The San Antonio River Authority’s board of directors adopted a $222.4 million budget for its 2018-2019 fiscal year that includes a tax increase of 7.5 percent on properties in its territory.

The tax increase isn’t final yet, with the River Authority’s board scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the new tax rate at its Aug. 15 meeting.

At the June meeting Wednesday, Board Chair Darrell Brownlow and Treasurer Jim Campbell voiced their support for the budget with the higher tax rate, which River Authority staff have said will mostly go toward improvements in the River Authority’s ability to study and predict catastrophic flooding in the river basin.

“There’s nobody else in our watershed that’s capable of doing the kind of stormwater modeling that needs to be done for this community,” said Campbell, who chairs the board’s fiscal committee and represents Bexar County’s District 4. “It’s right for [the River Authority] to step up to take that responsibility, and it’s required that we have additional resources to do that.”

The need for better flood modeling in San Antonio emerged last August, when Hurricane Harvey for a short time was predicted to head straight for the city. The storm ended up veering back toward the Gulf Coast, dumping the highest volume of rain ever recorded in North America on Houston and Harris County.

As the storm moved inland, River Authority officials were meeting with emergency responders in the Bexar County Emergency Operations Center to plan for flooding. Conversations that began in that meeting led the authority’s leaders to realize that firefighters and other emergency planners needed better tools to plan for urban flooding in Bexar County, River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott said.

“They just want the tool when the event is happening,” Scott said. “They want to be able to rely on an entity like [the River Authority] who’s the expert, who’s running it all the time, who will be able to provide this technology.”

The proposed increase would take the River Authority’s tax rate rate from 1.73 cents per $100 of assessed value to 1.86 cents for property owners in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties.

That tax hike would take the average homeowner’s annual River Authority property tax from $31.30 to $35.68, providing another estimated $4.1 million in revenue. It would be the first River Authority tax increase in three years.

Even without the tax increase, the River Authority’s revenue from property tax revenue would still go up by $2 million due to an estimated 4.9 percent increase in property tax valuations from 2017 to 2018, according to budget outlines.

With the new rate, the River Authority expects to bring in $30.4 million in tax revenue. This, along with penalties and interest, only will account for 14 percent of its revenue. The largest share – 46 percent, or $101.8 million – comes from other government entities at the federal, state, and local levels.

Another 9 percent – $19.1 million – will come from charges for River Authority services, such as its laboratory work. The River Authority also has a fund balance of more than $55 million from the previous fiscal year.

The remainder of its revenue will come from connection fees, investment income, and support fees.

When it comes to expenditures, roughly half – $111.5 million – will go to capital improvement projects. Another 25 percent combined will go to operating and personnel expenditures – $32.9 million and $23.4 million, respectively.

The River Authority will maintain a fund balance of $36.9 million. Most of the remaining expenditures will go to capital expenditures and debt service payments.

As for $4.1 million projected to come from the tax increase, 100 percent of it will go to the River Authority’s project fund, “which will accelerate the completion of critically important flood related public safety and water quality projects,” said Steven Schauer, director of government and public affairs, in an email.

Schauer shared a table of projects in the 2018-2019 project fund. These include a more than $1 million remapping the floodplains of Leon and Salado creeks and the Medina River, $950,000 on predictive flood modeling, and $100,000 on more finely detailed, site-specific flood models.

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Other projects have to do more with water quality, such as $335,000 going toward matching the City of San Antonio’s contribution to fund low-impact development in City bond projects. Another $200,000 would be used for “trash and floatables mitigation” in Olmos Creek.

The projects in that fund add up to more than $4.9 million – about $800,000 more than the estimated additional tax revenue.

“The additional $800,000 is general fund carry-forward from the [previous year’s] budget that was identified during the budgeting process as either savings or reallocation from other authorized projects,” Schauer said in an email. “These funds are being moved forward to support the priorities and projects associated with the new … budget.”

Asked whether River Authority staff and contractors could do the flood modeling without the tax increase, Schauer said they could, but it would take “five to seven years,” echoing comments made by Scott at the River Authority’s May meeting.

“Now it’s down to a year or two,” Schauer said. “We could still have gotten to the end result. We’re just getting there quicker.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.