As City Council approached Thursday’s vote on San Antonio’s $2.9 billion budget for the next fiscal year, council members mulled how to use an additional $4 million in revenue.
Council members submitted 44 additional funding requests over the past month that total more than $100 million. The City has just $6.4 million – $4 million in its general fund and $2.4 million in a capital projects fund – to accommodate additional requests without cutting into City services and projects already proposed in the budget.
On Wednesday, City Manager Erik Walsh proposed directing that money towards housing, health services, food security, and small business assistance to align with the City’s coronavirus response and recovery plan that Council approved in June.
Most Council members supported Walsh’s proposal, but some lobbied their colleagues to put all $4 million toward either housing or health initiatives to address community needs during the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Walsh’s proposal strikes a good balance between those priorities.
“Our community’s most overwhelming needs [that] we’ve been repeating over and over have been housing, public health, food security, and of course getting our small business community back on its feet,” Nirenberg said. “We truly only have the flexibility to direct a very, very small amount of funding for these proposed changes. … The pandemic has pushed too many San Antonians to the brink of an economic cliff.”
Council members’ funding requests included $30,000 to recover birth certificates for homeless people, a nearly $8.5 million proposal to give City employees a 1 percent cost-of-living wage increase, and multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects. Only a few were recommended by Walsh. Click here to see their requests and here to see Walsh’s presentation.
The general fund dollars largely would come from July and August’s payments from the San Antonio Water System, sales tax revenue, and suspending the bonus that new police department cadets receive when hired.
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Walsh recommended directing $2.5 million for the City’s emergency rental assistance program, which would focus on helping foster youth who have aged out of the system and senior citizens; $500,000 for the City’s Healthy Neighborhoods program; $200,000 for a new program aimed at connecting residents to health resources; $300,000 to enhance the Metropolitan Health District’s community programs; $250,000 to reinstate the City’s fee waiver program for small business; and $250,000 for an entrepreneurial grant program that would target Black and Hispanic business owners.
For the $2.4 million left in the City’s capital budget, Walsh recommended $1 million for the San Antonio Food Bank’s new community kitchen, which will provide cooked meals for the community during the pandemic and in future emergencies; $900,000 for the CentroMed Elder Care and Wellness Center; and $500,000 in matched funding to complete Alamo College’s Westside Education and Training Center.
Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1), John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10) said the balance of the general fund should be directed towards the City’s housing assistance program. As proposed, the next phase of funding for that will run out some time in December.
Loosening eligibility for the program and increasing funding “hopefully could help families get through Christmas,” Courage said.
Support for housing should also go beyond monthly payment assistance, Treviño said, who also lobbied for more money for a roof repair program and the birth certificate fund as part of the City’s ID recovery program for homeless people.
Perry, who usually advocates for supporting small businesses, had a different perspective on Wednesday.
“Take all my projects off the list – I want to support our emergency housing fund,” Perry said. “We need to remember where we’re at right now” with the pandemic.
But Councilwomen Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Ana Sandoval (D7) noted that the pandemic is a health crisis first and foremost.
“Health resiliency is as important as all of these other resiliencies that we’re talking about,” Sandoval said.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income families of color because of historic underinvestment in public health, she said. “We don’t have to wait until the future. We can start [addressing that] now.”
Walsh will craft another amendment proposal for Council to consider Thursday morning ahead of its final vote on the budget. Council also will consider changes to its housing assistance program and a 10-year, $100 million plan to protect the Edwards Aquifer.
The proposed budget keeps the property tax rate flat and takes into account nearly $50 million in cuts planned for 2022 as a response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Walsh said. City employees may have to take furlough days in two years if other funding isn’t found or revenue doesn’t improve.
Rather than give them wage increases now, Walsh said, he’d like to start finding money to avoid furloughs.
Council members did not discuss reducing the police department’s budget, which many residents have called for amid renewed attention on police brutality and anti-racism protests. None of the Council’s budget amendments mentioned the police department, although most of the 38 people who signed up to comment about the budget spoke in favor of reallocating policing funding toward housing, health, and other social services.
“I still don’t think we’re doing enough to look at police funding,” Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) said.