Bexar County commissioners doubled down on a commitment to take over funding to expand San Antonio’s greenway trails network, but offered few details at their meeting Tuesday.

County commissioners chose to give themselves until April 2021, after they get a better idea of property tax revenues and the collection rate, to make firmer decisions about trail funding. In the meantime, they voted Tuesday to direct staff to review the original proposal for funding the county’s creek and river program and suggest changes. Staff also will conduct a financial analysis, present funding options, and analyze the potential economic benefits in the form of job creation and economic stimulus associated with the trail projects. 

At issue is how to pay for the trail system that has 80 miles of walking and bike trails already constructed. Those trails are funded by a one-eighth-cent of sales tax that also generates revenue to protect the Edwards Aquifer.

Over the past 20 years, San Antonio has funded the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and its program to build trails along local creekways through a one-eighth-cent sales tax. In November, the City is asking voters to reallocate that one-eighth-cent to a workforce development program to respond to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact. VIA Metropolitan Transit is asking for the same one-eighth-cent starting in 2026 to pay for mass transit improvements.

The latest round of sales tax funding approved in 2015 allows the City to collect $100 million in aquifer funding and $80 million in trails funding. Officials expect that tax collection to hit its cap in the summer of 2021.

On Tuesday, four commissioners voted to approve further study of a funding plan, but Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) abstained, saying that he was concerned about how other priorities in the county would be affected by funding the trail system. He also said “the other elephant in the room” was his constituents’ questions about aquifer protection funding.

City Council approved a new funding plan for aquifer protection in September, and voters in the upcoming general election will decide whether to approve allocating the one-eighth-cent sales tax now used for aquifer protection and the trail system to a workforce development initiative.

Staff will look at a variety of funding options for the greenway trails, according to the resolution approved Tuesday. One of the funding options being considered would be asking voters to allocate funding for the trails in a bond election. But between October and next April, many things could change, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff cautioned.

“Let me say also, that we don’t know where we will be with respect to other issues that may come up,” Wolff said. “There’s a lot of potential issues that could come up for a bond election.”

Though Tuesday’s vote does not actually commit the County to funding trail projects, San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott said the idea was to instill confidence that the County would follow through with its promises.

“I think that the judge just wanted to bring that back up and kind of officially state that they are still considering that funding, if the economic conditions will support it,” said Scott, who will leave the river authority Oct. 30 to start a new job with the Nature Conservancy.

The originally proposed list of greenway trail projects totaled more than $240 million, and many would extend the Howard W. Peak Greenway trails system. The Tuesday vote came a month after Wolff wrote a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg promising personally to put the Bexar County River and Creek program in any proposed bond issue.

“COVID-19 has adversely affected our community and Bexar county, causing us to temporarily halt our plans in moving forward with this project,” Wolff wrote on Sept. 16. “There have been some concerns that this means that Bexar County has permanently shelved this proposal. That’s not true. Due to the current financial uncertainties, we are waiting until April 2021 to identify funding opportunities available for this project.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, commissioners had not committed to funding the full $240,420,000, said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2). He said he doesn’t have an idea about how much funding commissioners would eventually approve.

“I think there are too many unknowns between now and the beginning of 2021,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got to make sure we come out of this [pandemic] on solid footing. I think also we have to determine, more importantly, what the county’s debt capacity is. Obviously, we don’t have that kind of money in our year-to-year budget.”

By April, there also will be two new commissioners on the court who will vote on trail funding. Precincts 1 and 3 will have new commissioners at the end of the current term.

While Scott praised commissioners’ financial prudence in waiting until April to specify funding details, trail advocates have called for much firmer commitments than the county’s promise to find funding. 

Also on Tuesday, commissioners approved a $2 million grant for Community Labs, the coronavirus testing nonprofit founded by entrepreneur and 80|20 Foundation founder Graham Weston; Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr., who also serves as chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment; and J. Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. Commissioners took funding from its federal coronavirus relief dollars to fund more testing of people without coronavirus symptoms. 

Community Labs is piloting its testing at Somerset Independent School District, and the results of that effort have inspired school districts around Bexar County to ask for a similar program, said David Marquez, executive director of the County’s economic development department.

“They’re all interested,” Marquez said. “Initially, no one wanted to take the leap but now with the success, everyone wants [to partner with Community Labs]. This grant will help scale that up quickly with coronavirus relief funds.”

Wolff praised the work of Community Labs so far and said he hopes the organization will use the money to continue testing efforts in other school districts. County staff still needs to negotiate a contract with the nonprofit for commissioners to approve.

“We’re trying to make it safer for kids when they come back [to school in-person] and they need to get back and be in an education environment,” Wolff said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.