council Tinkers With $2.7 Billion Budget as Vote Looms

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City Council meets to discuss the budget during B Session.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

City Council meets to discuss the FY 2018 budget.

City staff left the fiscal year 2018 budget discussion Wednesday with a clear directive from City Council: restore $150,000 in funding for a program that gives low-interest loans to small, minority-, or women-owned businesses to previous levels. There was plenty of talk about other, more dramatic changes to the budget, which Council will vote on Thursday morning, but restoring the LiftFund program was the only one that received support from a majority of Council members.

Staff will be combing through the $2.7 billion budget to look for that money, Assistant City Manager María Villagómez told the Rivard Report after the meeting, and will present budget amendment options to Council on Thursday. The money has to come from somewhere, and it will be up to Council to decide what gets cut.

Next year’s budget is the first to use a so-called “equity lens” to allocate resources – specifically street and drainage projects – to areas with the most need and historic neglect.

“This process is difficult because … we have a large city with diverse needs and we’re a socioeconomically segregated community, but it doesn’t take away the fact that we have to roll up our sleeves and get it done,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after the 2 1/2-hour meeting.

Discussions about the direction of the budget have been taking place since late June, just weeks after the new Council was elected. Six open houses were held over the last month, and an online campaign was launched to collect community input. Council discussed less than $10 million of the $2.7 billion budget Wednesday, because most of the budget had been tweaked and adjusted at prior meetings. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) likened the day’s discussion to “The Hunger Games,” but most Council members concurred with a vast majority of recommendations from City staff and their colleagues.

“Every single one of these Council members spends countless hours in their communities listening to their [constituents’] concerns at [their] doors, and that has produced the document that Council will be voting on tomorrow,” Nirenberg said.

The workforce training program Project Quest will likely receive its full funding request next year, as Council was receptive to a budget amendment that added an additional $300,000 to the originally proposed $2.2 million. COPS/Metro Alliance – a coalition of churches, schools, and labor unions – has diligently lobbied for the funding restoration and continuation of the program over the years.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) suggested that funding for four additional “community engagement” staff positions in the new Neighborhood and Housing Services Department be used instead for other underfunded budget amendments.

In response to a question from Councilman John Courage (D9) and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) about the possibility of delaying the purchase of land in District 6 for a future community center and district field office, Brockhouse presented a long list of City departments and initiatives that he would like to see cut.

Brockhouse’s $14 million list of cuts to what he deemed “nonessential” spending and his push to reduce the property tax rate by a half-cent did not receive support from his colleagues. Neither did Perry’s suggestion. Among the things Brockhouse would eliminate or reduce: the Office of Historic Preservation, Climate Action Plan research and implementation, Center City Development and OperationsEastPoint, Innovation Office, general fund recommendations from City staff, SA2020, and membership in energy and sustainability partnerships.

The community has come to expect the so-called “nonessential” services that the City provides to go above and beyond the basics, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said.

“I thought I was going to see something in here I would agree with, but I can’t,” Saldaña said. The functions on Brockhouse’s list represent the City’s work toward “meeting the needs of community members.”

The City should stick to such core services as public safety in infrastructure, Brockhouse said, and not “waste” taxpayer dollars on departments that can be consolidated and services that could be contracted out.

The Office of Equity should also be put on hold until “its mission and direction have been established by City Council,” according to his list.

Brockhouse has long criticized the equity lens that Nirenberg introduced and has repeatedly challenged staff to reevaluate how equity is calculated and carried out.

“[This budget] redlined out District 6 with the equity lens and didn’t give those communities a penny,” he said.

All districts will still receive baseline infrastructure funding, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, but the proposed budget uses $35 million left over from the 2007 and 2012 bond programs to boost street maintenance in districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 where the average street grade is below average or failing.

Sculley also explained, at the behest of Courage, that a half-cent property tax reduction would result in the average homeowner saving $8.45 per year while removing $5 million from the City’s budget. Bexar County reduced its portion of the tax rate – from $0.308 per $100 valuation to $0.304 – when it adopted its budget Tuesday.

“You have to start somewhere,” Brockhouse said, adding that “every little bit helps” when it comes to taxpayers. “We vote on statues and climate change, I’d think we could vote on property tax relief.”

It will be up to the State to tackle property tax reform, Nirenberg said, or perhaps a review of the property appraisal process.

“The real property tax reform that will impact homeowners in a positive way does not come from the local jurisdictions … that have already cut service delivery to the bone,” Nirenberg said. “We’re trying to restore equity in our communities by taking care of streets and drainage and sidewalks in communities that haven’t seen that kind of investment in decades. We can compromise that by saving a minimal amount of money for homeowners or we can go after real relief, which requires cooperation with our legislative delegation and listening to the priorities of our community.”

Brockhouse and Perry said they could have used more time to review and discuss the proposed budget amendments that Sculley sent to each Council member to review Tuesday.

“This entire process is flawed,” Brockhouse said.

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