The San Antonio River Authority decided not to further pursue an additional tax to fund an expansion of its role in cleaning and maintaining local waterways. 

In a 7-5 vote Wednesday, board members voted to end discussion of what River Authority staff pitched as a watershed protection tax generating around $45 million in additional revenue each year. The additional property tax would take the River Authority tax on an average Bexar County homeowner’s bill from from $38.58 to $90.48 per year, using 2019 property values. 

The vote leaves the option open to pursue such a tax in the future, though any effort to put it on the ballot for voter approval likely won’t happen before 2021. 

The tax, originally pitched to go before voters in November 2020, could vastly expand the role of the River Authority. It could speed up its work to reduce the amount of asphalt and pavement over the watershed and build new outdoor recreation facilities along local waterways, among other initiatives. 

However, River Authority staff have said they would need board approval to begin a public education and outreach campaign to understand how the public would want such a tax to be used. 

River Authority Board Chair Darrell Brownlow, who represents Wilson County, called it “the most difficult decision this board has ever faced.” At the meeting and in an interview after the vote, Brownlow said the River Authority could take up such a tax at another time and that the urgency of putting it on the November 2020 ballot was mostly coming from the City and Bexar County.

“There’s nothing to stop the San Antonio River Authority board from engaging a formal process in the spring under normal, budgetary processes, as the bulk of our projects always do,” Brownlow said. 

The vote could have an effect on San Antonio’s efforts to fund improvements to the City’s transportation system. Some local officials had floated the River Authority tax as a source of funding to replace a one-eighth-cent sales tax currently devoted to Edwards Aquifer protection and linear creekway parks. 

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff are among those calling for shifting that sales tax to better fund VIA Metropolitan Transit. 

But in a phone interview following the River Authority meeting, Nirenberg continued to call for the shift of sales tax revenue to VIA while continuing to support aquifer protection, one of his signature issues as a city councilman. 

“We will move to use the existing one-eighth-cent sales tax for transportation next year, and the decision has never been dependent on SARA’s plans,” Nirenberg said. 

Nirenberg said he would continue to be the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program’s “champion at City Hall,” adding that he is working on finding other funding sources to protect land over the aquifer. One way would involve bond funding to buy conservation easements from landowners that would permanently block development over their land. 

“We could get to 100 percent protection within Bexar County using existing authority,” Nirenberg said. “The authority to acquire easements outside Bexar County would require some legislative authority, which I am optimistic about.”

Wolff also said Wednesday that he thinks the River Authority vote won’t significantly affect the funding for VIA. 

“The environmentalists that were associated with aquifer [protection] did not like the plan from SARA and said they didn’t care whether they did it or not, they didn’t want to relinquish the [sales tax],” Wolff said. 

Wolff also pointed to the $200 million in funding the County contributed to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, $175 million to restoration of San Pedro Creek, and $500 million in flood control projects as examples of big-ticket funding for local waterways under existing tax structures. 

The board’s vote split generally into urban Bexar County versus rural downstream counties of Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad, though Bexar County Director Michael Lackey (D3), the board’s vice-chair, joined six fellow board members in voting not to pursue the tax. Lackey had originally said he was “excited” about what the River Authority could do with the funding but changed his mind after hearing from business leaders opposed to the tax hike. 

All of the directors representing Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties said elected officials and community leaders in their counties are solidly against the tax. 

“The lower basin is very much against proceeding,” Goliad County Director James Fuller said. “For me, it’s very simple: it’s wants versus needs. I haven’t seen the need [for the tax] shown to this board because we have not looked at specific projects.”

Bexar County directors Jerry G. Gonzales (D1), Lourdes Galvan (D2), Jim Campbell (D4), and Deb Bolner Prost (at large) all voted to continue discussion on the additional tax. 

“People don’t know what exactly we’re aiming at, and I think it’s important that we reach out to them,” Galvan said at the meeting. “We want a lot of people to have input into making a decision [on] where we go from here.”

Before the vote, Prost introduced a motion that would direct the River Authority staff to “authorize staff to initiate a community education program to solicit input from the public throughout the basin regarding the potential need for and use of funds that could be generated” from a watershed protection tax. 

That motion failed along the same 7-5 lines. Prost, a former Olmos Park councilwoman who owns her own market research company, called herself a “data person” and said she doesn’t have enough data to know River Authority constituents think about an expanded role for the River Authority. 

“I think we owe it to our constituents to go out and find out from them what they want us to do from a capital perspective,” Prost said ahead of the vote. 

After the vote, River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott said the authority’s staff “will continue to do our job.” 

“Obviously, there are needs that we would like to be able to see how we can fill,” Scott said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to protect our rivers and creeks from the impact of development going forward.”

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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.