Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), joined by Mayor Ivy Taylor, addresses an anti-annexation crowd at the Crownridge Banquet Hall on Thursday, Oct. 15. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Entrenched opposition to San Antonio’s annexation plan is rising in the residential areas eyed for inclusion by the City, and questions about the plan among Mayor Ivy Taylor and some members of City Council have led to postponement of any decisions and increasing doubt among some that annexation will move forward.

Mayor Taylor, Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) all are asking for spending projections to get a better understanding of the cost of annexing new residential neighborhoods, which critics say will exceed property tax collections. Public safety, police and firefighters and EMS services, are at the top of the list of cost concerns, but other obligations – branch libraries, waste collection, streets and drainage – all are services the Texas Legislature has mandated must be delivered in a timely manner to communities brought into a city via annexation.

The other issue swirling around the annexation debate is the City’s commitment to infrastructure investment and maintenance in the inner city, and how the anticipated $750 million in the 2017 Bond Program should be spent. Critics of annexation, including Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) have expressed concern that the continuing cost of sprawl and growth in the suburbs is preventing the City from making much-needed investments in her district and other older parts of the city, where the City wants to encourage greater residential density and support more vibrant neighborhoods.

“For every dollar you collect, you spend $1.50,” is a phrase being repeated by some in and around City Hall as the debate has intensified there and at public meetings being held in the target areas.

A boisterous crowd of more than 150 people attended a meeting Thursday night at the Crownridge community, in the heart of an unincorporated Bexar County area along Interstate 10 West, one of the five priority areas the City seeks to annex. The attending residents were united in their opposition of being part of San Antonio, but for different reasons. Each attendee promises to become any angry voter in the City elections if annexation proceeds, a fact not lost on current officeholders

Some residents say it’s unfair that they cannot vote on whether to support or oppose annexation into San Antonio. By state law, the City is not obligated to take annexation to a public vote. Others said they are satisfied with the current level of service provided by Bexar County, namely police and fire protection, although County officials say they cannot afford to deliver essential services to the growing population in the unincoporated areas of Bexar County.

Mayor Taylor last month had asked for a slower, modified approach to the City’s current annexation plan in which the five areas total 66 square miles, and where the total population is projected to be more than 200,000 people in 20 years. The City originally wanted to study six additional areas for inclusion aside from the five proposed for limited annexation.

She repeated her belief to the crowd that the City should first address needs in existing and older parts of town before embarking upon its first series of large-scale annexation in more than a decade. There also is concern among inner City Council members that annexation will dilute the effectiveness of a 2017 bond issue that could total $750 million.

Officials in The City’s Planning and Community Development Department announced last month they would not go forward with studying the six other areas for annexation for budget reasons. Planning Director John Dugan recommended the City stay the course with the five priority areas, saying it would be cheaper than modifying the annexation plan or opting out of annexing. Dugan believes the City will collect more revenue than it spends through annexation.

Mayor Taylor is unconvinced, and some on City Council say staff has been slow to provide detailed financial projections to resolve their concerns.

“We are not in a position to adequately service those areas already in our boundaries,” Taylor told the crowd. The Mayor has requested an independent study of the estimated costs of annexation to the City, including the impact on public safety services. Taylor hopes the same study looks at growth projections that City planners have provided.

Councilmember Nirenberg addressed the meeting attendees, who could become his constituents if the City winds up annexing the I-10 West area. He told the audience that the City must definitively prove to the Council and potential new San Antonio residents that annexation would bring the new areas benefits they have not previously known, and that the pros outweigh the cons.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) looks across the table to his colleagues. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) looks across the table to his colleagues. Photo by Scott Ball.

Some audience members retorted that the City should wrap up oft-heated negotiations continue between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) over a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). After 18 months of on-again, off-again collective bargaining talks and the prospect of a new contract, talks recently broke down when union officials left the table. Now the police union has announced it opposes annexation, saying there are not enough police officers to meet public safety demands. Others see the move as a political challenge to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who has supported annexation and has been repeatedly targeted by the police union in attack ads and media campaigns over the last year and a half.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA) have yet to talk with the City about a new contract, even though the the last five-year contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014.

