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San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh will present a $2.9 billion 2021 budget proposal to City Council on Thursday that would increase spending for its police force by $8 million.
That piece of the proposal will likely not be popular with the hundreds of activists who have called for reallocation of police funding toward economic and mental health safety net programs.
Many local Black Lives Matter advocates have called for varying degrees of budget cuts to the police department. Several cities across the U.S. have done so in response to the movement.
“Some [cities] are taking a more deliberate approach and some are not,” Walsh said, and he wants San Antonio to be deliberate.
Thursday’s meeting will be the first Council A Session that will not be held in person, and Walsh will present the budget proposal remotely. Since the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold in March, the Council has seen more members participating in meetings remotely. City officials decided during July, as Bexar County endured a surge of coronavirus cases, to conduct the entire meeting online.
The practice will continue indefinitely, a City spokeswoman said. Meetings can be viewed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language on SanAntonio.gov/TVSA and the City’s Facebook page, or heard by dialing 210-207-5555. Residents can provide public input on local issues by using the City’s new eComment platform.
City Council will review the budget proposal in depth over the next few weeks and vote on a final budget Sept. 17. Several public input meetings and hearings are scheduled. Click here to view the City’s budget calendar, which will be updated with event details. The proposed budget can be viewed here.
More analysis and public input is needed before the City shifts police funding toward other initiatives, Walsh said.
His proposal is for the Council’s Public Safety Committee to lead the development of a report that can guide those spending priorities in future budgets – but not for 2021.
“There are obviously foundational issues that need to be dealt with [in the police department],” Walsh told reporters Wednesday. “I think if we’re going to change what the police department does or the role of the police department, [we need to] go through that discussion about what encounters do we want them to be in and how do people feel about it.”
During Council’s budget session in June, Police Chief William McManus said sworn and armed officers might not be needed to respond to every emergency call, such as those relating to mental health and homeless individuals.
The City’s fiscal year 2020 budget included $479 million for police. The proposed 2021 budget includes $487 million. Most of the increase comes from a mandatory 5 percent pay increase in the police union’s contract with the City.
“Nearly all of the increase in the SAPD [budget] is contractually-obligated or state law-required,” Walsh said. “We’ve made reductions in areas that we control, and we’ve made investments in the areas that the community has asked for: healthcare, housing and education.”
The City is not budgeting any overtime for officers, as it has eliminated vacancies in the department – a longstanding goal of City Council. It plans to use some of the money it saves on overtime to cover its share ($1.6 million) of a $3.1 million federal grant program that will bring 25 police officers onto the force who would focus specifically on domestic violence prevention and intervention.
The City is moving about $1.3 million from the police department to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District budget, but the function and operation of the violence prevention programs will not change, Walsh said. Violence prevention will, however, now be a consolidated division under Metro Health.
The City’s contribution to the health department’s budget – put under considerable stress during the coronavirus pandemic – will increase by 23 percent, about $3.6 million, under the proposal. But about two-thirds of the health department’s $42 million annual budget comes from federal and state grants, which are largely restricted to specific uses.
“This is probably the most challenging municipal budget environment in the history of municipal budgets,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “But the work that we’ve been doing to manage the financial crisis that started back in February and March has paid off.”
The budget balances the need to deliver on services that residents expect, Nirenberg said, “and that they’re delivered in a more equitable manner for our community.”
While the City’s overall budget remains relatively flat, the City’s estimated revenue loss from sales tax, hotel occupancy tax, and other services fees is projected to be $127 million. Next year’s budget is just $7.7 million lower than the 2020 budget, which also was $2.9 billion but suffered a $200 million shortfall.
An earlier trial budget estimated a loss of $109 million. Those losses – attributed to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic – are largely covered by the increase of property valuation and property tax base. Walsh is not proposing a property tax rate increase for 2021.
“Some of our financial conditions have improved over the summer, some have gotten worse,” Walsh told reporters Wednesday. “The proposed budget makes some strategic investments in areas such as violence prevention, mental health, homelessness, housing, and education.”
Walsh and the budget team used two “guideposts” in crafting the budget, he said: avoid laying off employees and maintain funding for community services.
After the City furloughed 270 employees in April, most have since returned save for a few who retired, city officials said.
“It was really important to me to make sure that we preserve the funding in the budget for senior services, libraries, parks and [recreation] programs, youth services, [and] delegate agencies,” he said. Delegate agencies are nonprofits that provide community safety net services such as domestic violence and homelessness prevention. “Although we’re still not providing the same level of [services] at a number of these sites, I didn’t want to take the approach of cutting those areas and making the assumption that we won’t resume some level of normalcy [next year].”
Before the pandemic, the City maintained a $1 million emergency housing assistance fund that has grown to more than $50 million as thousands of residents lost their jobs. That’s expected to last through the end of September. The 2021 budget includes another $5.25 million, which is expected to supplement additional federal housing assistance, Walsh said.
Using general fund dollars for this assistance, he said, “allows us to help people [who] may not meet federal guidelines” such as immigrants.
The budget proposal also resumes street maintenance to a near-prepandemic level ($102 million). Projects were paused earlier this year so funds could be reallocated to essential services and the City’s emergency response to the pandemic.
Next year, revenues from the hotel occupancy tax and other event facilities are expected to be $51 million less than 2020, which prompted the City to cut several tourism-related expenses, including $19.6 million from community and visitors facility, $9.9 million from Visit San Antonio, $4.2 million from history and preservation, and $2.6 million from arts and culture.
The proposed $641 million capital budget sets aside $4 million for the development of the Berkley V. and Vincent M. Dawson Park near the historic Hays Street Bridge. That was project had been slated to be a 2022 bond project, but Walsh said savings from other capital park projects could allow the park to be built sooner.
The park is a result of a yearslong battle between the City and Eastside preservation groups that strongly opposed the City’s sale of the land and an apartment complex planned there.
Including it in this year’s budget will “fulfill our commitment that we’ve had with District 2 and the Eastside and deliver upon a park property.”