The City of San Antonio is looking for public input on how it spends federal coronavirus recovery dollars.

Though the city has already plugged in $97.5 million for revenue losses through fiscal year 2023, $229.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding remains that will need to be allocated, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez told City Council members Wednesday.

There will be nine community meetings over the course of October and November at which city staff will gather comments about what members of the public want to see from ARPA spending, she said.

“Our thought was, we want to bring this to the council, we’re going to get some feedback, and then provide that to the community, and then hear what they have to say about how they were impacted by COVID — what is critical to our community,” Villagómez said.

Staff recommended that $50 million be set aside for continuing COVID-19 response, including vaccination efforts and contingency funding. The rest should be used for “community needs” like assistance for residents with past-due utility bills, arts support, small business support, and “impactful investments” in areas such as mental health treatment, domestic violence prevention, and addressing homelessness.

Most council members said they would like staff to figure out how to best distribute “premium pay,” similar to a bonus, to essential city employees for their work during the pandemic.

“I have been receiving emails that folks are sending every day reminding us that city employees not only stepped up throughout the pandemic, but they also risked their personal health wellbeing during winter storm Uri,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said. “ARPA funds should first and foremost be used to make this city whole, which includes compensating employees who worked in life-threatening environments.”

Several council members also expressed support for using ARPA dollars to support artists and small businesses.

“I understand there were concerns that performing artists and filmmakers and the like wouldn’t receive opportunities through the [2022 municipal] bond, so I would love to see some type of ARPA the funding going to opportunities for artists who may have been excluded from bond opportunities,” Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said.

Wednesday’s briefing was just the start of the ARPA funding allocation process, City Manager Erik Walsh stressed. There are currently no projects shortlisted for funding.

In December, city staff will give council members ARPA funding recommendations, and council members will approve the ARPA spending plan in January, Villagómez said. While funds don’t have to be allocated until the end of 2024 or spent by the end of 2026, there are immediate community needs that must be addressed quickly, she said.

“We’re working with utilities to come up with a residential program for individuals who are on the disconnect list and also impacted by COVID,” she said. “We’re trying to leverage ARPA funds with other tools the utility has, like payment plans, to combine the two.”

City staff will bring its recommendation on how much to spend on that program to the City Council’s Municipal Utilities Committee next week, Villagómez said.

Staff also told council members that the city has an additional $20 million in federal funding for affordable housing and rental assistance to create permanent supportive housing homeless San Antonians, something most council members expressed support for. The city also expects to receive more emergency housing money later, Walsh said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) said he was concerned that ARPA funding may not be as effective without joining efforts with organizations dedicated to homelessness in San Antonio, such as Haven for Hope. 

“I understand the need, but I don’t think that we’re moving in the right direction when we don’t have a joint collaborative effort to address homelessness,” he said. 

Though he acknowledged nonprofits and the city all invest heavily in addressing homelessness, Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said he agrees with staff recommendations to invest in permanent supportive housing.

“If we can get [people experiencing homelessness] into that housing with wraparound services, then we can also save when it comes to emergency services as well,” he said. “And so it’s a win-win.”

Walsh added that he hopes to think of investments funded by ARPA or by the 2022 bond in largely the same pool, even though they have different funding sources and different charges.

“We should have the same priorities, broadly, in everything we want to do,” he said

Staff will compile a memo summarizing what feedback they heard from City Council and how they intend to move forward by early next week, Villagómez said. They will also release a list of dates and times for the public meetings next week.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.