“You people are right, we do need to have a new agreement so we can ensure safe, proper public safety coverage,” Nirenberg said. He later added that he is far from convinced the City has a case to proceed with annexation as presently envisioned.

“My personal belief is, if we can’t prove to you that annexation is a good thing, we shouldn’t do it,” he added.

Many property owners in these unincorporated areas have their own septic tanks and water wells, and are served by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and by Emergency Service Districts (ESD) or volunteer fire departments (VFD). As such, one man said basic services already exist by virtue of where he and his neighbors live.

“When you drive a BMW, you expect BMW service,” resident Michael Stewart said. “The county may not provide BMW service, but our Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Service Districts and Volunteer Fire Department pretty much kick butt.” The Leon Springs Volunteer Fire Department serves ESD No. 4 around the Crownridge area. Residents and commercial customers already are served by CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System.

Other audience members express concern about the level of City police and EMS response times to distant parts of the county. One woman recalled how two ambulances arrived at her home within three minutes of her call after her mother suffered a heart attack. The sheriff’s office and Leon Springs VFD offer “good, quick service,” she added.

Questions were raised about the fate of ESDs and VFDs in areas that could be annexed. What happens to the debt, personnel and equipment of such fire/EMS organizations? Bexar County currently has 12 ESDs, each one a taxing district governed by a board of commissioners appointed by the Bexar County Commissioners Court.

Emergency Service District Nos. 4 and 8 cover the I-10 West area eyed for annexation. ESD No. 3 covers most of the properties targeted for annexation along U.S. 281 North. The three other areas currently sought for limited purpose annexation are along I-10 East, around Alamo Ranch and U.S. Highway 90/Loop 1604. Residents in Alamo Ranch are attempting to incorporate as a city.

Signs advertising newly constructed neighborhoods off of Alamo Ranch Parkway. Photo by Scott Ball.
Signs advertising newly constructed neighborhoods off of Alamo Ranch Parkway. Photo by Scott Ball.

County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), attending the Crownridge meeting, restated his opposition to the City’s current annexation plan. He said ESD No. 3, whose coverage area would be split by annexation along U.S. 281, would lose half its annual revenue.

David Diharce, a resident in the U.S. 281 target area, said he and his neighbors are pleased with seeing two sheriff’s deputies often patrolling each side of U.S. 281. The ESD No. 3 has six fully equipped pumper trucks, he added.

State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-Dist. 122), told those in attendance that he and other local state legislators would revive bills that failed in the 2015 session that are designed to limit a city’s ability to unilaterally annex unincorporated communities.

City Council and City staff will have to answer the public safety issues that have arisen about adequate force levels before resuming the annexation debate. The police union issued a news release on Tuesday, saying police response times and manpower already are lacking and without significant staff growth, service would be inadequate in any newly annexed areas.

City officials, including recently rehired Police Chief William McManus, dispute some of the union’s claims, including its assertion that the department is currently understaffed by 183 officers. The union claims it would require 164 more officers, 141 firefighters and five new fire stations to cover residents in the areas targeted for annexation. The City confirmed the figure of 182 current police vacancies, but 75 of those positions have remained opened to help the City meet fast-rising health care costs. That and wages and the 10-year evergreen clause are the key areas of contention between then City and the unions.

“It’s mind boggling to imagine the City proposing to annex additional communities when they do not have enough police officers to handle the land and citizens they have now. It’s dangerous and frankly, it puts every citizen’s life in jeopardy,” SAPOA President Mike Helle stated in the press release.

Helle said there is concern the police department might relax some criteria to widen its applicant pool. Poor attendance and a small number of applicants resulted from a recent City outreach effort for SAPD applicants, according to the union.

Jeff Coyle, the city’s director of government and public affairs, said the suggestion for lowering some standards for applicants had come from police academy officials. But Helle said academy officials are just following the direction from City management.

