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Can San Antonio protect the Edwards Aquifer and deliver a workforce development initiative at the same time? That question is at the heart of a looming political war.
A $100 million plan to fund aquifer protection over 10 years received praise from most City Council members on Thursday as they reviewed the details, but two said they’d rather wait to see if voters decide in November to fund a $154 million workforce development initiative. Others said they were concerned over the uncertain takeover of the greenway trails program by Bexar County.
But it’s not a binary choice between aquifer protection and workforce development, said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. The new funding scheme represents a “next era” for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), but its function – preventing development that would negatively impact water quantity or quality with conservation easements – will not change.
It’s not a perfect solution, he said, but it’s “one that has minimal impact to our annual [spending] … one that has no impact to SAWS rates, one that has very little impact to programs that we are all trying to continue – certainly one that is not status quo,” Nirenberg said. “It’s easy to find challenges and problems … [if] there’s a better [solution], let me know.”
To support the new EAPP, aquifer advocates said they wanted certainty of funding, staff to remain in place, and for the EAPP to be structured so a future council couldn’t easily undo it. Nirenberg said this plan achieves all of that, but at least one advocate says it’s not enough.
If approved, the City will use a portion of the revenue that it already gets from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) as collateral for debt that will be used to purchase conservation easements, Gorzell said. SAWS contributes 4 percent of its revenues to the City which was nearly $30 million in 2020.
“This would not result in any kind of SAWS rate increase,” Gorzell said. “What we are using is general fund dollars which happen to be [from] SAWS.”
The City estimates that its general fund, which pays for ongoing municipal expenses, will grow over time and the new EAPP will use that growth: $600,000 in 2023, $850,000 in 2024, $1.1 million in 2025, $2.4 million in 2026, and $3.1 million in 2027.
These costs would continue to increase over the 10 years to approximately $7.6 million annually in the 2034 fiscal year, said Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer. These numbers could change as the City has the option to use other cash to purchase easements and can start paying off debt as cashflow allows.
While it’s estimated to last 10 years, he said, “We could certainly go faster than that.”
This is a “solid plan” that will continue to protect the aquifer for years to come, Councilman John Courage (D9) said. “I don’t see it ending at the end of this $100 million.”
Courage said he will be a strong advocate of this proposal.
“The language is the same, the program is exactly the same, we’re just talking about an alternative option in terms of how we fund the program,” Gorzell said.
The mayor and Council would still have oversight of the EAPP, but it would technically be doing so as the board members of a municipal facilities corporation. The Council-appointed Conservation Advisory Board would still advise Council on which properties to protect. If a future City Council wanted to change or cancel the EAPP, they’d have to host two public meetings 30 days apart before such a vote, Gorzell said.
“A material change to the program could not happen through the budget process,” he said, though the program would be flexible enough to increase and decrease the yearly contribution from the general fund.
Like the $100 million approved for the program in 2015, this initiative is tied to a dollar amount, not a period of time. That cap is expected to be reached in spring 2021, and the remaining $20 million is slated to be used through the 2022 fiscal year. This alternative funding plan would start in 2023.
“That’s still less funding,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, because a dollar today will be worth less in 2023, especially as land values increase.
Overall, the new funding plan “by no means satisfies our concerns,” Peace said after the meeting. “We don’t have consensus in our group to oppose the workforce development [initiative] … but we still want to see sales tax funding aquifer protection.”
If the workforce development and VIA sales taxes are approved, she said, voters need to know that “the opportunity to fund greenway and aquifer protection with a sales tax is gone forever.”
If neither is approved, the next sales tax vote can occur in May 2022, according to state law.
“Let the people decide what to do with this sales tax,” said Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who noted that there is no need to approve this alternative funding now because it won’t start until 2023.
Eventually, SAWS may have to raise taxes because the City started taking a larger percentage of its revenues, Perry said.
Council voted to increase payments from SAWS from 2.7 percent to 4 percent last year to cover, among other things, lost revenue from telecommunications companies. In the short term, it won’t increase rates or impact the utility’s daily operations and maintenance, SAWS CEO Robert Puente said at the time, but a $10 million expense each year depletes the savings account SAWS has built up for large capital projects, so it will eventually need “revenue from somewhere.”
“Now we’re saying we don’t need this [money] in the general fund anymore?” Perry said. “We should delay this until the next ballot … to see if the workforce development gets passed.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) agreed.
“I’m uncomfortable. … I don’t understand why we’re voting on this so quickly,” Treviño said, adding that he wants to get a better understanding of how much the EAPP will cost the City each year.
Both Treviño and Perry voted against putting the workforce development initiative on the November ballot.
Since 2010, San Antonio voters have overwhelmingly opted to protect the Edwards Aquifer – where most local drinking water comes from – and build Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails with a one-eighth-cent sales tax. More than $325 million has been spent to protect more than 160,000 acres of land over the aquifer’s contributing and recharge zones.
Now, workforce development programs, as a response to the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, will take the EAPP and greenway’s place on the ballot.
“If [the] status quo worked for this city, we wouldn’t have to do anything,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, adding the pandemic has shifted priorities. “We weren’t talking about workforce development a year ago, but we’re talking about it now and it’s because of our community needs relief.”
Even without the pandemic, Nirenberg said he wouldn’t want the EAPP getting sales tax revenue. “This is the most regressive form of revenue this City has.”
The City has alternatives for purchasing easements – not so for an aggressive workforce development program aimed at lifting people out of generational poverty, he said.
Several Council members said they like the alternative funding plan but are concerned that the trail system – largely unfinished in the West Side – will be left behind.
“As we were building out these [trails] the ones that were left until the end were all in the West Side [and] inner city,” Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said. “It’s no surprise as soon as those are left, the funding gets shifted to some other priority.”
Bexar County commissioners voted in March to put multiple trail projects in the County’s five-year capital plan, but the specifics are still uncertain. No money has been allocated to that plan yet, as the County recalibrates its own budget in the wake of the pandemic.
“They’re trying to figure out what type of impact COVID will have on property values,” City Manager Erik Walsh said. “They just don’t have a capital program done yet.”
That gives Gonzales and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) pause, they said.
“It’s like history repeating itself,” Sandoval said of historic public and private neglect of low-income communities. She and Gonzales requested that an equity analysis be performed on the aquifer and trail programs.
Council will receive an update on the greenway trail project in the near future, Walsh said.
City staff was ready to propose the alternative aquifer protection funding plan as early as next Thursday, but it is not currently listed on the agenda.