Bexar County Commissioners plan to use federal pandemic relief funds to pay the county’s 5,000-plus employees as much as $1,000 each for getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, and the City of San Antonio intends to draw smaller-dollar sums from its local budget for 12,000-plus municipal employees. Those decisions strike me as really bad governance.
Many thousands of those employees are not being incentivized with cash to get vaccinated. They already are vaccinated and will now reap a retroactive bonus. Those willing to get vaccinated for a cash bonus should be ashamed for selfishly holding out and then taking the money.
Vaccination is the path to individual and community safety and good health, not a means to make a buck. Even if all the holdouts take the bait, we will still be a county with nearly 400,000 unvaccinated people.
Yes, Metro Health intends to use a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer unvaccinated local residents $100 to come in for inoculations. That would add 10,000 people to the vaccinated rolls, and while I detest paying people to participate in safe public health practices, at least that does not smell of local elected officials taking care of their own in a way that doesn’t take care of everyone.
I’ve written with admiration on multiple occasions for the leadership shown by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff since the beginning of the pandemic. Their actions have been in stark contrast to the highly political machinations of Gov. Greg Abbott, who left the effort to contain the pandemic to those Texans willing to demonstrate “personal responsibility.”
This time I think local leaders are getting it wrong.
Congress didn’t appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act for the county’s recovery so that leadership can add to the paychecks of its employees. The city’s vaccination incentives will come from the municipal budgets for the next two fiscal years.
The debt incurred by the federal government’s pandemic relief spending in both the Trump and Biden administrations will take at least a generation for taxpayers to retire. Local leaders should treat the money like they would treat their own life savings. Spend carefully, invest wisely, and don’t let politics and personal relationships influence your decisions. The money — all of the money — should go to those who need it most.
Citizens would be wise to watch closely how the nearly $700 million flowing to city and county government in ARPA funds and the $1 billion-plus flowing to Bexar County public school districts will be spent. On the one hand, the federal relief has helped patch huge holes in local government and school budgets. On the other hand, there is a windfall quality to the many tens of millions of dollars in uncommitted funds local officials control. That money can be used for a broad range of anti-poverty and employment opportunities. It can also be misspent.
It’s easy to play with other people’s money, and that is what is happening here. The county and city’s vaccination reward program will do two things: Siphon off several million dollars that could be used in many better ways. And it will tell other unvaccinated citizens to hold out for a payoff.
Every penny of the ARPA funds should be targeted to help those most impacted by the pandemic and economic shutdown. And that ultimately means the enormous population of San Antonians living in poverty and those who lost their jobs to the shutdown and have struggled to find meaningful work. Meanwhile, there are few things more secure in a downturn than a government job.
Public employees should not diminish efforts to restore public health and spur economic recovery by holding out their hands for a payoff.