“However, there isn’t a police officer in the department that believes lowering applicant standards is a good thing. We should be helping more folks apply, but the city manager needs to look at more than just allowing for heroin and cocaine usage,” Helle told the Rivard Report.

“(City Manager Sheryl Sculley) should be looking at what city leadership has done to the morale and career paths of the department. City leadership, with their lawsuits against police officers and two-year long battle over a contract, have created this recruiting crisis.”

Chief McManus told the Rivard Report the City has budgeted to fill most of the SAPD’s vacancies through new cadet classes this year. Two current class sessions are in session, totaling 42 cadets, with three more funded and scheduled for the rest of this fiscal year.

Media outlets interview former chief of police William McManus. Photo by Scott Ball.
Media outlets interview former chief of police William McManus. Photo by Scott Ball.

McManus said the City recently increased entry pay for new cadets from $28,000 to $40,000 per year, and “we’ve seen an increase in the number of applications to enter the police academy.” City officials expect to finish the year with 40 vacancies. Historically, the SAPD has 50 to 70 vacancies yearly, which is 5% of the police force.

Coyle said the police union is disingenuous in criticizing the number of SAPD vacancies when many of those holes are the result of the failure to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. SAPOA shoulders as much responsibility for that as the City does.

“I will agree that the CBA negotiations have played a role in the manpower discussion,” Helle responded. But he added that the City discourages a higher number of SAPD applicants through its actions in the negotiations.

“The City Manager came out two years ago attacking police officers and ultimately suing them in court,” he explained. “The public has seen this for almost two years. Who wants to join a police force under attack by their bosses? It has directly affected candidate recruitment. Also, we are seeing more retirements and officers leaving for other departments – again, a direct result of being disrespected and sued.”

SAPOA members also said the average police emergency response time has increased citywide since 2014, and the lack of manpower does not help matters.

“Response times are getting worse as staffing levels dwindle. The only reason response times aren’t at catastrophic levels is because the City is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into overtime on every shift,” the release stated.

Chief McManus told the Rivard Report that the SAPD’s emergency response times are faster.

“They have been each of the last four years and, more importantly, crime rates are down 5%, too,” he said.

Helle said he and his colleagues define “response time” differently.

“From our perspective, it’s when the citizen picks up the phone and calls for help, until we get to their front door or on scene. That’s what the public cares about, our total service level,” he said.

“Also, there are emergency response times and your normal day-to-day police calls. Emergency response times are lights on, sirens blaring. Our Department is doing their best and maintaining emergency responses. The day-to-day calls are our concern. We believe we should look at the total service level and the only thing keeping us afloat is overtime.”

According to the City, the average response time in fiscal year 2012 – from completion of a 911 call to arrival of personnel on scene – was seven minutes and 42 seconds. That time shrunk to seven minutes and 10 seconds the next fiscal year, and to seven minutes and eight seconds the year after that. The average time in fiscal year 2015 was six minutes and 57 seconds.

It was the first time the SAPD had a response time under seven minutes, despite a 2-3% increase in calls for service, according to Coyle.

Helle said in the release he understands San Antonio’s expansion will continue, but he added that civilian and officer safety should not be put at risk. He urged local officials to refocus on current city needs.

“Our officers continue to face an ever increasing demand for service to a continually growing city. Believe me, they do so proudly, but with dwindling resources and shrinking staffing levels,” he stated. “Unfortunately, the citizens of this city pay the price with delayed and limited responses to their needs.”

Coyle said the police union is using incorrect figures in its anti-annexation argument.

“The union’s opinion on annexation is one thing, but facts are another,” he added.

Helle said the police union can’t slow down or stop annexation, other than address how it believes public safety will be impacted.

“Annexation is just the first issue. We will be engaging from here on out, regardless of contract negotiations. Once a contract is signed, and one will be done, we will continue with a new level of civic involvement that includes public position statements and community discussion,” he said.

The Rivard Report asked whether union officials believe they have leverage or other means to persuade City Council members to oppose annexation.

