This article has been updated.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg says San Antonio’s economy is on the mend from COVID-19, but its residents are still reeling from a “traumatic” pandemic that hit the nation’s most-impoverished major city particularly hard.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates that as of January 2022, the San Antonio metro area has already recovered 99.5% of the jobs it lost during March and April of 2020. 

“But here is the hard truth,” Nirenberg said Tuesday in his annual United State of the City speech before business and community leaders. “… Even with a robust economy before the pandemic, some 60,000 families a week were relying on the San Antonio Food Bank to keep food on the table.”

The speech marked the first event held at the new Tech Port Center and Arena at Port San Antonio and was hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce and San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside.

Nirenberg’s comments about poverty and hunger came as the latest Bexar Facts/San Antonio Report poll shows Bexar County residents increasingly are worried about inflation and the cost of living. Notably, 78% of respondents said the rising cost of food was an extremely or very serious problem.

Nirenberg, who has led the city since 2017, enjoyed a 61% approval rating in the Bexar Facts poll. That’s down 6 percentage points from September of 2021, but much higher than other leaders.

“The pandemic forced our community to reassess the landscape by highlighting the cracks in our economic foundation,” Nirenberg said. 

“Our economy has rebounded nicely, but food bank usage remains 50% higher than the pre-pandemic level even as our unemployment has dropped below 4%.”

Nirenberg butted heads with other Texas leaders over his approach to COVID-19 safety protocols, pushing to enforce an indoor mask mandate that Gov. Greg Abbott sought to stop. 

Introducing the mayor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, praised Nirenberg for “warding off” Abbott and other “conspiracy theorists.”

“You don’t know who you are until you’ve been tested,” said Wolff. “Mayor Ron Nirenberg found out who he was, and so did everyone else when he stood up to enormous political pressure during the two-year COVID crisis.”

In his speech, Nirenberg praised the city’s willingness to fund major projects aimed at improving transportation, early childhood education and workforce training, in spite of continued economic hardship. 

“Even during the pandemic, our city’s voters have shown their commitment to investing in our community by approving an additional funding stream for VIA Metropolitan Transit in perpetuity, the workforce development program and reauthorizing funding for Pre-K 4 SA,” said Nirenberg.

Next month Bexar County leaders will again ask residents to approve money for major projects.

Voters will decide May 7 whether to approve a $1.2 billion bond for drainage projects, street repairs, parks and libraries. For the first time in the city’s history, one of the proposals will seek $150 million to build and repair affordable housing. 

Nirenberg said the city provided more than $200 million in emergency housing assistance to help people stay in their homes throughout the pandemic. “But the housing affordability challenge existed before COVID and will outlast the pandemic,” he said. 

Nirenberg pointed to Proposition F in the May 7 election, the housing component of the bond, as “an unprecedented investment” in affordable housing. 

Critics of the size of the May 7 bond point to recent economic hardships, in particular rising property tax bills, as a reason not to give the city permission to borrow more money. 

Nirenberg acknowledged those concerns Tuesday, while seeking to separate the issue from the bond, which won’t change the percentage of the operating budget that’s dedicated to paying off old and new debt.

“While this is another conversation — let me assure everyone — property tax relief is coming,” said Nirenberg. “City staff is already poring over the numbers, and City Council will consider proposals for moving forward with tax relief this fall.”

City officials won’t have a sense of how much relief they can offer homeowners until property valuations are finalized later this summer. But based on early projections, they say a rate reduction looks inevitable, as well as possible increases to exemptions that already exist for the elderly, disabled or those who claim their house as a homestead. 

The council will meet in May to discuss the budget for the coming fiscal year, and begin looking at its options.  

Tesla coils at Tech Port Center & Arena fire off following the State of the City address from Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Tesla coils at Tech Port Center and Arena fire following the State of the City address from Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“At the local government level here in Texas, we have limited tools [for lowering property taxes]… so we’re going to use the tools that we have,” Nirenberg told reporters after the event. 

“It’s going to be a combination of both [lowering the tax rate and increasing exemptions] in all likelihood, and we’re gonna use those exemptions to try to target the relief as best we can,” he added.

Nirenberg also used the address to tout his legacy project as mayor: a $200 million workforce development program that aims to move residents into higher-paying jobs through education and training partnerships with businesses. 

Though the program is still in its infancy, Nirenberg said he and the city’s executive director of workforce development, Michael Ramsey, have already been invited to talk about it at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Reno, Nevada, in June.

“Ready to Work is already being viewed as a national model and has attracted attention from the U.S. Labor and Commerce Departments,” said Nirenberg. “Moody’s bond rating agency has listed as a positive for the city’s credit rating.”

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.