SAPD Officer Gomez walks a grocery cart and stroller filled with various items to large dump trucks. Photo by Scott Ball.
Police Officer Gomez walks a grocery cart and stroller filled with belongings from a homeless camp cleanup. San Antonio police assist with the cleanups on a regular basis. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

During a City budget talk, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said sworn law enforcement officers with badges and weapons might not be needed to respond to every emergency call they currently field.

Councilman John Courage (D9) had asked McManus about alternatives as Council members opened their first session Friday by digging into SAPD’s share of the City’s budget, which accounts for 35 percent of the City’s general fund budget. The discussion took place in the wake of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests that have rocked the country and led to local protesters’ calls to defund the police.

“Could it be mental health professionals that go out on mental health call?” Courage asked.

“Could it be? Yes, sir,” McManus responded. Over the years, police have absorbed such duties because of the 24/7 service they provide, he said.

“Could we shed mental health duties and responsibilities? Probably so,” McManus continued. “Could we shed dealing with homelessness duties? Probably so. It’s not a law enforcement function.”

The discussion came as City Council looks to the next few years of dismal revenues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The City already grappled with a $200 million shortfall in its current fiscal year.

Now, City Council looks to the next two fiscal years, over which City officials project a $109 million deficit. At the daylong budget discussion Friday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg framed the challenge as balancing equity with “boiling everything down to our core essentials.”

“We’re going to find that we have a lot more needs and wants than we have resources to fill,” Nirenberg said.

Some of the details include a drop in revenue from the hotel occupancy tax that funds tourism and arts programs from $93 million to an estimated $56 million by the end of this fiscal year, as well as a scaling back of the budget for streets from $110 million in 2020 to $82 million in 2021.

Despite the turmoil, City officials were pleased to see ratings agencies leave San Antonio’s high municipal bond ratings in place. S&P Global, Fitch, and Moody’s all gave the City a “stable” rating.

In surveys that drew more than 14,600 participants, residents picked public health services, housing affordability programs, and senior and youth services as their top three budget priorities, in that order, said Jeff Coyle, government and public affairs director. He noted a significant shift from the previous year, when 8,700 respondents picked police and fire, streets and infrastructure, and animal care as their top choices.

City staff will continue to gather input from the Council and public through July, then present an updated draft budget to Council members in early August. Another round of budget talks will then precede a likely vote in mid-September.

Of the City’s 2020 $1.4 billion general fund budget, $479 million goes to policing, with 66 percent of that going to pay and salaries. SAPD includes 2,463 uniformed officers and 624 non-uniformed employees, with divisions including Parks Police, Airport Police, detention center personnel, and school crossing guards. Grants fund 40 uniform positions and 13 non-officer positions.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) asked Walsh and McManus how it might play out if the Council simply slashes $10 million to $30 million from the SAPD budget.

“We’d start at support areas … where we think we could drop positions without much of an impact to calls to service,” McManus said.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus speaks with Black Lives Matter and Reliable Revolutionaries leaders during a protest at Columbus Park on Saturday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Walsh called this the “meat of the issue.” Work to support the SAPD’s current response load still need to be done, whether by officers or non-officers, Walsh said.

“If we eliminate a bunch of civilians that are handling fleet maintenance, it’s either going to be police officers handling the vehicles or somebody else, and I don’t want police officers doing it,” Walsh said.

Perry called public safety one of the top issues in his district and said he would not be in favor of moves to reduce funding.

“Safety and security is still very important to the community, and I don’t think they want to see a decrease in the number of officers,” Perry said.

Recent polling data indicates that while 82 percent of San Antonio residents say they feel safer when they see police are in their neighborhoods, that proportion varies by race. Eighty-three percent of Latinos and 85 percent of Anglo whites say they feel safe, whereas 58 percent of Black respondents said they feel safer.

Broken down along partisan lines, 90 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Democrats, and 84 percent of independents said they feel safer.

Some Council members questioned whether shifting funding away from the police department actually has any effect on reducing incidents of police violence. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he’d like to see more data on the issue.

“I’m all for reforms. Clearly something’s broken,” Pelaez said but asked whether the City would make such decisions about other departments without similar data.

“That’s what I’m struggling with here,” he said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.