Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio City Council unanimously approved a $2.9 billion budget Thursday that increases funding for affordable housing, domestic violence and homelessness mitigation, and cost-of-living pay for most civilian employees while compensating for the city’s first homestead property tax exemption.
The fiscal year budget marks the third that uses a so-called “equity lens” that allocates resources according to the needs of the city’s most vulnerable or historically neglected populations.
The budget is “not just a spreadsheet,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “This is a moral document for our city.”
He also noted that this is the “first budget led by an elected woman majority of City Council.” The three new Council members, elected earlier this year, are all women, joining three female Council veterans.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who is serving her fourth and final term, said this year’s budget process has been the “smoothest” she has experienced because of her colleagues – old and new.
That can be attributed to a better citywide engagement process, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said after the vote.
“[It was] more of an inclusive process with all of our Council districts. … The participation level that we had was at another level,” Viagran said. SASpeakUp, the City’s public outreach arm, hosted a public town hall event in each district to get input from citizens.
“There has been an increasingly robust effort to get community comments, to get community participation in our budget, and that I think produced a document that everyone can support,” Nirenberg said.
City Manager Erik Walsh said it helps to get a clear picture of the Council’s priorities early on in the process. Council provided that input during a budget goal-setting session in June, soon after the municipal election.
“That’s a good road map for us,” Walsh said. “The hardest thing is that this community has a lot of needs. … The needs do not match the resources. That’s why the prioritization [and community input] is important.”
Larger-than-normal contributions by publicly owned water and energy utilities bolstered the budget. The City will receive an estimated $9.9 million more from San Antonio Water System (SAWS) revenues and $7.8 million more from CPS Energy due to increased revenue from selling electricity during an unusually hot summer across Texas.
The one-time CPS Energy revenue was used to fund more than 25 programs, projects, and initiatives proposed by City Council members and City management. Council discussed at length how to spend this money Wednesday and last week.
More than $870,000 is slated to be divided among the mayor and Council district offices to increase pay for their staff members.
The pay increase, proposed by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), was originally $1.3 million, but Walsh recommended – and Council approved – $870,284 to start the increased pay in February after a comprehensive review of how Council aides are paid. The amount and timeline resulted from a compromise made between Walsh, who said an April start date was feasible, and Treviño, who had said it should be done by Jan. 1.
The budget, which must take into account 2021 budget impacts, includes the full $1.3 million requested.
If this money isn’t used by Council members to pay their aides, it can be rolled over for the next year, a City spokeswoman said, or they can ask for a budget adjustment to use it for another purpose, such as special projects or travel.
The budget also puts aside more than $2 million for 2021 in an effort to brace for the impact of a new property tax revenue cap imposed by the Texas Legislature.
“There was quite a bit of fiscal restraint and conservative budgeting,” Nirenberg said. “We know that it’s going to be a constrained budget … in the future.”
Included in the budget is $500,000 to be used for getting a police substation built on the South Side, something Viagran has lobbied for over several years. The money will be used to lay the groundwork for and develop 2022 bond program funding to build the substation.
The fiscal year 2020, which starts on Oct. 1, will be the second of a decade-long, Council-approved plan to improve the stock of affordable housing in San Antonio. The budget increases funding for those efforts by $8.5 million to #34.4 million and includes money to hire a chief housing officer, for whom a national search has begun, to oversee a new, coordinated citywide housing system.
Mitigating domestic violence and strengthening families were identified as top priorities of City Council, Nirenberg said, and the budget reflects those priorities.
“It’s sad that in 2019 in our city some of the least-safe places are in someone’s home,” Nirenberg said after the vote. “So we’re working with law enforcement, we’re working with community organizations, we’re working with … citizens, neighbors, Council, government – every one – to get a grip on domestic violence and finally bring an end to what has been a scourge of our community.”
Next year, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) will add 16 positions focusing on domestic violence, Metropolitan Health District’s domestic violence programs will receive an additional $500,000, and nonprofits will receive an additional $500,000 after a study is completed on domestic violence.
Homelessness initiatives will receive an additional $1 million from a 50-cent increase in ticket prices for San Antonio River barge rides and admission to the Tower of the Americas. Of that, $560,000 is slated to expand support for homeless services across the community and $500,000 to expand operations of Haven for Hope, the city’s homeless shelter that also provides services to the homeless population.
The 2020 budget maintains the City’s street maintenance budget at $110 million, the same level as last year, and dedicates some funding for pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure and planning.
Following an equitable allocation philosophy, half of the street repair money will be allocated based on the size of each Council district’s roadway network and the other $55 million based on the condition of the network.
The budget was developed with input from weeks of City Council review of individual department budgets, 14 community feedback meetings, and an online survey.
The budget also includes money for a first-of-its-kind Mexican American civil rights institute. The center, still in its early planning stages, will “teach, educate, and report the significant contribution” of Mexican Americans to the communities they serve, said Paul Ruíz, president and founder of the newly-formed nonprofit.
The group plans on leveraging the city’s $250,000 investment in 2020 to attract other public and private donors, Ruíz said. He thanked Council members Treviño, Gonzales, and Ana Sandoval (D7) for their help in establishing the nonprofit educational institute and submitting the budget request. The institute, which is working closely with Our Lady of the Lake University, is eligible for another $250,000 in 2021, contingent on Council approval.
Nirenberg praised the institute and City Council’s support of it.
“This Council stands up against a climate of bigotry and fear to declare that Mexican American civil rights matter, and they start right here in San Antonio,” he said.
The institute founders have been talking about this for decades, Sandoval said.
There are more than 100 institutes for African American rights in the U.S., she said. “Rightfully so – that’s history that needs to be taught and revered and treasured. We want to see the same thing for the Mexican American community. … Sometimes we forget that [Texas] was part of Mexico.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) was the only Council member who took issue with spending SAWS and CPS Energy revenues rather than offering residents reduced taxes or rates in some way.
“There’s an idea that every cent that comes into the city we’re going to use it,” he said. “It’s not our money, it’s the taxpayers’.”
The CPS Energy revenue came from energy sales from users outside of its local network onto the Texas electricity grid. SAWS has said it can afford to give more to the City, but doing so might eventually lead to increased water rates.
Perry praised the City’s new homestead property exemption and challenged his colleagues to look for ways to offer deeper property tax relief.
“Could we have done more? I’m saying, yes, we could,” he said.