“Equitable” is not a word many would use to describe how San Antonio, and many other cities, spend money. Until now.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley will present a $2.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 to City Council on Thursday morning. It will be the first to use a so-called “equity lens” to allocate resources. Instead of dividing funds equally among the 10 council  districts, an equitable budget commits more resources to areas and populations where needs are greater, often areas that have been largely ignored for decades.

The equity lens is a policy that most City Council members directed City staff to use during its budget goal-setting session in June. During its meeting on Wednesday, City Council heard from Chief Equity Officer Kiran Kaur Bains, who leads the Diversity and Inclusion Office. Bains will be playing a more prominent role in this new administration as it “embeds” equity throughout City departments and operations.

Without raising the City’s property tax rate, the proposed budget increases spending on streets, public safety, and neighborhood improvements. It also increases the minimum civilian employee wage from $13.75 to $14.25 per hour.

Because 2018 will be the first full year of 2017 bond implementation, several other departments are staffing up to meet scheduling goals for major infrastructure projects across the city. The budget also accounts for more events during the Tricentennial celebrations and implementation of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan.

Budgeting for Equity

What does an equitable budget look like?

During the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1, districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 would receive more street maintenance funding than other districts because they have a higher percentage of below-average or failing street conditions. About $35 million left over from previous bond programs will be used for even more street improvements in those districts. At least two Council members – Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Manny Pelaez (D8) – say this will be a tough sell to their constituents – but more on that discussion later.

Equity budgeting doesn’t necessarily mean taking funding away from one area or community and giving it to another, Sculley said. It’s more of a “funding shift” to focus on those who need resources more. Equity is not a zero-sum game, according to many Council members and City staff.

The City’s tree program, for instance, will have a renewed focus on providing trees to areas with less tree canopy and residents who are less able to afford trees, such as neighborhoods in districts 2, 3, and 5, Assistant City Manager María Villagómez said.

A dying oak tree fronts the entrance to a Hollywood Park house.
A dying oak tree wilts near the entrance of a Hollywood Park house. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“For those residents, [trees probably] are not a priority,” she said, but they will accept them and a healthy tree canopy provides community-wide benefits. “We’re changing the way we think about services.”

There are also substantial oak wilt problems in districts 9 and 10 that the tree program could help mitigate.

The City will also be retargeting its efforts to assist homeless individuals and adding more Animal Care Services officers to districts that need it most: 1 through 5.

“That’s who needs it,” Sculley said. “It’s not equal, but we don’t need it in all 10 districts.”

The same principal can be applied to drainage, she added.

“The flooding this week is a perfect example that drainage knows no political boundary.”

Public Safety Remains a Top Priority

The FY 2018 budget will increase 5% over 2017. A portion of it will be spent on essentially non-negotiable functions: Restricted Funds at $858 million and Capital Plan at $639 million. Less than 66%, about $778 million, of the $1.2 billion General Fund will be used for police and fire contracts, which the City negotiates with uniformed employee unions.

The budget assumes that the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association still will be operating under its contract’s evergreen clause, the constitutionality of which is currently being challenged by the City. A ruling on the lawsuit is expected to be announced next week and appealed up to the State Supreme Court regardless of the outcome.

Public safety is always considered a top priority by Council, and San Antonio’s relatively low number of officers per capita was criticized during the campaign season earlier this year.

The proposed budget adds 40 new officers to the San Antonio Police Department with an increase of $3.8 million: 25 through a pending COPS Grant, three officers for commercial areas the City anticipates annexing, two park police, two airport police, and 34 operators for the 911 call center.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus gives cadets a talk on the reasons behind joining the department.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus addresses the latest cohort of police academy cadets in July 2017. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Eight more SAFFE (San Antonio Fear Free Environment) officers will be hired, Sculley said: three on the Eastside, three on the Westside, and two more in areas that will be assigned by Chief William McManus. SAFFE officers are tasked with maintaining close relationships and fostering positive interactions with the community they patrol in order to “prevent crimes before they happen,” according to the City’s website. Some of these positions are made possible by discontinuing the ShotSpotter gunshot detection program in high-crime neighborhoods. McManus did not find the technology helpful, Sculley said.

SAPD vacancies spiked in previous years because a previous City Council chose in 2014 to maintain vacancies to make up for the expired police and fire contracts.

As of Wednesday, there are 113 vacancies, Sculley said, but five police academy classes for 40 cadets are included in the FY 2018 budget.

“Yes, we have vacancies, but we’ll play catch-up,” Sculley said, adding that the department typically has 50-60 vacancies.

This budget increases entry-level pay for cadets from $41,000 to $45,000 this year.

The San Antonio Fire Department this year received a budget increase of $5.2 million for 31 new firefighters and 12 paramedics for an EMS unit at the medical center.

