Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Eastsiders complained about rising property taxes in the wake of gentrification, crime, inequitable school financing, and stray animals to four local, state, and federal Democratic officials Wednesday night at a town hall in the Government Hill neighborhood.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), and City Councilman William "Cruz" Shaw (D2) spoke to about 120 residents at the two-hour forum at St. Patrick Catholic Church.
The lawmakers covered a range of topics, but residents who raised questions focused primarily on local development and the state school financing system.
Several representatives agreed the State's inability to reform the system under which schools are funded causes strain on longtime residents in historic neighborhoods.
"Property taxes are a City, State, and school district issue," Shaw said. The City tax rate has remained relatively low, he said. But State cutbacks in school funding have put pressure on local school districts to rely more on community support.
Local taxpayers foot 62% of the bill when it comes to school funding, Menéndez said, and the State only pays 38%. "It used to be the other way around." He attributed that in part to the State prioritizing border security over education.
When pressed on whether City tax breaks to major corporations lead to higher property taxes, Shaw emphasized the long-term benefits that those incentives create.
"The City uses incentives to [attract] businesses or keep them here in San Antonio," he said, citing recent decisions to cut companies such as Credit Human a break on the condition that they create more jobs. Examples like the private-public investment in the former Red Berry Estate further support the notion that revitalizing long-neglected areas benefits the district as a whole, he added.
Property taxes and incentives are not in the same category, Gervin-Hawkins said, and incentives should be viewed "more holistically." Higher property valuations that threaten to displace neighbors, however, are a grave concern on every level of government, she added.
Several residents described neighbors and friends who they said will struggle to pay bigger tax bills when new development triggers higher valuations. "The guy down the street who won't have a house next year – that deeply affects me," area resident Liz Franklin said.
Gervin-Hawkins invited residents to help state and local officials "manage" development, but made clear that development is inevitable, especially given Eastside economic anchors such as the AT&T Center.
"Development is coming," she said. "Help us get in front of it, so it doesn't drag us. Let's manage it so it doesn't manage us."
"We don't need 'a new Pearl,'" Government Hill resident Shannon West said, referring to local development firm GrayStreet Partners' preliminary plans for residential housing, restaurants, bars, retail, offices, parking, and greenspace in the area. "What we need is affordable community initiatives."
It's hard to prevent developers from buying up lots that property owners are selling at high rates, Shaw said. Implementing gentrification policies that freeze taxes for families who have lived in the area for generations could be one way to address the issue, Menéndez said.
The local representatives also heard concerns about animal control. Stray dogs have long plagued the district, Shaw said, which is why the City's Animal Care Services (ACS) Department recently implemented stricter rules. But ACS as well as communities would benefit from more direct involvement, such as ACS officers attending neighborhood association meetings, Shaw added.
"We need to change community dynamics," Gervin-Hawkins said, referring both to animal safety issues as well as crime in neighborhoods such as Government Hill. "There is a 'new kind of criminal,'" she said, "and they tend to come from broken families."
"Our justice system is broken," Doggett said, and all four politicians agreed it cannot rehabilitate offenders.
"You want to see kids become criminals?" Menéndez asked. "Throw them in jail."
Representatives cited investment in education, creation of jobs, a more restorative way of addressing crime, and heightened involvement on the community level as tools to break cycles of criminal activity.
They all agreed that fostering cohesiveness among neighbors and consistent outreach to elected officials also are effective solutions.
“We are your representatives on a neighborhood level,” Government Hill Alliance Neighborhood Association President Rose Hill said. “Hold us accountable."