Discussions grew tense Thursday as City Council debated reducing funding for public transit and the police department and balancing any decrease with a lower property tax rate. Ultimately, council members approved a record $3.1 billion budget for 2022 10-0.
Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) abstained from the budget vote after not getting any of his last-minute amendments approved. He proposed multiple amendments from the dais, several of which he said could be funded by the city’s reserves, a suggestion quickly shot down by City Manager Erik Walsh, who said the city only dips into reserves in case of catastrophe.
Bravo’s proposals drew criticism from his colleagues.
“We just went through months of going through this budget,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said. “If you’re prepared, you’re prepared. If you’re not, you’re not.”
Bravo chafed at the criticism and said that during the months of budget talks, council members don’t actually get much time to discuss the actual budget.
“I feel like the process favors a business-as-usual budget and that’s what we got,” he said.
During the three-hour budget discussion, Perry brought his own amendment forward, proposing to reduce funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit by $5.7 million, while Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) suggested reducing funding for the San Antonio Police Department by the same amount. Both amendments failed.
Perry offered his amendment as a way to reduce property taxes for San Antonio homeowners, relief he acknowledged would be small. If VIA gets $5.7 million less, he said, that could be offset by decreasing the city’s maintenance and operation tax rate by one-half of 1%. That tax rate comprises part of the overall city property tax rate.
“I singled out VIA because I think they can afford that amount of money, commensurate with the amount of money they received from the federal government,” Perry said.
VIA received $93 million in 2020 in coronavirus relief funding and has been allocated another $118 million from the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.
Perry received no support from his council colleagues, and while he ultimately voted for the budget, he did so “begrudgingly,” according to a news release from his office after the vote.
Many of Perry’s colleagues called VIA an essential service for San Antonians. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) pointed out that not only does VIA contribute almost $21 million in revenue to the city each year, it operates with less funding than its counterparts in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. VIA receives a half-cent in sales tax while the other cities’ transit systems receive a full cent.
Councilman John Courage (D9), who joined Perry in calling for an expanded homestead exemption when budget discussions started in June, spoke against it Thursday, pointing out that the proposed reduction would save the average homeowner $11 a year.
McKee-Rodriguez used Perry’s amendment as a springboard to offer his own proposal, to reduce the police department’s budget by $5.7 million, and use the savings for a property tax decrease.
“This is not an attack on officers or an attack on SAPD,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We are not talking about defunding or decreasing” the police budget, he clarified, but rather reducing the proposed $14.8 million increase to the police department’s $501.3 million budget. “To imply otherwise is either obtuse or intellectually dishonest,” he said.
Members of the audience in City Council chambers at times interrupted the discussion to shout disapproval of the proposed police budget, prompting Mayor Ron Nirenberg to ask them to stop or be escorted out.
McKee-Rodriguez also protested the police budget as proposed on Wednesday, arguing that it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase its funding beyond contractually required pay raises and retirement contributions.
Several members of the public echoed his sentiments, including Ananda Tomas, executive director of local police reform organization Accountability, Compassion, and Transparency for San Antonio, or ACT 4 SA.
“We should be funding housing, mental health, public health, and programs that help folks grow out of poverty … and truly address the root cause of crime instead of over-policing our black and brown communities,” Tomas said.
Though council members agreed that discussions around police funding should continue, most still supported the budget as presented. Bravo and Teri Castillo (D5) joined McKee-Rodriguez in voting to cut $5.7 million from the proposed SAPD budget for 2022.
The property tax rate stayed flat at $0.55827 per $100 valuation.
Other budget notes
Walsh said after the 2022 budget was approved that it prioritized investments to the city’s resiliency. In anticipation of future storms similar to the February freeze, the new budget added $7.25 million for expenses such as the purchase of backup generators at fire and police stations, as well as setting up “resiliency hubs” around the city that can shelter residents when necessary. The budget also earmarks $1.25 million for a resiliency study and community education on emergency preparedness.
The budget increases spending in the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, with a focus on mental health, Walsh said.
Public safety remained the largest chunk of the budget, with police and fire making up 63% of the 2022 budget. That aligns with the city’s policy to keep public safety spending under 66% of the overall budget, Walsh said.
The police budget has been well managed for several years now, Nirenberg said — not growing too fast while still allowing people to feel safe in their community.
“Now we have a structurally balanced budget that is able to grow at the rate of the growth of the city, so that we can continue to fund things like streets and sidewalks, parks, libraries, in proportion with the city’s growth,” Nirenberg said.
As proposed on Wednesday, the original budget was pared back by $2 million to compensate for lower-than-expected CPS Energy revenue. City staff also carved out $10,000 for childcare during city board and commission meetings and $500,000 for the nonprofit organization Older Adult Technology Services (OATS) to help seniors with digital connectivity.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct property tax rate for the City of San Antonio.