Residents will soon get the chance to vote on a plan to fund improvements to San Antonio’s streets, parks and drainage — projects residents of all political viewpoints largely agree need to be addressed. Yet the $1.2 billion bond being put to voters May 7 is facing unusual pushback from fiscal conservatives who are linking it to rising property tax appraisals.
“It’s kind of a bad time on this bond, with the property tax issues that we’re having right now,” said San Antonio Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), whose Northeast San Antonio district skews more conservative than fellow members on the council. “I think there’s a lot of people unhappy with property taxes being sent out right now, and there [are people] out there that are equating this bond to taxes.”
Cities use bond elections as a means to raise money for big projects without directly raising taxes on their residents. But recent increases in property values across the state have put local officials on the defensive, working to assure voters that passage of the 2022-2027 bond won’t mean any sort of property tax hike down the road. In fact, cities like San Antonio have gone the other direction — exploring ways to offer homeowners relief on their tax bills.
“Our financial modeling as we build not only our annual budgets, but more importantly, things like a five-year bond program, assume no change in the tax rate,” City Manager Erik Walsh explained to community members at the Community Bible Church on the far North Side Thursday night.
“Now, if somebody says, ‘Well, if we didn’t have any bonds, we can lower the tax rate. I guess that’s technically true,” Walsh continued. “But that would mean a city of 364 square miles and a million and a half people did zero infrastructure work, which is completely unrealistic.”
The 2022-2027 bond — the largest in the city’s history — would fund dozens of individual projects across the city, including bicycle facilities, storm drainage and library renovations. For the first time, one of the six bond propositions, worth $150 million of the total, is dedicated to building and maintaining affordable housing.
Though it lacks the type of high-profile projects that have attracted controversy in previous bonds, advocates for and against the bond say this one faces unusual headwinds from a tumultuous economic climate.
“People are hurting out there, primarily on our property taxes,” Perry said. “That goes up every year. And that’s what people are really upset about right now.”
He declined to say whether he would cast his own ballot in favor of the bond. He was absent from the February City Council vote that placed the bond package on the ballot because his father had passed away.
Previous San Antonio bonds have passed with enthusiastic support. Voters in 2017 approved a bond package worth more than $850 million, with each proposition receiving at least 67% of the vote.
Thus far, proponents of the 2022 bond have conducted a low-key campaign ahead of early voting, which begins Monday for the May 7 election. But James Aldrete, a consultant for the political action committee formed to support the bond’s passage, pointed to the city’s willingness to support funding for Pre-K 4 SA, more funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit and a workforce development program — all in the midst of the pandemic — as evidence the bond will pass.
Still, municipal elections are typically decided by a small number of voters, making them susceptible to surprises.
Aldrete’s group projects that between 65,000 and 80,000 voters will participate in the May 7 election — roughly 8% to 10% of San Antonio’s electorate. The last time a bond was voted on in an electoral off-year (without mayoral or City Council races) was 2012, when only 6.8% of the electorate voted.
For that reason, both supporters and opponents of the effort are working hard to target voters they believe have a particular motivation make it to the polls in a low-turnout election.
Build SA, the group supporting the bond, has knocked on 20,000 doors and spoken with 5,500 voters, according to a person working on those efforts. They’ve raised more than $500,000 for the campaign and plan to launch an aggressive direct mail and digital advertising campaign in the days leading up to the election.
Efforts to oppose the bond are much more modest.
Gathered in a small room at the Bexar County Republican Party headquarters Monday night, a handful of neighborhood organizers plotted door-knocking efforts in areas where they hope voters have additional issues to consider on the ballot. Also on the May 7 ballot is a $992 million school bond in the Northside Independent School District to fund school improvements.
“We’ve focused on the city’s Northside areas because they’re the ones most at risk right now of two extra hands coming into their pockets to take more money at the same time,” said Amy Hedtke, a conservative activist from Waxahachie who helps oppose school bonds across the state. Hedtke gave a presentation on how activists can talk to voters about the financial impacts of bond elections.
Voters in North East ISD will have contentious school board races on their ballot, including several candidates backed by conservative groups.
At a gathering to support the bond Thursday night, just four people showed up to question city officials in a venue big enough for hundreds.
Among supporters and skeptics alike, the question of how a bond might impact future taxes loomed large.
“I’ve got a question to the faction that is putting forth a claim that this, you know, being in favor, this is going to end up raising people’s taxes. How do you answer that?” said Roger Keim, an Oakhaven Heights resident who said he wanted to be able to refute questions from his neighbors.
“I emphasize the fact that the city bond will not raise your taxes. And I think it’s the same for most of the other bond projects that are out there,” said Councilman John Courage (D9). “Now, will taxes go up in the city of school districts in the future? Well, yes, they will. But [anyone] tying them to these bonds that are going to be making major improvements, really doesn’t understand how the city functions.”