Now that the dust has settled after three months of citizen committee meetings, it’s City Council’s turn to finalize the list of 170 projects included in the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond, the largest in the city’s history.

If approved by voters on May 6, neighborhoods across the city will receive badly needed infrastructure upgrades and new construction. But a fully funded bond also would bring historic investment into citywide projects – about 50 – aimed at improving major thoroughfares, neighborhood streets and sidewalks, enhancing parks and green spaces, and investing in the city’s World Heritage sites at the Alamo and the four Spanish-colonial Missions.

The City’s third consecutive five-year cycle of major capital investment via a bond under City Manager Sheryl Sculley is intended to be both transformative in terms of the cityscape and its attractions, and back to basics in its investment in streets, sidewalks, drainage and flood control, parks, libraries, and other essential infrastructure.

City Council members will sit down together for the first time Wednesday at 2 p.m. to review the lists produced by five separate citizen bond committees, a process that was completed last month. Next Thursday, Jan. 19, they’ll have the opportunity to make adjustments and vote on the program.

The citizen committee work was carried out under the guidance and leadership of three co-chairs appointed by Mayor Ivy Taylor in July. SA Tomorrow Tri-Chair Darryl Byrd, marketing and communications specialist and SAISD Foundation Co-Founder Carri Baker, and IBC Bank Senior Vice President Eddie Aldrete will lead the formulation of the proposed project list by coordinating the efforts of five bond committees.

A full list of the bond committees’ recommendations can be downloaded here. Sculley said in an interview that she does not expect the project list to change much between now and Feb. 9, Council’s official deadline to call for the election and set the ballot language.

“It strikes a great balance,” Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, told the Rivard Report of the 2017 bond program, which will be his third to oversee. There certainly are more needs than dollars, Frisbie said, noting that while various projects did not make the list, the bond will meet a “tremendous amount of infrastructure needs throughout the city.”

Frisbie’s department is responsible for monitoring each project from start to completion. About 3% of the total bond, $25.5 million, will be paid back into various City departments for administration and oversight costs. City staff and the private contractors they oversee will have five years to complete 170 projects. Frisbie is confident that the long list of projects can be completed before the next bond cycle begins in 2022.

That confidence rests on the success of the $596 million 2012 bond, which is set for completion this year on time and on budget. The $550 million 2007 program was on time and under budget after construction costs plummeted during the 2008 recession.

“Getting voter approval (in 2007) was a big deal,” Frisbie said, because previous bond programs paled in comparison.

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Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Bond programs, however, were not always that transformative in San Antonio.

The 2003 bond was a mere $115 million; in 1999 it was 104.2 million; and in 1994 it was $109.7 million. Those bonds consisted of smaller projects that were divided evenly – and some would say, arbitrarily – among the City’s 10 districts. That approach, while politically advantageous to elected officials serving single-member districts, precluded citywide projects such as Hemisfair Civic Park and internal streets ($26 million total), the Broadway Corridor ($43 million), and Hardberger Park land bridge ($13 million), all part of the 2017 bond.

Click here to download a list of the 50 projects referred to as “citywide.”

Voters approved each of the five bond propositions on the ballot in 2007 by more than 68%. The 2012 bond passed with more than 60% approval.

“Now the key is ensuring success … (we’ve shown) we can perform at five times the level of some of the previous bond programs,” Frisbie said.

Director of Capital Improvements for the City Mike Frisbie discusses individual park plans with bond committee members. Photo by Scott Ball.
Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie discusses plans for each park on the bond list with committee members during a meeting in October. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

If all six portions of the bond win voter approval in May, San Antonio will have approved more than $2 billion in capital projects since 2007, compared to $328.9 million in the prior decade.

It’s no coincidence that Sculley was hired in 2004 as the City looked to compose its next bond. Former Mayor Phil Hardberger and City Council were looking for a more aggressive, citywide investment strategy. Sculley’s experience as deputy city manager in Phoenix and with $2.5 billion in bond programs was part of the reason Hardberger recruited her.

“I was hired to do things differently,” Sculley said.

By using the concept of rough proportionality, the City is able to consider projects and allocate funds where and when they are needed most. If one district has more needs for facilities or street repairs, then it may see less funding in parks and drainage. The rough proportionality of the bond is also weighed against funds that districts receive through the City budget.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley discusses the key factors in the 2017-2022 bond. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley discusses the priorities set by City Council and SA Tomorrow for the 2017-2022 bond during a meeting in October. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We’ve got a well-organized machine in place,” Sculley said, noting that the City of Austin will take about eight years to complete projects on its $720 million Mobility Bond approved in November 2016.

Another major change in the past decade is the level of public and private participation in the bond process, Frisbie said.

The citizen committee process – 25 total meetings among the five committees – brought 1,400 people to the table, not including the 160 citizens who served without compensation as committee members. About 350 citizens signed up to speak at the public meetings held at the Central Library on a near-weekly basis over a three-month span, Frisbie said.

“We got a lot of good input. We were able to identify a lot of (smaller) projects that we are now considering as part of the annual budget process,” he added.

The City estimates that 28 projects in the bond are leveraged with other agencies – public and private. “There’s about $350-$400 million of other people’s money,” Frisbie said. “We like that … it makes our money go further.”

Click here to track online the progress of the 2012 bond as it nears completion, and future bond projects.

The May 6, 2017, General and Bond Election 

Voters have a lot to consider on the May ballot, with at least two candidates to challenging Mayor Taylor’s re-election bid, vacant seats in four of the 10 council districts, and a contested race in at least one district.

There will likely be six bond propositions on the ballot that will spin directly off the five bond categories, each one requiring  a separate vote : Streets, Bridges and Sidewalks ($450 million), Drainage and Flood Control ($144 million), Parks and Recreation ($116 million), Facilities ($120 million), and Neighborhood Improvements ($20 million) – the latter of which is often referred to as the Affordable Housing bond.

According to state rules, “facilities” is insufficient ballot language, so those facilities will likely be divvied into two propositions: Library/Museum/Cultural Arts for one, and another for Public Safety.

It’s thus possible that only a portion of the bond will be approved. Civic and business leaders, while building on public confidence demonstrated in the last two bond cycles, are taking no chances. Sources say prominent political consultant Christian Archer, who has a nearly perfect record managing city elections, has been contracted to manage the bond campaign. The campaign budget is expected to exceed $500,000 if sufficient private sector contributions can be raised. Campaign kickoff events around the city are being planned to follow City Council’s anticipated approval of the bond.

In a phone interview with the Rivard Report, Archer would not confirm that he had been hired.

“The campaign hasn’t kicked off,” he said. “There’s no official campaign as we’re waiting for Council to finalize all the programs.”

Some City Hall observers believe the City’s first-ever housing bond is most at risk for voter disapproval because voters may be uncertain about how the money will be allocated and spent. The Neighborhood Improvement bond would fund projects that prepare selected areas around the city for affordable housing. The City Charter prohibits direct funding of affordable housing projects, but the City can facilitate construction through another public, private, or nonprofit entity.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Because the City has maintained stronger-than-average financial practices and invested in strategic growth and infrastructure, it routinely receives Triple-A bond ratings from all three major bond raters. That means San Antonio is able to borrow money for less.

The $850 million bond will become general obligation bond debt. The City has borrowed approximately 15% of its tax ceiling of $10.5 billion, according to City staff.

Read more about the 2017 bond process in our archive here.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org