This article has been updated.
City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.9 billion budget for 2021 that Mayor Ron Nirenberg said takes meaningful steps toward ensuring the city’s most vulnerable residents stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and thrive in its aftermath.
While the budget does not make substantial changes to police department spending, it increases spending in housing assistance and public health initiatives as well as resumes street and sidewalk investments to near-pre-pandemic levels. The final version of the budget will be available soon on the City’s website.
“We hope that you will be able to feel the positive impacts of these investments in your lives in the coming years,” Nirenberg said after the vote.
Many community organizers and residents who participated in Black Lives Matter protests during the summer, pushed to “defund the police,” and spoke during City Council’s virtual meeting before the vote said they felt their concerns were ignored.
City Council and City Manager Erik Walsh have pledged that the City will undergo a months-long community engagement process and review of how the city approaches public safety spending and develop policing alternatives.
“Parallel to this pandemic, the nation and our community continues to grapple with a familiar disease, racism and discrimination,” Nirenberg said. “The deaths of Black lives at the hands of police has shed a bright spotlight on the work we have all yet to do and we will do to improve policing and public safety in the United States.”
Most of the police budget is mandated through the police union’s labor contract with the City, but police reform advocates wanted money and functions untethered by the contract to be moved to other departments or reallocated to social services. Many pointed to a community budget survey conducted earlier this year in which the community prioritized housing, health, and human services above public safety.
Simply moving functions to other departments, much like the City of Austin did earlier this summer, would amount to “lip service,” Nirenberg has said. San Antonio needs more “thoughtful analysis” for meaningful change, to stop “policing poverty.”
The vast majority of the hundreds of residents who spoke to Council on Thursday or submitted comments online called for a reduction in police spending. Funding for police will increase by more than $ 7 million to about $486 million to cover a contract-mandated 5 percent pay increase for officers.
The budget “fails to reflect the people’s priority of public health,” said Marlon Davis, an organizer with Black Futures Collective.
Reforming police department policies isn’t enough, Davis said, because “structural problems require structural solutions, and the first step in that process is this budget.”
“Budgets are moral documents, and the reality is the biggest piece of the pie … goes to law enforcement,” said resident Karen Muñoz, who noted that more than all City spending on health human services combined.
“While this budget may not reflect the exact set of changes that some of our residents have called for, I believe it does commit to the health, housing, education, and workforce needs of our city,” Nirenberg said. “We hope you see [the] changes before you as the beginning of a much longer conversation.”
The budget takes small steps towards a more holistic approach to policing and poverty.
The City is will move about $1.3 million from the police department to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District budget. In addition to $8.9 million funded through Metro Health, violence prevention – which includes domestic violence initiatives – will be a consolidated and expanded division under Metro Health.
The police department’s Crisis Response Team, comprising 20 civilians, has also been moved under Metro Health.
“It’s not the shift that I know a lot of our community members are looking for, [but] it’s an attempt to address some of the concerns that we have,” Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said.
City Council spent the last eight years increasing the number of police officers in San Antonio because that’s what constituents called for, she said, but crime hasn’t decreased. “We have enough information to show that we need to continue to redirect those resources” away from police.
Nearly $740,000 was removed from the police budget as the City discontinued a signing bonus given to newly hired officers.
A new homeless outreach program received $560,000 from the budget, and another $500,000 was added to explore options for mental health crisis response beyond policing.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) noted that the outreach program takes some work off the plate of the San Antonio Police Department.
Treviño made a successful amendment to the budget to include a statement that the City will cover the cost for homeless people to obtain birth certificates as part of the City’s identification recovery program. It could cost the City up to $30,000, but it is not funded.
“We’ll be eating that expense,” Walsh said, noting that they can likely find savings in another area to cover the state-mandated $23 charge per certificate. “I don’t think it’s going to throw the budget off.”
The City’s contribution to the health department’s budget will increase by 23 percent, about $3.6 million, under the proposal. But about two-thirds of the health department’s $42 million annual budget comes from federal and state grants, which are largely restricted to specific uses.
The 2021 budget includes $13.1 million for the City’s housing and utility assistance program that will supplement about $10 million reallocated from the City’s first – and perhaps only – round of federal coronavirus relief funding. Another $1 million will come from the San Antonio Housing Trust. Council was set to vote on that additional housing funding and new eligibility requirements for assistance later Thursday.
Next year, revenues from the hotel occupancy tax and City event facilities are expected to be down, which prompted the City to cut several tourism-related expenses, including $19.6 million from the community and visitors facility budget, $9.9 million from Visit San Antonio, $4.2 million from history and preservation, and $2.6 million from arts and culture.
The budget includes a hiring freeze for the City, and employees, except for police and firefighters, will not receive cost-of-living pay increases.
Negotiations for the next police union contract, which determines wages and health care, are slated to start in January. Nirenberg has said he is determined to reform the disciplinary rules in the contract that allow fired cops to return to the force.
Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the sources for funding for the housing assistance program.