Several big-ticket projects on the $116 million Parks, Recreation, and Open Space bond package were on the chopping block Monday evening as bond committee members announced their funding – and de-funding – proposals for the first time. The three-hour meeting highlighted the tension between inner city and suburban advocates, who clashed over park funding for larger “citywide” projects.
Committee members voted 22-7 to take $2 million from the Hardberger Park land bridge in District 8, which was recommended by City staff to receive $7.5 million from the parks bond and another $7.5 million from streets, and allocate that sum directly to McAllister Park in District 10.
Other proposals from districts 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 would take millions more from Hardberger Park, Hemisfair’s Civic Park, Classen-Steubing Ranch, and at least $1 million from San Antonio Botanical Garden and redistribute that funding to other projects. These proposals will be voted on during the committee’s next meeting on Monday, Dec. 5. Ultimately, it will be City Council in January who makes final decisions on what the $850 million bond package will look like when it comes before voters in May 2017.
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Committee members will tour Hemisfair, Hardberger, McAllister, Brackenridge, Lockwood/Dignowity, OP Schnabel, San Pedro Creek, and, time allowing, the Old Spanish Trail parks on Saturday, Dec. 3.
“When we first started this, we were challenged to think outside our districts … not so much about what is right in our backyard, but what is the best for our city,” said committee Co-Chair Luisa Casso. “That’s why there are regional planning projects, that’s why we have the vision of SA Tomorrow.”
The conversation Monday night quickly turned into an argument over the perceived “needs” of low-income neighborhoods struggling to win funding for smaller neighborhood parks versus funding for the city’s largest and most used parks that aim to draw large, diverse crowds and have a citywide economic impact.
The same dialogue has been heard across San Antonio and in other bond committee meetings, as the City looks to balance delivery of basic services and support catalytic projects that will make the city competitive in global economic and workforce markets.
The meeting got off to an anxious start when Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capitol Improvements department, presented a proposal from the District 8 delegation: move $2 million from the Hardberger Park land bridge to McAllister Park – with the stipulation that no other money could be taken from the bridge.
It was proposed “in the spirit of cooperation and compromise,” said District 8 committee member Doug McMurry, an executive with the San Antonio Chapter of the Associated General Contractors.
The proposed stipulation, however, did not sit well with others.
“If this is going forward this way, then we don’t need a committee,” said Charles English, founder and president of the Jefferson Heights Neighborhood Association who represents District 2 on the committee. He accused the City of conducting “back room” deals.
Frisbie explained that City staff was simply putting forward a suggested compromise. A similar process took place in October when, after talking to the committee, staff presented a proposal that separated Capitol Little League from McAllister Park.
That proposal received unanimous approval, Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard pointed out. League officials, volunteers, and City staff are still trying to find a 25-30 acre plot of land for the nonprofit somewhere in District 10. The $2 million will be used to expand the dog park and install trail improvements and signage, new pavilions, and lighting in McAllister Park.
“I understand your spirit,” said Dillard, turning to respond to English, “but the accusations of corruption and all this is not productive.”
English said Dillard’s comments were “out of order.”
This exchange was one of many that demonstrated the sensitivity surrounding competition for park funding. As district representatives presented their cases, those with large parks in their programs held their proverbial breath to hear if their colleagues wanted to cut their budget for their own projects.
Each Council member appointed three committee members. Co-chairs were selected by Mayor Ivy Taylor. The 30-member committee was cumbersome at times, with some complaining that the standard Robert’s Rules of Order were not properly followed and votes were inaccurately counted, resulting in several motions, substitutions, and amendments.
“I don’t know what is going to be gained going district by district,” said District 10 committee member Ken Brown, a well-connected land use attorney. He questioned the point of holding off on voting on each district’s proposals until the next meeting. “Everyone is going to want to keep their (projects) and want something else.”
Brown made a motion to completely de-fund the Hardberger Park land bridge and redistribute the money to districts that have more basic needs. At the latest Streets, Bridges, and Sidewalks Bond Committee meeting, the other $7.5 million proposed for the land bridge also was challenged by citizens.
“I don’t want to take all the money from Hardberger Park,” said Phoebe Gonzalez, a District 5 committee member. “I really do think this bridge is really cool. I just think that money could be better distributed.”
Children shouldn’t have to go to Hardberger Park to learn about ecology and exercise, Gonzalez said. “They want greatness in their area as well.”
Such proposals, Casso reminded her colleagues, may skew the “rough proportionality” of funding amid districts. The entire bond package – which is divvied up into five committees – is supposed to achieve balance. If one district has more needs for facilities or street repairs, then it may see less funding in parks and drainage. It is also weighed against funds that districts receive through the City budget.
Frisbie and City staff will make presentations next month outlining the impact that each proposal would have and whether it would cripple or kill various other park projects.
Losing this funding would put the land bridge, which is part of the City Council-approved Hardberger Park Master Plan, at risk, said District 8 committee member Chuck Saxer. He added that about $10 million is on the table from private donors raised through the park’s conservancy, who figured they could “build the bridge with a little less money. … (But) that goes out the window if the bond program (funding) does not go through.”
Saxer is vice president of the Hardberger Park Conservancy.
The land bridge represents an opportunity to “unify” the two sides of the more than 300-acre Hardberger Park that is bisected by Wurzbach Parkway. Wildlife and pedestrians alike would be able to cross the busy thoroughfare without stepping on pavement, or returning to their vehicles to drive from one half of the park to the other.
Hemisfair Park funding also was targeted by some, even after City staff cut in half the sum originally sought for the continuing project. If all the proposals were to be approved as suggested on Monday, Hemisfair funding would be reduced from its original $40 million down to $13 million – $8 million less than the City staff’s proposed $21 million. An additional $5 million is proposed for the reintroduction of internal surface streets within the park.
“We found that the private instrument to finance the portion ($21 million) was cut,” Hemisfair CEO Andrés Andujar said after the meeting. “It is urgent that proper funding be put in place to execute the one great urban park that the city and community is demanding.”
Eventually the economic environment created downtown and around the Hemisfair district will generate $13 million per year in local taxes, Andujar said. A report released earlier this year estimated the 10-year impact of construction will generate $880 million of “new economic activity.”
“It’s an investment that will be paid back in two years,”Andujar said. “There’s no leverage like that on any other project I can think of.”
The first three meetings for each of the five bond committees included time for citizens to address the committees. The last two meetings are reserved for committee discussion and action, but remain open to the public.
Committee Co-chair Brian Dillard encouraged committee members to talk to each other to work on funding proposals and find out more about projects outside of their own districts.
“If you rolled your eyes at someone across the table tonight, shoot them an email,” Dillard said.