“This isn’t about leverage in anything. It’s about the public’s safety and well being. Our officers are being overworked and stretched thin as it is,” he said. “We genuinely believe annexing more land and citizens is bad policy. We should be getting our own house in order and fixing this department first before we attempt to drastically increase the size of our City.”

Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said the City is properly planning public safety for the areas targeted for annexation.

“The proposed annexation would more than pay for the cost of new officers to serve the area. We are not asking to stretch our existing police force,” he said.

Still, that not is not reassuring for individuals such as David Diharce. He told the Rivard Report he lacks confidence in the City’s ability to adequately serve his growing area, north of Stone Oak, as San Antonio remains on course to go from being the country’s seventh-largest city to the fifth largest.

“It is very concerning that the people in charge of protecting us say they can’t adequately protect us,” Diharce said. “This is a basic liberty. As a father of three young children how can I allow my family to be put in jeopardy? Will I have to move to insure my family’s security? It just doesn’t seem right.”

Richard Cash is a resident and chairman of the Committee to Incorporate Alamo Ranch. He also is Board Vice President for ESD No 2.

“The lack in police force is a great concern of ours … the very real possibility of poor response time and lack of coverage in the newly annexed areas. We will pay higher taxes for less police protection, which makes no sense for us because we have great protection with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

“If I were a resident of San Antonio I would ask the hard questions like, ‘Why are we not taking care of what we have and why are we diluting our police and fire service with these annexations? I would agree with Mike Helle that annexation is a horrible idea.”

Cash also said he, like Commissioner Wolff, is worried about the fate of ESDs if annexation proceeds as planned.

“Annexation threatens ESDs in several ways. First it takes away funding from the ESD that it normally receives via ESD tax paid by property owners in unincorporated Bexar County,” he said. “In our particular area, our ESD will lose one-third or more of its funding, which is a significant amount of taxpayer money used to support the ESDs operations to provide fire service to the property owners in our area.”

Cash added that currently there is no program that would permit laid-off firefighters to join the SAFD and keep their position whether it be firefighter or chief.

“They will lose their benefits to include retirement. This means one-third of our ESD firefighters will be fighting to find others jobs instead of fighting fires,” he said. An ESD spends about $50,000 per recruit in training and equipping him or her. By law, ESDs are not permitted to have more than $20,000 in debt.

Research shows that public safety is a major factor for officials of a city and for affected residents whenever and wherever annexation is a proposal in the nation. Last February, residents in an emergency services district in the Independence, Missouri area, petitioned to be de-annexed from the jurisdiction of a fire protection district that serves that ESD. The petitioners claimed the six-mile distance of the protection district’s sole fire station jeopardizes the lives and homes of more than 1,000 people in the ESD.

In some places, public safety leaders in the city that proposes annexation try to allay fears of affected residents by touting emergency response times. In Zephyrhills, Florida in 2012, that town’s police chief offered estimated response times for various select parts of the community eyed for annexation.

Other places, such as Medford, Oregon, charge a general fee to specifically support the hiring of new police officers and firefighters. That is stated in Medford’s literature available to people who have questions about being annexed.

Diharce said he feels good that three local state legislators – Lyle Larson, Rick Galindo (District 117) and State Sen. Donna Campbell (District 25) – all oppose San Antonio’s annexation plan.

Larson, Galindo and Campbell signed a letter opposing annexation to Mayor Taylor on Oct. 5.

The five priority areas eyed for limited annexation does not include the area formerly known as City South on the City’s far Southside, which will be annexed in December 2016.

The FY 2016 budget does includes funding to add 42 firefighters and six police officers, two interim fire stations and some equipment. The six uniform police officers conducting billing and administrative duties in the off-duty employment office will be re-deployed to the City South for neighborhood patrol.

*Top image: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), joined by Mayor Ivy Taylor, addresses an anti-annexation crowd at the Crownridge Banquet Hall on Thursday, Oct. 15. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Related Stories:

Planning Commission Backs I-10 West Annexation

City Staff Makes the Case for Annexation Plan

Mayor Comments On Her Drive to Slow Annexation

San Antonio’s Annexation Debate

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.