Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speaks at Bexar County Commissioners Court on Oct. 16. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Bexar County Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved reallocating federal coronavirus funding ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline and its proposed legislative agenda, which highlighted the courts and criminal justice system for the 2021 state legislative session in Austin.

However, Bexar County’s Director of Governmental Affairs Melissa Shannon noted that while the County has several issues to address, getting many of them completed during the legislative session could be difficult with the coronavirus pandemic still front of mind.

“A lot of big things to discuss this session,” Shannon said. “Of course, COVID is top of a lot of people’s minds right now. I foresee it will be just like Hurricane Harvey was, where they were a lot of clean up bills.”

The Texas Legislature also will tackle redistricting, school finance, elections, and health care this session, Shannon said.

“Health care will be a huge one,” she predicted. “[Attorney General] Ken Paxton is actually at the U.S. Supreme Court today trying to get the Affordable Care Act repealed so health care will be a big issue, I believe.”

One of the items that Bexar County has unsuccessfully pursued in past sessions and plans to revisit in 2021 will be asking voters to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation projects. “Fee bills” are usually unpopular, Shannon said, so she plans to emphasize that any fee increases would go to the voters first.

“I think it’s going to be a tough session with everything else going on, but I think this is something we need to pursue,” she said. 

Though people might be even more reticent to entertain the idea of higher fees in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) lent some optimism to the vehicle registration issue.

“We know we’re going to need additional dollars for mobility. The community seems to support that,” he said in reference to the recent passage of a VIA Metropolitan sales tax ballot proposition.

Included in the list of policy priorities that the County will take to state legislators is defining which low-level and nonviolent offenses would qualify for cite and release, allowing probate courts to convene virtually through platforms such as Zoom, and amending the types of conduct that mandate student expulsion in an effort to curb the school-to-prison pipeline.

Rodriguez noted that highlighting the public health needs being addressed with each legislative item would be a pragmatic way to approach the items Bexar County is prioritizing.

“That’s something we need to weave into our legislative agenda,” Rodriguez said. “You’re always thinking of how to best protect your community and enhance their quality of life.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also thought health care should take priority this legislative season and directed Shannon to add a line that showed the commissioners’ support to expand Medicaid in Texas. Wolff acknowledged the unlikeliness of that result in the Republican-held state House and Senate but said it was one of his top priorities.

“We had a lot of people die unnecessarily because they didn’t have proper care,” Wolff said. 

Overall, Wolff said he was pleased to see criminal justice issues on the County’s legislative agenda. Shannon included pretrial justice reform and law enforcement reform on the list of policy positions that commissioners court will support in the upcoming legislative session. She also explained that at the public school level, the zero-tolerance policy, which often pushes kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, applied to teens vaping THC on school property.

“The kids were automatically expelled, then we would have to take them into the juvenile justice system and it was quite costly,” she said.

With Bexar County needing to spend the $79 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars before the end of the calendar year, county commissioners also voted to add $1 million from the funding to the restaurant and bar relief grant program established in October, bringing the total funding available to just under $5 million. Restaurants and bars were hit particularly hard in San Antonio as efforts to stem the spread of the virus closed bars and limited capacity in restaurants to the point where many establishments have been forced to close. More than 400 restaurants and bars applied for funding from the grant program, totaling $22.9 million in requests. 

Commissioners also reshuffled the remaining federal coronavirus funding to allocate nearly $100,000 more to the small business grant program administered by San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE). More than 280 businesses requested $2.7 million in total; there had previously been $225,000 allocated for grants.

“The need is big, so we were glad to put anything we can,” said David Marquez, executive director of the Bexar County Economic Development Department. The County has put more than $13 million into grants for small businesses.

Marquez said staff also would reassess $2.9 million in federal coronavirus funding that was earmarked for elections, as the Elections Department was able to draw from other resources for their expenses.

“Having the dollars was important,” Marquez said. “Let’s call it a contingency fund. Now the election is behind us, we can look at invoices and bills they had to incur for running the election and to the extent they need funds … There’s $2.9 million available. To the extent that they don’t need it or some portion of it, we’ll allocate that potentially in those small businesses or other areas.”

County commissioners also approved an agreement between Spurs Give and the County Tuesday to provide $100,000 for mental health services through the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative. The money also would support parent education, therapeutic services, and targeted case management through local nonprofit Chosen. The organizations had previously received $135,000 and $100,000 respectively from Spurs Give and Bexar County. 

Another $100,000 will go to the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio to provide virtual learning support to more than 400 children to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.