San Antonio City Council members had a lot of questions about the ambitious workforce development and higher education proposal – and the one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund it – that might go before voters this November.

The four-year, $154 million initiative aims to get 40,000 unemployed or underemployed residents into either certification or college programs that feed high-demand occupations. Financial assistance, career coaching, and job placement are but a few of the support services included in the program.

But the parameters and qualifications for the proposal are not yet final, as Council will likely want to tweak it before it likely votes Aug. 13 to place it on the ballot. The deadline to get items on the November ballot is Aug. 17.

A task force made up of business and education leaders developed the framework for the proposal over the past month. It found that there are 10,000 job openings in bioscience and health care industries, 7,000 job openings in information technology and security, 6,000 job openings in construction and other skilled trades, and others in various sectors.

The workforce initiative builds on the investments the City is making through its annual budget and its allocation of federal coronavirus relief funds, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

“The Recovery and Resiliency Plan’s workforce development strategy is helping get displaced and underemployed workers to career, training, and education paths that allow them to get into stable jobs,” he said. They also can receive stipends and emergency assistance.

The one-eighth-cent sales tax can take that programming beyond next year, when that funding – which Council allocated through its Recovery and Resiliency Plan – will run out.

“This economic recovery initiative will pick up right where that leaves off,” Nirenberg said.

More than 154,000 workers have been displaced due to the economic impacts of coronavirus in a city that already struggles with education and income disparities, said Alejandra Lopez, director of the City’s Economic Development Department.

“One of the most substantial contributors to our poverty rate is the relatively low educational attainment among our residents,” Lopez said.

Education will be key to an equitable economic recovery in San Antonio, said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who served as a Council liaison to the task force along with Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4).

“I’m happy that we’re focused on workforce and immediate needs first and that we’re also planning for the long term,” Rocha Garcia said. “We know it’s going to take a long time to break the cycle of generational poverty and I think that this plan does it.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he was concerned about how the City will select participants, ensure that they finish coursework in a timely manner, and make sure they find a job in San Antonio.

“I don’t want to be training people and then they take off to Austin,” Perry said.

Displaced workers who have a high school education or less are immediate priorities for the initiative. Those with some college credits but not a degree would be another group that, if approved, the initiative would assist, a spokesman for the mayor said.

The qualifications have not been narrowed down by income, Lopez said, adding that part of the wraparound support services would include job placement in the local market.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said the City should focus on getting the poorest, most vulnerable residents into the program.

“[This is] not as innovative an approach as I’d like to see,” she said.

Training residents to reenter the workforce is “kind of a gamble,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, as there are no guarantees on whether they’d get hired.

“When it comes to getting a job, too often it’s a matter of who you know,” Sandoval said, adding that she’d like to some kind of commitment from local employers to participate.

And get the right employers and industries to participate, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), adding that some occupations like truck driving may be obsolete in a few years due to autonomous vehicles. Some experts say it will be decades until that happens.

“We’ve got to aim for where things are going to be, not where they are now,” Treviño said.

He also stressed the need for emergency housing assistance and small-business support.

However, cities are limited by State law in what they can use sales taxes for, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. Direct housing assistance and business grants are not included.

“We have a [coronavirus] recovery and resiliency program … that triages the issues” such as food insecurity and housing, Nirenberg said. “That is relief happening right now.”

As part of a compromise reached with VIA Metropolitan Transit, the November ballot also will ask voters to approve allocating that same sales tax revenue to VIA in perpetuity, after the workforce initiative ends.

Collection of the one-eighth-cent sales tax for its current use – aquifer protection and the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System ($180 million) – is projected to end in the summer of 2021. Bexar County has agreed to take over funding for the trail system.

The City has two options to continue the aquifer program: establish a municipal development corporation that will use San Antonio Water System revenues or change the City’s Charter to allow bond money to pay for such “public purpose” projects, Walsh said.

Council will discuss the workforce initiative during another work session on Tuesday.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org