The so-called “war on cities” that Gov. Greg Abbott is waging in the Texas Legislature won’t stop San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg from working with the new City Council on policies that strengthen the quality of life for residents and economic stability of the city, he said Tuesday.
“Just like equity, progress is a good word … it’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat. It’s all about progress,” Nirenberg told a packed house at the Pearl Stable during a conversation hosted by the Rivard Report and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Emboldened by the clear mandate from voters when he defeated incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in June, Nirenberg delivered a concise list of priorities and commitments.
In addition to continuing the fight against state legislation aimed at undermining local control, he promised to allocate more City dollars to mass transit, to develop a comprehensive housing policy, and “if the voters will have me, I will be here [as mayor] for eight years … we have a very aggressive agenda – It will outlast me if we do it right.”
A proposal by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) to give VIA Metropolitan Transit a funding boost of up to $10 million annually was shot down by the previous Council last year, but Nirenberg vowed to “get that done in this year’s budget.”
A comprehensive, affordable transportation network for San Antonio was one of Nirenberg’s campaign platforms, and he plans on delivering. Such transportation services – even increasing the frequency and reliability of existing VIA routes and buses – can help break through “cycles of poverty,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as improving a bus route.”
The infrastructure maintenance program (IMP), for instance, is typically allocated per district by dividing funds equally between them, Nirenberg said. He wants to see a budget that “allows us to look at our city in a different way.” In other words, when every area of San Antonio invests in others, the entire city benefits.
This idea of using an “equity lens” to fund and apply public services is a theme that is bound to emerge again and again when City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff present the proposed budget to Council this Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Council will hear an update from the Diversity and Inclusion Office on the Equity Initiative pilot program and its “three-year strategy as a core operating principle across the City organization.”
Nirenberg told reporters after the luncheon that the concept of the “equity lens” will be articulated by Chief Equity Officer Kiran Kaur Bains during the meeting that starts at 2 p.m. in the Municipal Plaza building and is livestreamed here.
“[This] is a sparkling moment in time we’ve reached in the fact that City Council is clearly articulating the need to budget on restoring equity in our communities,” Nirenberg said. “That will influence just about everything that we’re doing, and it’s not at the expense of other parts of our city. We will continue to accommodate and strengthen infrastructure as we grow, but we’re also going to make sure that we reinvest in communities that have been handed the short end of the stick for far too long.”
The same approach will be used for re-establishing the City’s housing policy, Nirenberg told the audience earlier.
About 142,000 affordable housing units are needed to fill the housing gap, Nirenberg said, and “we’re not seeing the growth of sustainable, affordable housing units in San Antonio because the private sector is doing something else.” In other words, they are committing to more profitable projects, which are typically on the outskirts of town where land is cheaper and City infrastructure is readily built to accommodate development.
He said incentives need to be in place to attract private investment in affordable housing while keeping the “equity lens” in mind to avoid gentrification.
“We should [be] conscious enough to reinvest in those community without forcing them out of their homes,” Nirenberg said. “We’re going to get this done. I promise.”
When it comes to the term lengths currently being considered by the Charter Review Commission, Nirenberg is in favor of longer terms that could help take politics out of “actually doing good work.”
Instead of four two-year terms, Council could approve an amendment to the City Charter that calls for two four-year terms. But the deadline to consider and place such items on the November ballot was too tight for comfort, Nirenberg said.
“I told everybody to take a deep breath. [There is] no reason to rush it on the ballot this year,” he said.
Also of note: Nirenberg is in favor of moving City elections to coincide with state and national elections in November, but opposed to paying City Council members more than what they are currently paid – less than a first-year teacher’s salary.
“You really have to want to do this job,” Nirenberg said, noting that many Council members have sacrificed high-paying positions to serve the public.
The mayor also outlined a number of bills being considered during the Texas Legislature’s special session that strip policy control from cities, including those regarding property taxes and annexation. Nirenberg discussed his firm opposition to such legislation directly with Gov. Abbott on Monday, but the conversation seemed to yield little common ground or compromise.
The governor gave Nirenberg a 5-10 minute overview of his vision for education finance reform, he said, but the mayor noted that the education conversation should happen in a more public forum, outside Abbott’s office.
“Instead we’re talking about this revenue cap and [how] cities are to blame,” Nirenberg said.
When Nirenberg called recent rhetoric and certain bills, which Abbott supports, “anti-city vitriol,” Nirenberg said the governor gave him, “I think a smile and a nod.”
The Legislature is considering two bills that would decrease the rate at which local governments can raise property taxes and require voter approval if the City wanted to exceed those rates.
Republican supporters, including Abbott, say the proposed measures will allow homeowners to keep up with growing property taxes, but opponents say it will provide only minor relief to residents while impairing cities’ ability to provide public services.
The so-called “bathroom bill,” which would prevent transgendered people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, is “discriminatory” and threatens to severely damage San Antonio and Texas’ economy, Nirenberg said.
Nirenberg has joined countless elected officials, community and business leaders, Democrats, Republicans, and others in protest of the proposed bill currently being considered by legislators in Austin.
As the “war on cities” continues, as event moderator and Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard dubbed the special session, Nirenberg has found enemies and allies. None as noteworthy as House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) who has challenged much of Abbott’s agenda.
“Thank God for Joe Straus,” Nirenberg said Tuesday, and the audience erupted with applause.