Scott Ball / Rivard Report
A San Antonio River Authority proposal to more than double property taxes to expand its role in protecting the river could be dead in the water by the end of authority’s board meeting Wednesday.
At a meeting on Nov. 13, eight of the River Authority’s 12 board members considered a proposal to end any further discussion of a tax increase that would take the average Bexar County homeowner’s river authority property tax bill from $38.58 to $90.48 per year.
After a 5-3 vote to recommend killing the tax idea, the issue now heads to a full board vote at its meeting 2 p.m. Wednesday at the river authority’s headquarters at 110 E. Guenther St.
San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott pitched the tax increase in September as a watershed protection tax that would help the river authority add more parks and green space and expand its efforts to keep local creeks and rivers clean, even as Bexar County undergoes a population boom and rapid development near waterways.
But at the meeting earlier this month, several members said they don’t want to go up against influential people and business groups they say are opposed to a tax hike. Wilson County Director Darrell T. Brownlow, the board’s chair, said that the river authority could becoming the “whipping boy” of anti-tax interests in Bexar County and in the southern part of its territory in Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties.
“I think this will be kind of a bloodbath downstream and in certain parts of Bexar County,” Brownlow said. “As great as we are, and as great as we believe we are, and as great as all the opportunities out there are, I think this board will be engaged in a political battle like we’ve never seen.”
Bexar County District 3 Director Michael Lackey, a previous board chair and principal of a local energy efficiency engineering firm, said that the river authority would need the support of developers, apartment owners, auto dealers, and restaurant owners for any tax increase.
“If we need to do a campaign, those are the people we’re going to need to get behind us,” said Lackey, whose district covers northern Bexar County. “Right now, they have written off any discussion at all. They don’t want to hear about it. We’re not going to get through to those people.”
Lackey went on to say that he originally was “excited” about the initiatives the river authority could undertake with the increased funding.
“But I just think from a practical standpoint, now is not the time, and I don’t think we need to even set a date to bring this subject up,” Lackey said.
The river authority’s tax increase is up for debate as San Antonio and Bexar County leaders weigh unprecedented funding shifts to divert more money towards transportation. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have both come out in favor of moving a one-eighth-cent sales tax devoted to aquifer protection and linear parks to fund VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Some have suggested that the river authority’s tax increase could replace the aquifer sales tax, though supporters of a continued aquifer protection program say the river authority can’t adequately replace that revenue. The river authority can only use its tax revenue in the San Antonio River watershed, not in parts of Medina and Uvalde counties where most of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer water comes from.
The vote happened at a meeting of the board’s executive committee, which typically includes six members: Brownlow, Lackey, Bexar County District 2 Director Lourdes Galvan, Bexar County District 4 Director Jim Campbell, Karnes County Director Gaylon Oehlke, and Goliad County Director James Fuller. Bexar County At-Large Director Deb Bolner Prost and Karnes County Director H.B. “Trip” Ruckman III also attended and participated in the vote, which turned out to involve a quorum of board members.
Of those directors, Brownlow, Lackey, Oehlke, Ruckman, and Fuller voted no to continuing efforts to put the tax increase to a public vote. Campbell, Prost, and Galvan voted yes.
Several board members spoke in favor of expanding the river authority’s role.
At the executive committee meeting, Galvan, who represents San Antonio’s West Side, said she has heard only support for the tax from her constituents, many of whom want to see the authority continue to improve the Westside Creeks.
“I appreciate that you’ve talked to three or four people about this,” Galvan told Lackey. She said she, on the other hand, most often hears people asking when the river authority will finish the projects it’s started on the West Side.
“And what I’ve said over and over again is there’s no money to finish,” Galvan said. “We need to find more funding to finish the projects that we started. And that’s mainly my concern, and I would be in favor of moving forward with it.”
Campbell, whose district covers much of downtown and the East Side, said he also had mostly heard support for a beefed-up river authority.
“Unlike Mike, I have not been getting negative feedback,” Campbell said. “Most of the feedback’s been positive. There have been exceptions, and I’m not going to try to pretend there’s not some negativism out there. But I haven’t had this conversation with anyone in my district. I think we’re very much at the beginning of this project.”
Under Scott’s proposed timeline, the river authority would begin studying and developing messaging around the tax issue after the Wednesday vote. The board would then vote next year to put the issue on the November 2020 general election ballot.
Campbell pointed out that turnout in that election is likely to reach record highs, with voters deciding whether to reelect President Donald Trump. November 2020 represents the best chance to have a majority of voters weigh in on the tax hike, he said.
Prost also expressed support for having voters decide. While some might balk at any idea of a tax increase, the river authority’s property tax burden is “minuscule” compared to that of school districts and other government entities, she said.
“The benefit you get from that small, little amount when it’s all put into a big pot, gives us the opportunity to go out and do some things we’re not currently able to do,” Prost said.
However, others representing counties in the southern San Antonio River basin said their communities are fully against a tax hike. Oehlke said that he recently was on a phone call with “an individual in Karnes County that’s a pretty influential person – at least he thinks he is.”
“He’s done his homework and he shot lots of bullets at us,” Oehkle told board members. “Of course, my opinion is I pretty much agree with most of the things he says. But I’m afraid to move forward now and do more studying. All we’re doing is muddying up the water, and if we ultimately do not do it … and then some years down the road we need to do it out of necessity, I think they’re going to say, ‘Oh, they’re at it again.’ I’d rather save my bullets, keep the powder dry for when we really have to have it.”
Fuller said he’s hearing most in Goliad County saying “straight-up no to any new tax, except the very few,” by which he meant “politicians [and] people in government.”
Ruckman, the current board’s longest-serving member, said he doesn’t want to see the river authority end up in a storm of controversy, citing the neighboring Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and recent fights over dam maintenance that have landed it in court battles with property owners.
“Right now, they’re really in the hot seat,” Ruckman said. “And I don’t want to see SARA end up in a similar hot seat, and I’m getting some feedback from folks that could be the case.”