San Antonio City Council voted 9-2 Thursday to ask voters in November’s election to approve using a one-eighth-cent sales tax for workforce development and education.

The ambitious $154 million proposal aims to put 40,000 people to work at new or better-paying jobs over four years. The goal is to disrupt the cycle of generational poverty that afflicts many in San Antonio and create a pipeline of skilled workers for a post-pandemic economy.

“We have commissioned reports on the status of our city’s women and our region’s poverty,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “We’ve had the plans, the reports, the ideas. We can re-litigate the past until we’re blue in the face. … We need action now. We have an opportunity to take all of those reports, all of those plans, and set the stage for the future of our families, our neighborhoods and our city.”

About 154,000 workers so far have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, said Alejandra Lopez, director of the City’s Economic Development Department, and “approximately 20 percent of those jobs will not come back.”

The initiative will be aimed at training or retraining workers for high-demand jobs with training opportunities ranging from two week-certificate courses to four-year degree programs.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) voted against the measure, citing the initiative’s lack of details and their preference to fund what they said were the more “immediate” needs of the community.

Most of the community opposition heard on Thursday and hesitancy on the dais to approve the measure stemmed from concerns about how the region will fund the popular aquifer protection and trailways program that the one-eighth-cent sales tax currently funds.

To continue funding the aquifer program, but at approximately half the current level, the City could use some of the money it gets from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and bonds. City officials say they expect to finish collecting tax revenue for the program in mid-2021 and will likely preserve land using those funds for a couple of years after that. Council is slated to review that proposal in the coming weeks.

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Bexar County has agreed to put funding for the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System in its five-year capital project plan, but the proposal hasn’t been finalized.

Shoring up those initiatives ahead of November will be critical to convincing voters to support shifting the tax to complex workforce and education programs, Councilman John Courage (D9) said. “Those questions need to be answered in everyone’s mind so they can make an informed decision,” he said.

Treviño said he, too, supports workforce development, “however, our community needs immediate support to stay in their homes.”

The program won’t help the most vulnerable residents, he said, who can’t stop working to go to school because they still need to pay rent, he said. The $500 emergency assistance “simply isn’t enough.”

Perry said the City has already dedicated $75 million – an amount he considers sufficient – to workforce development through its Recovery and Resilience Plan approved in June.

“Now we’re going to add another $150 million for workforce development?” he said. “I’m all for workforce development… but our business community is hurting right now.”

The sales tax revenue for workforce development, if approved, wouldn’t start to accrue until next year.

In a letter to Council members, the leaders of prominent local businesses who served on a task force to craft the proposal stated their support for the program. The letter was signed by representatives from USAA, H-E-B, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas, and Rackspace Technology.

“We stand committed to prioritizing program graduates for future job opportunities at our organizations,” the letter stated.

The presidents of local universities – including the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and Alamo Colleges, who also served on the task force – attended the virtual meeting Thursday to voice their support.

Even before the pandemic, San Antonio made headlines for its high poverty rate, Lopez said. “One of the most substantial contributions to that poverty rate is the relatively low educational attainment among our residents,” she said. 

Only 16 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree. The average local annual earnings for people with undergraduate degrees is $46,737, substantially higher than the average $32,181 for those who have only a high school degree, according to an analysis by the City’s Economic Development Department.

The program combines training, education, or apprenticeships with services such as career coaching, job placement, and emergency assistance.

The goals for the program’s 40,000 participants are that roughly 80 percent to 90 percent will find a job within three months of completing the program. The City expects that at least three quarters of people pursuing professional certificates or college degrees will complete them. When they get a job, the city expects that 90 percent will end up earning more money than they did previously.

Giving residents access to training and higher education “will [cause] a ripple effect that can change the course of San Antonio’s trajectory,” said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia. “And perhaps when the next 100-year virus attacks us unexpectedly, our action today will have given more San Antonio residents a better chance at surviving it.”

Rocha Garcia has lost six cousins to COVID-19, she said in an emotional address to her colleagues. She stated that if programs designed to lift people out of poverty had been in place before the pandemic, perhaps her family members could have avoided the underlying health conditions that led to complications with the deadly virus, she said.

She closed her comments with the motto of the United Farm Workers that has become of rallying cry for many civil rights groups: “Sí, se puede,” she said. “San Antonio puede.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org