Some Council members on Thursday shared the disappointment several Black Lives Matter leaders expressed in the proposed $2.9 billion 2021 City of San Antonio budget.

Under the proposal, funding for police would increase by $8 million to $487 million to cover a 5 percent pay increase for officers.

“I can’t help but feel that this budget is a slap in the face,” local activist Celeste Brown told City Council, noting there is roughly $96 million in the City’s budget for police not controlled by the police union contract that the City could have considered reallocating.

After months of protest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the local Black Lives Matter movement has rallied around defunding – to some degree – the police force and reallocating money to social support programs.

Under the proposed budget, the City would shift $1.3 million from the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) to join a consolidated violence prevention division within the Metropolitan Health District, dedicate three SAPD vacancies to the Office of Innovation, remove overtime payment for police, as well as enhance homelessness outreach and healthy food initiatives.

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) acknowledged the proposal’s efforts to improve those programs, but “one of my budget priorities is associated with policing reform and I don’t see enough of a change here. … I just want to see more done.”

Along with the budget, City Manager Erik Walsh proposed to Council a five-step process to “review foundational issues” within the department, determine the expectations and role of the police department, collect community input, find funding for new mechanisms, and ultimately develop a report – by April – that outlines a new model to achieve public safety that goes beyond police and fire departments. That may or may not result in a reduction in police officers.

“We don’t have that time,” Black Futures Collective founder Marlon Davis told Council, as the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the need for support services more than policing.

Walsh has said he wants to be “deliberate” about how the City approaches police and public safety reform, Davis said, “but there is nothing deliberate about the same business-as-usual approach that exists in San Antonio, the most economically segregated city in the nation.”

The budget woefully underfunds health, housing, and human services, setting up low-income communities of color up for failure, he said. “We set up poor and vulnerable communities that need those underfunded services to be criminalized and brutalized by our police force.”

The City plans to cut $120 million from its budgets over the next two years as a result of the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus.

City Council will review the 2021 budget proposal in depth over the next few weeks and vote on a final budget Sept. 17.

From encounters with homeless people to welfare checks, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said, “the first instinct [people have] is call 911. … That’s how we’ve been trained our entire lives.”

The metric typically used to measure SAPD success has been call response time and not the result of the call, Gonzales said, adding that it’s time to use new metrics.

As part of the public safety review process, which will be led by the Council’s Public Safety Committee, the 2.1 million calls for SAPD last year will be reviewed, Walsh said. That analysis will look for situations where SAPD could have sent another agency to assist – or would have preferred to do so.

“We need to diversify what we call our public safety portfolio so that we get to the root causes [of crime],” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, and that means alternatives to police that don’t “require a uniform or weapon.”

Identifying those alternatives, however, will take time, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

“Real change, if we’re going to do it – more than just lip service – takes time and deliberation and that’s what I’m committed to,” said Nirenberg, who supports Walsh’s review plan.

Decades of inequitable investment in infrastructure and education have resulted in the health and wealth disparities that San Antonio is dealing with today, Nirenberg said.

Gonzales has been lobbying for seven years for more investment in low-income communities, Nirenberg said, and it wasn’t until 2018 that the City started using an “equity lens” to allocate its budget.

People talking about health disparities and police reform are “tired of lip service,” Nirenberg said. “I think it would be a disservice to the change that they’re seeking to do it willy-nilly just to try to check a box.”

Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) suggested that a hiring freeze be placed on SAPD just as all other departments have in the proposed budget. “Are we going to start having those conversations as well?” she asked.

The City anticipates more than 70 SAPD retirements next year, Walsh said. The budgetary decisions to fill those vacancies will be discussed in detail next week, he said.

“At the very least, we need to consider expanding the current hiring freeze to include SAPD,” Sandoval said after the meeting. “It only makes fiscal sense to hold off on hiring new officers while the department’s budget is being evaluated. Our experience with this pandemic as well as the input from our community obligates us to shift more funding from police to underinvested public health and social services.”

Another way the proposed budget seeks to divert armed officers from nonviolent situations is by increasing funding to its homeless outreach teams. After a successful pilot project in District 1, the City will add six full-time and 11 part-time graduate students ($560,000) to establish teams in all 10 districts to connect the estimated 1,274 unsheltered homeless residents to appropriate services.

The outreach team in District 1 has been able to free up SAPD’s time to tackle bigger priorities, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. “Reducing enforce and increasing outreach” has proved successful.

Treviño advocated for more funding for emergency housing assistance, set at $5.25 million in the proposal, and for direct cash assistance for tenants facing eviction.

Several budget public input meetings and hearings are scheduled. Click here to view the City’s budget calendar, which will be updated with event details. The proposed budget is available for download here.

The budget work sessions and public input sessions will be held virtually. Andrews-Sullivan advocated for an in-person option for those who don’t have the technology to participate, but it was unclear if the recent increase in spread of the coronavirus in Bexar County might preclude that.

The use of live calls for the “citizens to be heard,” or public comment, portion of Thursday’s budget discussion initially encountered problems. After Walsh’s hourlong presentation to Council, the residents signed up to speak could not be heard. After a few minutes, the technical difficulties were resolved.

The City’s new eComment platform received about 250 written comments on Thursday’s agenda that are now part of the public record.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) took issue with residents who said the proposed budget is a reflection of the City and Council not listening to the calls for police reform.

“I hear you,” Pelaez said. “I just vehemently disagree with you.”

The residents in his district don’t want to see a single officer taken off their streets, he said, adding that, in most cases, they’re asking for more.

If the City is looking for money to spend on social services and assistance during this economic crisis, Pelaez suggested that the City look to arts and culture funding.

“They’re going to sound like i’m questioning the unquestionable,” he said, but given the economic strain on the community “I’m going to have a really difficult time explaining to my constituents why we’re funding the Cactus Pear Music Festival or Sociedad Herencia Puertorriqueña or Esperanza Peace and Justice [Center] … that quite honestly don’t make sense during a time of crisis.”

He also called out funding for local ballet and opera companies as well as Sister Cities International.

The nearly $9 million arts and culture budget includes $5.5 million to various organizations. The department will receive $4 million less this year due to reduced hotel occupancy taxes and its contracts with organizations were suspended in April.

Those organizations are employers who have employees that are struggling, too, Treviño said.

“This is a culturally rich city and [artists] need a lot of support,” Treviño said. “Every day there are letters from artists talking about how they are struggling to simply stay alive.”

Council seemed unanimous in their support of Walsh’s proposal to include Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., as a City-observed holiday. June 19 would replace Dec. 30 as a City holiday under his proposal.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org