As part of a wide-ranging discussion on how to spend roughly $200 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, many on the San Antonio City Council on Thursday reiterated their support for bonuses for essential city workers.

What remains to be determined is whether all city employees see “premium pay” compensation for working during the pandemic, or only some.

Veronica Carrillo, the city’s COVID-19 executive officer, presented council members with two scenarios. Of the 11,760 city employees, 5,900 currently qualify for “premium pay” under the federal coronavirus recovery funding guidelines, she said. If the city provides each of them $1,000 to $3,000, depending on their salary, that would cost an estimated $10 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding.

If they expanded that to all city employees, offering between $250 to $2,000 per person, that would cost $14.3 million, she said.

City Manager Erik Walsh said if council members wanted to provide premium pay to any city employees, he would prefer to provide it to all.

“From my standpoint, I don’t think we should be treating employees differently, whether you were a maintenance worker or you were an accountant running payroll from home,” he said.

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) asked for another option, where some employees receive more compensation based on their job during the pandemic.

“I was a city employee. My dad was a city employee,” she said. “If we had been city employees at the same time, and I was working in the tourism industry and he was working for public works, I would totally expect him to get more money than me if I’m telecommuting at home. So I think we need to have that conversation with our employees.”

Council Member Phyllis Viagran asks a question during a City Council meeting about redistricting on Wednesday.
Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

No other major Texas city has used its federal coronavirus recovery money for premium pay, Carrillo said. 

Council members also heard the results of a monthlong effort by city staff to gather community input on how to spend American Rescue Plan Act money.

Housing, infrastructure and economic development topped the priority list of community members who offered input, either through feedback at in-person town halls or via online survey responses. Thousands of residents participated in some way, staff said.

The federal government allocated $326 million to San Antonio for “fiscal recovery,” and the city has received the first half of that money already; it expects to receive the second half in 2022.

On Thursday, city staff recommended putting $35 million toward COVID-19 related needs, $36 million toward “immediate” community needs, and $128.5 million toward “impactful” investments. Community members ranked utility assistance as one of the most important immediate needs that should be met, while impactful investment priorities include mental health, housing, and childcare.

The city has already allocated $30 million of its federal coronavirus recovery funding to help residents struggling to pay their utility bills and $97.5 million to supplement the general fund and the hotel occupancy tax fund through 2023.

Previously, city staff had planned to allocate $50 million of the federal coronavirus recovery funding toward COVID-19 expenses such as testing, contact tracing and vaccines. But as coronavirus risk level remains low in San Antonio, city staff modified their projections in that area, City Manager Erik Walsh said.

“We’re just going to have to keep adjusting,” he said.

City Council mostly agreed with the community’s priorities while also highlighting their own, such as investing in digital literacy and the arts.

City staff plan to bring back a more formal spending framework of the remaining American Rescue Plan Act dollars to City Council in January. Council members will vote on the framework in February.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.