Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Over the next month the community and City Council will weigh in on the proposed $2.7 billion 2018 City budget, a 426-page document now available to review online on the City’s website. The largest budget in the City’s history will, for the first time, use an “equity lens” to allocate resources where they are needed most, according to officials.
The proposed budget adds 40 new police officers, 43 new firefighters, and the City’s first immigration coordinator while increasing funding for street maintenance and mass transit.
Six community meetings will be held across the city over the next month, including one on the Southside that will be conducted entirely in Spanish. Meeting details and an online survey are available here.
There are also opportunities to attend Council briefing sessions, which are open to the public and typically include public comments, as each department will be presenting their plans for 2018. Click here to view a list of Council and other public meeting agendas. Typically, the budget hearings appear under “Council B Session” and “City Council Special Session.”
The first briefing, which will cover streets, sidewalks, drainage, transportation, capital improvement, and the City’s debt management plan, is scheduled for Tuesday Aug. 15. City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on Sept. 14.
“This is not the final draft,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Thursday after City Manager Sheryl Sculley presented the document, encouraging the public to participate in the SASpeakUp process. “This is a working document.”
Council members agreed with the basic premise of equity, but some questioned the process City staff used to determine the areas deemed most in need.
At the center of the discussion is the sacred cow of street maintenance – a City service that is at the top of most constituents’ minds, along with public safety and drainage. The proposed budget uses $35 million left over from the 2007 and 2012 street and drainage bond programs to boost street maintenance in districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 where the average street grade is below average or failing.
“There are many areas in the community that have … streets [in poorer condition] than in other areas, and so we’ve added additional resources to those areas that have been traditionally underserved,” Sculley said. “We are still providing street maintenance throughout the entire community.”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) challenged the methodology of the extra allocation for other districts based on their average street grade.
“I don’t think looking at averages helps us with equity,” Sandoval said, noting that all districts have various amounts of low quality streets. That analysis maybe skewed if a district has outliers – several incredibly bad or incredibly good streets that drag the average down or bring it up. “We have to get into the granularity and not be fooled by averages.”
Asked about the methodology used, Sculley said the budget office could take a different approach if it gets that directive from City Council.
“We know that we have streets that need repair throughout the entire community,” Sculley said. “We’ll be presenting and discussing with Council a variety of options as to how we approach the equity lens for street improvements.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) joined in Sandoval’s concern over the process – but his criticism of the equity lens was that it wasn’t thoroughly defined for Council before it was applied to elements of the budget.
Equity lens is a just a “catchphrase” or a “hashtag,” Brockhouse said, part of a “leadership-by-slogan mentality … People laugh at the equity lens moniker right now.”
When the 2017 municipal bond was overwhelmingly approved by voters in May, it included an emphasis on so-called “citywide” projects located in the urban core, he said. He wondered why the equity lens wasn’t applied to the bond, but is now being applied to the budget to “cure inequality with more inequality.”
Other City leaders have said that investment in downtown is indeed an equitable investment because the entire city benefits from the economic and cultural vibrancy of the urban core.
Brockhouse would like to see more perspectives and information about equity and historic segregation in San Antonio, he said. “Get out of the data and onto the streets.”
That doesn’t mean data isn’t important, but street grades don’t necessarily take into account how many people use the street or if it’s near a school, Sandoval told the Rivard Report after the meeting.
“It’s always important to roll up our sleeves and look at what it means on the ground and not just the numbers,” she said. “We need to take into account additional information that’s not captured in the data we’re being presented.”
The definition of equity will continue to be finetuned, Nirenberg told reporters after the meeting. “We do know that if you take away the lines on the map that we see assets of the community and needs that need to be addressed, so we’re going to budget that way. It also means that no resident, no neighborhood, no part of our community will be left behind in that process.”
Nirenberg admitted that “equity lens is just a word. What we’ve tried to do over the years is make sure that the needs of residents are meet. We are now establishing a budget that does that in a very direct way.”