Chief Equity Officer to ‘Embed Equity’

The City created the Diversity and Inclusion Office (DIO) in 2015 and appointed Bains to lead a strategic planning team that would promote equity in development and implementation of City processes.

Chief Equity Officer Kiran Kaur Bains talks about the goals of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Chief Equity Officer Kiran Kaur Bains talks about the goals of the Diversity and Inclusion Office. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

The mission of the DIO is to cultivate an environment of respect and inclusiveness among the diverse populations of San Antonio as a means to advance the growth, stability, and strength of the community. Goals include advancing equity in all functions of government, strengthening engagement with communities of color and low-income communities, and collaborating with other institutions to achieve the City’s vision of prosperity.

Bains spearheaded interviews with other cities with similar departments or programs such as Seattle that have committed to advancing equity. She engaged more than 350 local stakeholders to understand the meaning of equity and possible ways to implement it in government, the workplace, and everyday life.

“Equity is the only antidote to inequality, and it improves outcomes for everyone,” Bains told City Council during her presentation Wednesday that served as a primer for Thursday’s budget discussion. “Equitable delivery of City services requires equitable community engagement, and equity impact assessment is both a process and an outcome. It’s the right thing to do for governments, and it’s also about effectively and efficiently delivering our services.”

Bains launched a pilot initiative and imparted 15 hours of training on 65 City employees in six departments: Government and Public Affairs, Human Resources, Human Services, Solid Waste Management, the Metropolitan Health District, and the San Antonio Public Library. Trainees analyzed applying equity assessment to their specific programs, a seven-step tool that includes collecting and analyzing data, understanding historical context, developing strategies, engaging those impacted, and reporting back on impact.

“We have developed a three-year strategy to fully operationalize equity in the organizations across departments,” Bains said. “Performance metrics will hold departments accountable to their equity action plans. Those specific performance metrics will feed into larger community indicators.”

Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon presented to Council an analysis of the city’s history of segregation and explained how from the 1930s to the 1960s federal red-lining locked non-white neighborhoods into poverty. This pushed people of color into areas with smaller, more haphazardly planned housing.

Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon explains the intentional, systematic segregation of San Antonio.
Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon explains the systemic segregation of San Antonio. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

“Opportunity is distributed spatially,” Drennon said. “The more economically segregated a metro area is, the less economically mobile its residents are.”

The effects of that history of red-lining, which restricted wealthier neighborhoods to white families, is still present today, Drennon said, and one of the reasons why San Antonio leads the nation in economic and social segregation.

For the last 15 years the 78207 zip code has been highlighted as a landscape defined by inequality, lack of opportunity, and poverty, she explained.

By keeping this history in mind, Drennon said, the City can effectively address deep-rooted issues that low-income families and minority groups face.

“These are uncomfortable truths,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, reacting to maps and data presented by Drennon. “Every resident deserves a city that functions at every corner for every resident.”

Nirenberg said that it’s important to think of historic inequity when making choices in budgets, initiatives, and how the City manages resources. This also applies to creating jobs and opportunities in all parts of the city.

“Some people may dismiss it as academic, but the more we educate our own citizens about the history we are proud and not quite proud of, the better off we’ll be,” the mayor said. “We need to put efforts into communities who are not on the internet or won’t call us. We have to bring a voice to the voiceless in our community and really turn things around.”

While most Council members seemed to accept Drennon’s presentation and findings, Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Manny Pelaez (D8) called for other perspectives to be included in the discussion, citing other possible “angles or opinions” when it comes to how the City should appropriately allocate its resources.

“We’ve got to dig a lot more into what you are presenting,” Brockhouse told Drennon. “What you are asking is not where citizens are right now. … We need other views on the table – not just equity lens, but the eyes of the homeowner and resident. We have to convince them.”

Pelaez added that “what people feel” should also be taken into account, and that the focus should not only be on the data.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) acknowledged that although looking at the data and history is difficult, historical context is important. Paying more attention or funds to areas of town that were often ignored “is not a zero-sum game,” Saldaña said.

“Folks felt a certain way when a landfill was dumped in their community, but they didn’t have a say in that,” he added.

Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) agreed.

“It’s data-driven and regardless of how you feel about it, it’s reality,” Shaw said. “One thing I’d like to say is a zip code should not dictate your success.”

Shaw juxtaposed the Dominion to the Eastside, comparing new streets to ones that are falling apart.

“Let’s switch houses just for a year and see how it feels,” Shaw said, reacting to Peleaz and Brockhouse’s comments. “At the end of the day we are all one city. Every side has to be able to prosper. We all want what is best for the city.”

City Council will vote on the proposed budget on Thursday, Sept. 14. Over the next month, City Council will hear a number of presentations from most City department heads about their plans for the next year. Cities in Texas are required by law to maintain balanced budgets.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...