San Antonio River Authority Floats Higher Taxes to Fund Expanding Role

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SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott

The San Antonio River Authority’s property tax rate won’t be going up next year, but officials are floating a proposal that could more than double the amount of taxes it collects from property owners starting as soon as 2021.

The River Authority’s staff is proposing a significant expansion of the agency’s roles and responsibilities, to be funded by a property tax the authority currently isn’t using. That funding would go toward improving water quality, protecting the Edwards Aquifer, flood protection, and building more paved trails and parks.

If approved by voters, the River Authority tax on an average Bexar County homeowner could rise from $38.58 to $90.48 per year, according to River Authority figures based on 2019 property values. River Authority leaders are mulling an additional tax rate of 2.5 cents per $100 of assessed value on property owners in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties, which could bring in an additional $45.2 million in revenue annually if it were in effect next year.

“It expands our capability and our capacity to serve,” General Manager Suzanne Scott told the Rivard Report. “And if the communities are seeing that there’s more that can be done in this area, we feel like we have the expertise and we can do it well.” 

The funding could go toward connecting trails along the San Antonio River from Brackenridge Park to its headwaters in the Olmos Basin, developing parks along the Medina River, restoring natural habitat in the Westside Creeks, and preventing sewage overflows, according to a list River Authority officials shared on Wednesday. In downriver counties, it could mean building more parks, removing debris from the river, rehabilitating dams, and advancing better agricultural and land-use practices to keep harmful runoff out of waterways. 

It also could mean that the River Authority will take on two initiatives currently run by the City – building linear creekway trails and buying conservation easements on land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone to protect San Antonio’s main source of drinking water.

The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Shavano Park.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A site in Shavano Park over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where rainfall helps to restore the limestone aquifer.

Both are currently funded through a City-assessed one-eighth-cent sales tax. City officials have been looking for a way to free up that sales tax to be used to fund the ConnectSA transportation plan. That plan involves putting high-capacity buses in dedicated highway lanes, expanding sidewalks, and creating protected lanes for bicycles, scooters, and other short-distance transportation.

At the meeting, Scott told board members the River Authority has proven it can build and maintain trails and parks, including the Mission Reach on the San Antonio River, San Pedro Creek via funding from Bexar County, and the Westside Creeks, where a trail network expansion is underway. 

“All the local governments are looking at a situation where taxes are limited and there’s a lot more need than there is funding, but the issue here is how do we make sure we’re not duplicating efforts?” Scott said. “We want to make sure that through this initiative, we are not duplicating any efforts. This has been a core value at the River Authority for a long, long time.”

In a follow-up interview, Scott described how the River Authority can make use of a new property tax authorized under the Texas Water Code. The River Authority’s current property tax of 1.86 cents per $100 of assessed value is allowed under the legislation that first created the authority in 1937, but is capped at 2 cents. On Wednesday, the board approved a $257.2 million budget with no increase in that tax rate for its next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2020.

On Wednesday, the authority’s board of directors approved a motion directing its staff to begin gathering feedback in the four counties it serves. Scott said that she and other River Authority officials have been meeting with the City, County, San Antonio Water System, and Edwards Aquifer Authority to discuss expanding its role. 

“This has some far, far-reaching implications,” said Board Chair Darrell Brownlow, who represents Wilson County. “It’s a huge issue for [the River Authority], and we take this in the strongest of considerations. This is long-term. This changes [our] direction. It deepens it. It has enormous implications down the road.” 

It’s not clear whether the idea will prove controversial. No one testified at a public hearing on the River Authority’s most recent tax hike, a 7.5-percent increase from 2018 to 2019. Its meetings often are sparsely attended and get little media scrutiny. 

As part of its background research, the River Authority contracted with Pathfinder Opinion Research to do a July phone survey of 400 Bexar County registered voters. Pollsters found 57 percent support for the proposal, with 40 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided, even after those surveyed were told how much their taxes might go up and how the money might be used. 

In November, the River Authority board likely will take up a non-binding resolution to “initiate a public education and input process” with officials expecting the new tax to be on the general election ballot in November 2020. 

“We’re very committed to our mission,” Scott said. “I think people will see that they can trust [the River Authority] to do it right and to do it based on science and engineering.” 

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