Ahead of a June 21 goal-setting session for the next budget, San Antonio’s City Council spent time Thursday studying potential budget proposals from the police and fire departments.

In the coming weeks, the police and fire departments and other City departments will formally unveil detailed proposed budgets for fiscal year 2020. The City must adopt a total general fund, or daily operations, budget for the next fiscal year by Sept. 30. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

San Antonio Police Department looks to propose creating 32 new positions. This includes 15 patrol officers citywide, as well as 10 officers and one sergeant to cover newly designated neighborhood nightlife corridors of North St. Mary’s Street, the Pearl, North Main Avenue, and Southtown. SAPD’s staffing proposal also would involve six additional supervisory positions with the Crisis Response Team, which focuses on domestic violence.

Police Chief William McManus expressed confidence in the current staffing levels in his department, which has a $492.3 million budget for fiscal year 2019. The current fiscal year has seen a 13 percent increase in filled positions since 2015. The SAPD currently has 58 vacancies, and a total of 2,274 sworn filled positions.

McManus said double-digit decreases in homicides compared to this time last year and increases in gang members arrested over 2018 demonstrate the efficacy of the Violent Crimes Task Force.

“I’m pleasantly surprised to see numbers continue to stay up because officers continue to outdo themselves with their workload,” McManus added.

“The numbers are pretty incredible regarding the effectiveness of the [police] department,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

The San Antonio Fire Department proposed adding two more ladder companies over the next two fiscal years and adding an EMS unit in fiscal year 2023. One new ladder company and one new EMS unit each were deployed in fiscal year 2018.

Come July, the fire department will be operating 54 fire stations citywide. The department has 1,762 uniformed employees, 122 civilian employees, and a $328.8 million total budget.

Councilman Rebecca Viagran (D3) asked SAPD for more information on what goes into the police department’s general fund budget. She also asked the public safety departments for figures on how extended sick-leave situations affect staffing in areas she feels might be underserved.

“In the East [substation] in District 3, it’s not being filled with [San Antonio Fear Free Environment] officers like it should be,” Viagran said. “We’re not having the SAFFE officers that we need in our community, and it’s because they’re taking leave because of their injuries or workers’ compensation.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) expressed concern that SAFD plans to wait a few more years before expanding its number of EMS units, given the rising number of medical-related service calls that the fire department is answering.

“I still think we need to increase our EMS units to take some of the pressure off those big [fire] trucks going down the road that causes wear and tear not only on trucks, but on our streets,” he said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) urged the City to keep in mind it and the firefighters union have yet to agree on a new contract, which would affect upcoming fiscal year budgets for police and fire personnel. He added that challenge could be compounded by newly adopted State legislation that eliminated a fee that Cities had been charging telecom companies for right-of-way access.

“If we can save money and still enable the police to do its job, then I think we need to look closely at that,” he said.

Viagran and Councilwomen Ana Sandoval (D7) and Shirley Gonzales (D5) said they would like for the police department’s budget to detail how domestic violence is being addressed.

McManus said he and his colleagues would be talking further with interim Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger, San Antonio Metro Health, and advocacy groups on how SAPD can better respond to domestic violence.

Bridger briefed the Council on the City’s intent to form a framework by which it works with dedicated agencies and organizations to better serve victims of domestic violence and to look holistically at the risk factors that drive it.

Bridger said this effort would include a comprehensive domestic violence plan involving the South Texas Trauma-Informed Care Consortium, early intervention programs, and implementation of a mental health urgent-care clinic to help those affected by such violence.

Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger
Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“That’s very innovative. I’m sure we’ll be one of the first [cities] to do this,” Nirenberg said.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston briefed the Council on a proposal to raise the budget for the City’s affordable housing program from the current $26.1 million to $38.1 million in fiscal year 2020.

Increased funding, Houston said, would help to cover gap financing to help support new affordable housing, owner-occupied rehabilitation, homebuyer help, risk mitigation for current homeowners, and the Under 1 Roof assistance program.

The latter helps eligible homeowners lower their energy usage by replacing aging roofs with new ones made of energy-efficient materials.

In the next fiscal year, the City would like to see an increase in plans for new rental units for people making 50 percent of area median income (AMI) and for homes for people earning 80 percent of AMI, according to Houston.

These and other priorities are based on the elements of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force framework.

“I’m glad to see this plan continue to move forward at full speed,” Nirenberg said.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.