Democrat Peter Sakai and Republican Trish DeBerry gave voters a glimpse of their vastly different perspectives on the future of county spending Thursday night — setting the scene for one of the biggest challenges the next Bexar County Judge is likely to face.
A one-time infusion of federal pandemic relief swelled the past two fiscal years’ budgets by more than 50 percent, but that money will have been almost entirely allocated before the incoming judge takes office.
Asked by San Antonio Report Editor-in-Chief Leigh Munsil, who moderated the candidates’ debate at San Antonio College’s McAllister Auditorium, how they plan to rein in the spending to previous levels, the candidates pointed to stark contrasts in their records serving the county in other roles.
DeBerry, who was a county commissioner for 11 months before resigning to run for county judge, pointed to her work pushing for a reduction in the property tax rate. The move was aimed at combating skyrocketing property valuations, which have led to unexpectedly high revenue in city and county budgets over the past two years.
DeBerry said she worked with Democrats on the court to make good on her promise of “lowering property taxes, appraisal reform and making sure that we are not taxing people out of their homes.”
Sakai, who oversaw the children’s court before running for county judge, fired back that DeBerry’s tax cut reduced the budget by roughly $1.7 million, while the average homeowner saved roughly $5 on their property taxes.
“In that $1.7 million, as a local administrative judge and the administrator of the children’s court, I asked for a family violence court, and it was cut,” said Sakai. “I truly believe that that court was necessary, and I argued for it, and I didn’t get it.”
The comments come as retiring Judge Nelson Wolff says money the federal government sent to the county during the Covid-19 pandemic will likely be spent by the time he leaves office.
The money helped fuel a county budget of roughly $2.8 billion in each of the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, after a budget of just $1.8 billion in the 2021 fiscal year.
“We’ve got I believe about $55 million, I believe, that is left,” Wolff said during the San Antonio Report’s CityFest keynote luncheon Wednesday. “I think we’ll make a decision on most of it all within the next couple of months.”
Wolff’s potential successors both acknowledged the challenge of returning to a budget without the federal money.
“As county judge, I’m going to make sure that we live within our budget,” Sakai said.
DeBerry said she believes a return to normal will rely on combing through the budget to eliminating some initiatives the county currently funds.
“I sat on this court and looked at that $2.8 billion budget,” said DeBerry, who touted her experience managing a budget as small business owner. “There is fat in that budget, and there are ways to be able to make cuts.”
Sakai, on the other hand, said the future for Bexar County should lean on public-private partnerships in the places where county funding isn’t enough.
“That’s what I did in the children’s court,” Sakai said of his work funding initiatives that included a family drug court, an early childhood court and a docket for college-bound youth. All of those projects were the result of public-private partnerships, he added, “bringing in the nonprofit community, the faith-based community, our churches, our neighborhood associations.”
“The key as county judge is listening to the people, determining what the problems are, and then bringing the experts and stakeholders together to come up with the solutions,” Sakai said.