Three City Council committees will determine what impact the coronavirus pandemic had on San Antonio in areas ranging from small business to mental health and develop a plan to disperse millions of dollars in federal recovery grants in the next four years.

With $88 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) available to spend on pandemic impact relief, the needs are likely to far outweigh the funding. After the city developed a basic framework for determining what issues need to be addressed and how to do that fairly, City Council met Tuesday to weigh in on the process. 

Meanwhile, city staff said they have already received 33 unsolicited requests from groups and agencies seeking $350 million worth of grant funding, and council members wanting to maximize the funds say they want to know how the county plans to spend its ARPA dollars before making any decisions. 

Three council committees will determine the pandemic’s impact in seven broad categories — seniors, digital literacy, arts, small business, nonprofit social services, digital inclusion/literacy and mental health — with a fixed bucket of money for each. Council committees are composed of several council members and led by an individual member.

Tuesday’s assembly was meant to give council members the opportunity to make their priority recommendations in all categories. But it raised a lot of questions about the process for requesting funds — who is eligible and when and how often they can apply — and what Bexar County’s role is in funding pandemic relief especially when it comes to mental health.

In some cases, the committee may decide to establish a competitive grant process and in others, it may look to city staff to release a request for proposals. Several council members suggested the development of a standardized application process that potential service providers can use to submit requests. 

The public was invited to give input on ARPA spending in November and will be invited to provide feedback to the process again during upcoming committee meetings.

On Tuesday, council members focused their feedback mostly in the areas of pandemic recovery funding for mental health and the arts — two areas they viewed as heavily impacted within the community. 

“Today is very important — it’s our big shot in transformational change [and] we have to get this right,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the public safety committee tasked with funding the mental health category at $26 million. 

“That means the process has to be fair and accessible, has to be accountable,” she said. “The pandemic presented us with an opportunity to improve our communities in areas that have previously been underfunded.”

The funding process for the arts category will be decided by the community health, environment and culture committee led by Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7). Funding for small business will be decided by the economic and workforce development committee overseen by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8).

But there’s a lot of overlap between the categories and the oversight of each committee. Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3), who serves on all three committees evaluating ARPA funding needs, urged the council to fund arts as an economic driver as well as a path to better mental health.

“I do think arts is going to be integral in this healing process as we heal massively from this pandemic,” Viagran said. But her primary concern in funding mental health comes in proposals to partner with the Center for Health Care Services, the local mental health authority for Bexar County contracted through the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“The two hospitals in my district are Texas Vista and Mission Trails Baptist so I’d much rather see us give money to them,” Viagran said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) said funding decisions should be based on ARPA goals, which are focused specifically on pandemic recovery. “Every organization needs to know: Don’t come with your wish list, come with what is related to the crisis we’ve been going through and the financial ability we have to alleviate part of that crisis,” he said. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said allocating what is probably the last and largest of federal funds for pandemic relief is going to be a challenge and collaborating with the county is needed. But that’s not the most important issue, he said.

“For the average taxpayer in our community, they couldn’t care less about where the money came into,” Nirenberg said. “It’s what it’s going to be doing for our community. We’ve got to work together to address some of these major needs in our rescue operation.”

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodrigez (D2) said he wanted to make sure “low-income black and indigenous people of color, who are most impacted by the pandemic and most impacted prior to the pandemic” were not overlooked.

The councilman specifically requested funding for issues within his district. “This is an opportunity to do right by my constituents by undoing historic wrongs in the past,” he said.

In his feedback, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) argued against providing ARPA funds to the arts in the amount of $5 million after the council recently agreed to a 2022 bond measure funding $16 million for public art projects. 

“This $5 million could be better used in other categories — it doesn’t matter which one,” he said. “I still have a hard sticking point with funding more art above and beyond what’s in this next bond.”

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) disagreed, reminding the council that the bond has not yet been approved by voters. 

“So we don’t know for sure that arts are going to get that money or not,” he said. “Second of all, the bond is infrastructure, and so you can do outdoor art … sculptures, but you can’t do programs. [For example], you couldn’t provide any funding to the symphony.” 

Pelaez pointed out that the ARPA funding was likely the last federal aid for pandemic relief that the city would see, so spending it efficiently and effectively is important. But he said that an agency already receiving funding from the City shouldn’t necessarily be prohibited from requesting ARPA funds.

In the coming months, each of the committees’ proposals will be presented to City Council for approval on a rolling basis as its plans are ready. 

Organizations that are looking to request rescue plan funds should monitor the activities of the relevant committee and watch for requests for proposals, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez. 

Funds from the city’s ARPA plan must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by the end of 2026, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

It’s also important to keep in mind that ARPA funding is limited and a one-time expenditure, said City Manager Erik Walsh. 

“We want to make sure that anything we do with the ARPA dollars, we’re not creating that financial pressure to maintain that level of expense of city funds over time,” Walsh said. “That’s why … the federal government’s asking [us] to be very intentional on what is the COVID-19 impact. How is it improving the community and benefiting equitable outcomes?”

This article has been updated to correctly describe the affiliation of the Center for Health Care Services.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.