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Four months ago, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s biggest political concern was passing a transit tax.
Then the world changed. Nirenberg now leads a city that must recover from the economic collapse wrought by the coronavirus, on top of existing inequalities that he said must be solved.
“COVID is a tragedy, but the pandemic can be an agent of monumental change if we use it as a catalyst to solve the challenges that have hindered our ability to reach the next level,” Nirenberg said in his annual State of the City address.
On Tuesday, San Antonio’s mayor since 2017 gave a speech that centered on fighting multi-generational poverty. It came as San Antonio recovers from a prolonged, global health crisis that has tested every leader in a position like his.
Under Nirenberg’s and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s leadership, San Antonio has fared better than other major cities in Texas and around the U.S. in terms of containing the spread and avoiding deaths. As of Tuesday, coronavirus cases stood at 2,882, with 75 deaths.
But San Antonio’s economic burden during the Great Shutdown has been severe. The crisis tripled the city’s unemployment rate from 4.5 percent in March to 13.7 percent in April, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.
In his speech, Nirenberg decried the economic inequality that affected San Antonio before the pandemic. He announced an upcoming committee “to determine how we can best free ourselves from the anchor of socioeconomic inequity through education and training.”
“I will be convening a group of community leaders to help us chart the way forward,” the mayor said Tuesday. “They will report back to identify the highest-priority efforts we can make as a community to improve economic opportunity for all. And we will act.”
The assemble-a-committee tactic in response to difficult issues has become a political standby in San Antonio, where City-led committees over the past few years have focused on climate change, housing, and transportation, to name a few. All have produced reports with long lists of recommendations.
Implementing those recommended measures has proven more difficult. One example was the shift of an eighth-cent sales tax that currently funds aquifer protection and linear trails to be used for an expansion of VIA Metropolitan Transit.
The sales tax shift was a linchpin of Nirenberg’s pre-pandemic agenda, a way to help more low-income people move about the city, reduce pollution, and fight sprawl. But on Tuesday, Nirenberg said the sales tax will not be on the November ballot, as originally planned.
“The aquifer program will continue while we cope with COVID-19 and begin the rebuilding process,” Nirenberg said.
However, Nirenberg and allies will have more time to focus on the sales tax than initially expected. The slowed economy has reduced the rate of the sales tax collection, so the tax approved in 2015 for trails and the aquifer will continue to trickle in until 2021, Nirenberg said.
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Nirenberg urged residents to vote for another slice of sales tax funding in November. A one-eighth-cent tax that supports the City’s Pre-K 4 SA program will be up for renewal.
On Thursday, City Council will vote on its $191 million funding plan for coronavirus recovery – $80 million for workforce development, $50.5 million for housing security, $33.1 million for small-business support, and nearly $27.3 million for digital inclusion.
Nirenberg said the funding “will help us prevent a collapse of our community.” However, he focused most of his speech on the need to recover from economic segregation split the city by neighborhood even before the virus outbreak.
“The zip codes that lack adequate internet access are the same zip codes that lack access to basic health care,” Nirenberg said. “Where you live should not determine your access to basic resources, basic opportunities, or basic support from your city.”