The City of San Antonio has suspended $82 million worth of street maintenance, economic development incentives, hiring, and other programs as it braces for a significant and unquantified impact to its bottom line brought by the coronavirus pandemic, City officials said Thursday.
The City will slow or pause $50 million in street maintenance and $12.4 million in economic development incentives, freeze hiring and cancel some workers from temp agencies to save $4.4 million, reduce its annual $10 million contribution to VIA Metropolitan Transit by an estimated $3 million, and save millions more by canceling school-related programs and other events.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez as she provided a financial update to City Council. Many reports on sales tax, airport revenues, hotel occupancy tax, and CPS Energy revenues for the month of March won’t be completed until late April or early May. “We don’t have sufficient data to provide you with reliable projections.”
Preliminary estimates presented last week show a potential $110 million to $158 million impact to the City’s 2020 budget. Projections for next year’s fiscal year budget, which starts Oct. 1, are not available as revenue streams remain unpredictable.
The City has a $126.5 million emergency fund balance in addition to $80 million in reserve, totaling more than $200 million, or slightly less than two months’ worth of operating expenses, Villagómez said.
Tapping into that money is the “last line of defense,” City Manager Erik Walsh said, and San Antonio is not there yet. “We’re going to continue to press down on expenses until we have some clarity on the length of time we’re going to be in this response [and recovery] period.”
Other funding that has been paused includes $500,000 to implement the findings of a homeless strategic plan that the City and a third-party consultant had been working on for months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
But assistance for the homeless population during this crisis is not being paused, Walsh said. “It is certainly one of our social service emergencies.”
The City is setting up a hotline for homeless services as shelters and housing programs across Bexar County and the region have stopped accepting new clients, Assitant City Manager Colleen Bridger said. This hotline would be separate from the City’s general COVID-19 Hotline that answers questions related to the virus, Stay Home, Work Safe order, and resources available to residents.
Additional affordable housing and homeless services funding (more than $14 million) from the federal government will also boost the City’s ability to help, Bridger said, adding that some City staff has been redeployed to set up and staff feeding and resource hubs across the city.
Meanwhile, working groups formed earlier this week by the City and Bexar County, and coordinated through philanthropist Gordon Hartman, are ramping up relief efforts and recovery strategies. The work of those groups will be reported to the community and City Council, though it’s undecided how or if their meetings will be open to the public.
Several City Council members called for a formal process in which these groups –composed of City Council members, County Commissioners, and community leaders – can report their findings and progress to the Council. The five groups will tackle federal and state advocacy, philanthropy, food security and shelter, business and employment, and social services.
“Government transparency and accountability is critical” during this time of crisis and uncertainty, Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) said. “I don’t want it look like it’s just a group of folks [making decisions] behind closed doors.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said a process will be developed within the next day or two to ensure that these groups, some of which include Council members, are talking to each other, the community, and the Council as a whole.
“I’ll visit with each of you on that and ensure that we get the right amount of public discourse that you all want and also be able to move the City forward at the same time,” Nirenberg said, noting that such informational meetings could take place online and over the telephone or in-person as needed.
City staff is working on a way to make City Council meetings more socially distant, Walsh said, as its technology department is setting up video and teleconferencing capabilities.
“I am recommending that we [test] this before we actually need to use it,” he said.
John Peterek, assistant to the city manager, is still working out the details with the City’s Information and Technology Services Department.
There will be at least three ways for the public to watch or listen to the meetings, Peterek said, including the City’s broadcast channel (TVSA), on its website, and a telephone call-in number.
The City will also establish at least four ways for the public to provide comments on items slated for discussion by Council, he said. That can be via voicemail, email, dropping a note off to the City Clerk’s Office, and a live call-back in which City Council would call residents on the phone who want to comment live during the meeting.
It’s unclear when the City’s first virtual City Council meeting will take place as Peterek is finalizing the details.
The City is also working on establishing similar protocols for its Historic and Design Review, Zoning, and Planning commissions, Walsh said.