As the City and County received the first half of their federal coronavirus recovery dollars, county commissioners and City Council members met separately Wednesday to discuss how to use their funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Bexar County received $194 million from the federal government, the first half of its funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The County expects to receive the second portion in 2022, rounding out the total to $388 million in “state and local fiscal recovery funds.” As with the first federal coronavirus relief package in 2020, The County’s funding also applies to the 16 suburban cities and unincorporated Bexar County.

The City of San Antonio received around $164 million on May 19, the first half of the total $326 million it expects to receive for “fiscal recovery” from the same $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden in March.

Both the City and County expect to receive additional federal coronavirus funding through other avenues, such as money dedicated specifically to the airport, housing, and health disparities. 

City Council met Wednesday in the newly renovated City Hall to review the guidelines on how the City can use direct funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and discuss what they would like to see. Council members suggested specific issues they hoped to address with federal funding, including housing security, the digital divide, and small-business relief. 

“With this amount of dollars, there is no reason we should be going back to how it normally was in this city [before the pandemic], where the infrastructure is the way it is in certain parts of the community,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said. “With this amount of money and this amount of investment, we have great opportunities.”

Like her colleagues, Viagran said she hoped to see some funding allocated to mental health and public health. Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) asked if federal dollars could be used to update the Guadalupe Theater in her district, as it is City-owned and a historic building. And Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) asked City staff to see if green infrastructure projects would be eligible under the American Rescue Plan Act guidelines.

“That’s what I want to see when you come back with a proposal – I want to see some ideas about green infrastructure,” she said to City Manager Erik Walsh. “This is probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in that with the federal government’s help. We adopted a climate action plan not long ago. I’d like us to see us make some significant progress on that with the help of the federal government instead of only using our local dollars.”

Councilmen John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10) advocated using the funding for deferred street improvement projects. 

“What I’m hearing the rules say is reimburse yourself for those things that COVID impacted,” Perry said. “And so to me it’s simple … you see what you’ve deferred or canceled. That’s a data point. I’ll argue that about …  the streets program. To me, we lost that and we need to be reimbursed for that.”

Walsh reiterated that the City’s first priority is to ensure financial stability, recover revenue loss, and addressing the immediate needs that arose from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Today was their first conversation and I anticipate a much more robust program and opportunities for Council to discuss and potential to partner with the county as we go into the next year,” Walsh said. “Remember, this is very different than last year. … We’ll have until 2026 to spend these funds.”

Meanwhile, county commissioners met Wednesday for the first in a series of work sessions to discuss how to direct federal funding. Members of the international consulting firm Guidehouse Inc. presented them with examples of eligible programs from other places in the United States and laid out the “areas of interest” that commissioners had said they wanted to address with federal funding. They advised commissioners to avoid getting stuck on specifics so early in the process, as the deadline to spend all of its ARPA funds is more than five years away.

“In this initial phase, I wouldn’t worry too much about what kind of funding is going in what category,” said Brook Barbour, director of state and local government for Guidehouse. “Think big now. What are the needs? Then we’ll think about what the funding is we’ll go after.”

According to current federal guidelines, all funding must be committed by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he’d like to see commissioners move quickly to begin its coronavirus recovery efforts using the new federal funding, as they did with the funding from the first federal stimulus package in 2020. Then, commissioners immediately began directing money toward issues such as workforce training, household stabilization, and small-business support.

Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) agreed.

“There’s a trap we can fall into – paralysis by analysis,” DeBerry said. “We’ve got to get it moving, we’ve got to get it rolling.”

But Wolff acknowledged that the process was only getting started.

“It’s the beginning,” he said. “But the one thing we’re all on the same page about is creating something lasting. … The more things we can do to reach out and have lasting benefits is the best way to use this money, and that seems to be the consensus of this court.”

The County and City plan to communicate with each other throughout their financial planning to make sure they can leverage their federal funds with the most impact possible, said Walsh, who has already met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Wolff, and County Manager David Smith to begin those conversations.

“There is certainly a lot of strain and stress in the community as it relates to the impact of the pandemic, but I want to thank my colleagues here and over in the County for collaboration throughout the last 14, 15 months,” Nirenberg said. “If we can continue that same spirit of teamwork, we can make most of those funds available for generational impact.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.