Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
As San Antonio City Council discussed the last pieces of next year’s $2.9 billion City budget on Wednesday, most members lobbied their colleagues and the city manager to find a way to fund their special amendment requests.
However, most seemed satisfied with City Manager Erik Walsh’s recommendations for spending $7.8 million of an “unprecedented” surplus from CPS Energy that the utility is passing on to the City.
Walsh will take input from Wednesday’s meeting and present a final list of the fiscal year 2020 budget recommendations to City Council on Thursday morning. City Council is expected to approve the budget, but could make last-minute adjustments.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) asked for a faster turnaround on a review of City Council aides’ compensation, a move that was supported by a few of his colleagues. Walsh proposed a six-month timeline before Council district offices could expect to receive more funding for their contract employees. Treviño, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), and Councilman John Courage (D9) said they want the City to conduct the study and implement changes in half the time, by Jan. 1.
“There was a lot of thought given [to the timeline],” Walsh said of the Council aide compensation study. City staff took into account City Council committee meeting schedules, the scope of analysis, and the holidays in November and December. Walsh prorated Treviño’s $1.3 million request, which would have gone into effect at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, to instead start in April with $653,000.
Treviño noted that the compensation issue was brought up at a 2016 Council meeting but did not result in pay increases for Council aides, who are not City employees and therefore do not receive the same pay and benefit increases. Council members can have up to seven full-time-equivalent positions – meaning some aides can be employed part time. How many each office has and how much they are paid is up to the Council member, but there is a $94,000 cap on annual salaries that is slated to increase to $100,000.
“I’d rather get it right than get it fast, but these folks [Council aides] have been waiting for a long time for this,” Pelaez said.
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) said she was also concerned about how long a study would take, but she felt there could be a compromise in terms of the implementation timeline.
“[The compensation review] shouldn’t take forever,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, “… but we do need to make [changes] thoughtfully and carefully.”
An in-depth analysis of the work Council aides do is warranted, Sandoval said, and may find that the funding needs of each district are different. It’s also possible that the analysis results in making some or all Council aides City employees.
That is why more time is needed, Walsh said, to thoroughly explore options and determine best practices.
“I can’t make excuses for 2016 or previous Council members or my predecessor, and I won’t,” Walsh said. “I can tell you that we’re going to approach it in a reasonable fashion.”
The start date of any compensation policy is subject to Council action, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, adding that he’s in favor of letting the Council’s Governance Committee take up the matter to determine the path forward.
Regardless of when it’s implemented, Nirenberg said, if Council agrees on changes, “we’ll find the money.”
Last week, Walsh was cautiously optimistic that Council would have an extra $3 million for the budget, but CPS Energy’s revenues from selling excess power to the Texas market last month – thanks to record-breaking energy use during a hot summer – soared to $10 million, giving the City a onetime surplus of $7.8 million.
Roughly half of the Council’s budget requests are anticipated to have impacts on the following year, Walsh said, so the 2020 budget recommendations also must take into account impacts to 2021’s budget.
Sandoval and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) advocated for increased seed funding for a first-of-its-kind Mexican American history and educational institute. Walsh’s draft budget amendment proposal included a two-year, $500,000 funding plan for the institute, but that was reduced to $300,000.
The change was the result of a conversation with the nonprofit’s leaders, Walsh said, who indicated that they would find matching funding from other public and private sources.
Other budget amendments requested by Council members, including $500,000 by Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) for preliminary work on a police substation in her Southside district, came from the City’s capital budget reserves and reallocation of grants.
Click here to view the memo sent to City Council earlier this week from the city manager that outlines his recommended funding list. Click here to view an updated copy of the list presented Wednesday; changes to this list are highlighted in yellow.
The proposed budget increases funding for affordable housing, domestic violence mitigation, and cost-of-living pay for most civilian employees while providing minimal property tax relief for homeowners.