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City Council approved a $2.7 billion fiscal year 2018 budget Thursday, the largest in the City’s history and the first to use a so-called “equity lens,” which allocates more resources to areas historically neglected. The vote came after hours of discussion and challenges to some line items and funding policies.
The budget, which is 5% higher than last year’s, includes an increase to minimum wage for City workers as well as funding for streets, 42 additional police officers, 31 new firefighters, and 12 paramedics for an EMS unit, additional VIA Metropolitan Transit funding, more Animal Care Services (ACS) officers, and maintains funding for social wellness programs. The property tax rate remains flat, but the stormwater fee increased slightly.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and others on the dais commended each other and City staff for the “transparent” and hard work put into the budget. That praise was also extended to residents, Nirenberg said, many of whom participated in budget input sessions. “This budget speaks to you, we are listening to you.”
An attempt to reduce the property tax rate or implement a homestead exemption launched by Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10) received little support and failed with a 9-2 vote.
About $35 million left over from the 2007 and 2012 bond programs will be used to enhance streets in districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 where streets received below average or failing grades.
“That doesn’t mean we’re taking any money away from other districts, but rather the increase in the budget has gone to those areas that need it most,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley told reporters. Under the equity lens, the City will also retarget its efforts to assist homeless individuals and add ACS officers to districts 1 through 5, which need increased service most. Another example of equity is the City’s tree program, which will focus on planting trees where the canopy is weakest.
In 2018, $4.3 million from the City’s General Fund will enable VIA to provide 30-minute service along nine routes and corridors, and 12-minute service along another four. Next year, if approved, another $10 million would allow 12-minute service along two more routes and corridors on the Westside and Southside.
Not all Council members agreed with this budget’s equity strategy. The harshest critic is Brockhouse who feels his district has been shortchanged and there is a more equitable way to distribute funds.
He also challenged Sculley’s decision to remove his $780,000 funding request from a list of budget amendments to purchase land that could one day become a community center in his district.
“This is a core item that I believe the community wants,” Brockhouse said, and the decision to cut funding was made “outside the public eye.”
Through conversations with Council members and by listening to the budget discussion, Sculley and budget staff came up with a new list of amendments, she said. That updated list was sent to each Council member just before 10 p.m. Wednesday night.
Brockhouse’s item did not make that list. He called for a vote to restore the original one that would fund his project, but that failed 8-3 with support from Councilmen Perry and Manny Pelaez (D8).
Several Council members, including Ana Sandoval (D7) and John Courage (D9), committed to help Brockhouse find funding for his project in the mid-year budget review process in six months.
Brockhouse’s proposal for a half-cent property tax reduction would have resulted in the average homeowner saving $8.45 per year while removing more than $5 million from the City’s budget. He provided a list of departments and initiatives that he would cut – many of which related to environmental and energy sustainability.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) called such tax relief “irresponsible” and a “very lazy effort” to save money. Long-term, she said, such minor relief wouldn’t benefit the city as a whole as sustainability is a key function of City government.
Giving some money back would be “an opportunity to serve every district in San Antonio,” Brockhouse said.
“Though I was unsuccessful in getting a property tax rollback or a City homestead exemption, I believe the conversation needs to continue about tangible property tax relief for San Antonio residents,” Perry said in a statement. “Our residents expect us to be fiscally responsible with their tax dollars. By exploring a City homestead exemption and lowering our current tax rates, I believe we can provide real property tax relief while continuing to serve the core needs of our city.”
Perry and Brockhouse agreed with other members that said it will be up to the State to tackle property tax reform and/or review the property appraisal process – but “we have to start somewhere,” Perry said on the dais.
It’s not about “pro-tax” or “anti-tax,” Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) said. It’s about finding an effective, thoughtful way to find property tax relief.
The City’s tax rate has been reduced seven times over the past two decades.
Brockhouse again challenged the way in which amendments and discussions about the budget take place.
“The process isn’t built for this kind of debate,” he told the Rivard Report. “You get 40 Powerpoint presentations – death by Powerpoint – and at the end there’s debate and they jam it in the day before the vote.”
Also included in the budget was $1 million for the Under 1 Roof program that replaces damaged or aging roofs with white, energy efficient shingles. Combined with $1.25 million from the San Antonio Housing Trust, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, there could be as many as 170 roofs replaced next year.
Homeowners in districts 1 through 5 are eligible and must also fall in one of four categories: over 65, veteran, disabled, and/or meets income limits of 80% or below average median income. The white roofs reflect heat away from homes, lowering temperatures, electricity bills, and the heat island effect experienced in cities.
“We’re not just replacing roofs, but giving these folks who have trouble handling maintenance issues an actual return on their utilities,” told the Rivard Report. Some residents report saving $100 to $150 on their CPS Energy bills. “It could mean the difference between them being able to buy their medicines or groceries. It’s a significant impact.”
Treviño initiated the pilot program in District 1 with just $200,000 in 2016. Since then, the program has funded 48 projects.
UTSA is conducting research on the effects of white roofs. The results are positive.
“We demonstrated that we can allocate the funds and I hope that we can do this as a yearly [budget item],” Treviño said.
CPS Energy also launched its own Cool Roof Rebate for customers that install white roofs.