With Limited ‘Wiggle Room’ in Budget, Council Eyes $10M in Requests

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with City Manager Erik Walsh.

Increasing City Council staff compensation, helping a Mexican civil rights institute get off the ground, committing to fund a police substation in the South Side, and increasing animal care enforcement officers were some of the top funding requests several members supported Wednesday as the San Antonio City Council considered the final, relatively small, pieces of the City’s $2.9 billion budget for next year.

More than 35 requests – which total more than $10 million and span the City’s general fund, capital budget, and restricted funds – were submitted by almost all Council members over the past several weeks. However, not all of them can make the final cut.

The requests are vying for any additional revenue that CPS Energy can provide. The public utility routinely underestimates how much revenue it can provide the City, providing some end-of-fiscal-year flexibility with any special projects Council wants to fund.

City Manager Erik Walsh said that amount could be $3 million but that he’ll know for sure on Friday as the electric utility finalizes its numbers. Once he gets that, Walsh said, he’ll sort through Council’s budget amendment priorities collected Wednesday and over the coming days to finalize a list of recommended allocations.

Nine Council members said they support further increasing their budgets to better pay their Council staff, who are contractors – not City employees.

The proposed budget includes a $263,274 increase to last year’s $5.3 million Councilwide aide budget. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) requested an additional $1,305,426 to be divided up 11 ways among the mayor and district offices. The combined $1.57 million more for Council staff represents a 30 percent increase over last year’s budget.

“If we’re going to be consistent and if we’re going to be fair, then we should be treating all employees that are working on behalf of the City fair and square,” Treviño told the Rivard Report after the meeting.

A larger conversation should happen surrounding how the City classifies Council aides – whose bosses are Council members, not the city manager like typical City employees, he said.

“This is not an insurmountable hurdle,” he said, adding that the increased funding, if approved, is about “catching up” Council staff pay to the rest of City employees.

Contractors also do not receive the wage increases nor the health and education benefits that City employees receive – but longtime aides are afforded some retirement packages.

“My opinion on the Council aide compensation has evolved … as a result of some conversations I had with my colleagues last night,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said on the dais. “I do think it’s a policy issue we have to take up.”

But he stopped short of supporting an increase with this one-time funding source and added he thought the policy should be discussed by the Governance Committee.

“There is very little wiggle room in this year’s budget,” Nirenberg said before the meeting. “My hope is we can fund the basics before we get too far ahead of our skis.”

Treviño and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) have been working to support a group that plans on opening an educational institute surrounding historical and contemporary civil rights efforts for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

“I think it’s going to be great to have that in San Antonio,” Sandoval said, adding that her office is helping the group to find private dollars to match the City’s contribution.

District offices helped the group form a nonprofit, formally The National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights, Treviño said. The money will be used to support operating expenses while the group establishes a location and builds partnerships.

“It’s in its infancy,” Treviño said. “There’s still a lot more discussion that needs to happen … the key is to establish something once and for all here in San Antonio.”

While most Council members supported a few requests of their colleagues’ budget amendments, their top priorities remained their own requests.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) again articulated the need for a police substation in the South Side that could bolster policing efforts in the East and West sides as well. Her $500,000 request – technically for 2021 – would commit the City to lay the groundwork for a multimillion-dollar 2022 municipal bond project.

Councilwomen Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) support the substation, but Andrews-Sullivan’s top priority is a $25,000 pilot program to prevent criminal recidivism, and Gonzales wants $75,000 for a master plan for Guadalupe Plaza.

Walsh, who is serving his first year as city manager, was careful to get each member to clearly articulate their top-, second-, and third-tier desires to inform his final recommendation.

The City composes its budgets with the next year in mind, he noted, and several requests would have long-term budget implications. The end-of-year CPS Energy revenue discussed on Wednesday is not a permanent stream.

Click here to download a copy of the funding requests provided by the city manager’s office. This is not a complete list of requests, according to several Council members. 

Councilman John Courage (D9) printed out his own less-formal list to share Wednesday. It included requests to fund street designs for thoroughfares, restrooms at two different parks, and to increase funding to BioMedSA and San Antonio Education Partnership. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he emailed his funding priorities to Walsh, noting that he’d like to see increased funding for the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Asian art programming. Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) noted that her requests – to increase funding to expand an after-school program at Southwest Independent School District and to defend against cybersecurity threats – did not make the list.

City Council will review Walsh’s final recommendations for these budget amendments next Wednesday, ahead of its vote on the budget next Thursday, Sept. 12. City Council has listened to more than a dozen presentations from various City departments over the past month.

The final draft of the budget includes input from Council and from the community through its SASPeakUp engagement initiative, Walsh said.

 

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