Now in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic and looking toward recovery with a focus on equity, the question arising — and the theme of this year’s CityFest — is “What’s next for San Antonio?” Local leaders discussed this question and more with the launch of CityFest Wednesday.
Across the festival’s first three virtual panels, state, county, and city officials weighed in on issues highlighted by the pandemic such as San Antonio’s digital divide, the city’s income and education disparities, and the need to address mental health.
The four-day hybrid festival opened with a discussion among mayors. Mayor Ron Nirenberg was joined by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker to discuss what it’s been like leading their respective cities through the pandemic. The discussion was moderated by the San Antonio Report’s local government reporter Jackie Wang.
What this pandemic has shown is that many San Antonians were just one disaster away from economic catastrophe.
“What was underscored in terms of the level of [income] disparity was it existed in extreme numbers while we were enjoying some of the best economic momentum of our lifetimes,” Nirenberg said. “To me, that is a lesson learned that we have continued to go back to as we’ve established our agenda for the American Recovery Plan, our build back better agenda, etc. — making sure that we don’t return to the pre-pandemic disparities that existed prior to what we saw with COVID-19.”
Mayors Adler and Parker echoed similar sentiments.
Emerging from the pandemic, Nirenberg said he wants to see a San Antonio that is more resilient in terms of public health outcomes and the city’s climate action strategies.
Editor Robert Rivard facilitated a discussion with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and City Manager Erik Walsh on how the hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act will be injected into the San Antonio and Bexar County economies over the next five years.
While some of that funding has already gone to the city and county budgets to help make up for lost revenue, address the digital divide, and aid with mental health needs, the two governmental entities will spend the last few months of the year deciding how to allocate stimulus funds, Wolff and Walsh said.
And with a new bond on the city’s horizon, deciding how to allocate those funds over the next five years will also be important, Walsh said. Amid the San Antonio Symphony’s ongoing issues, the arts have to be a part of that conversation, Walsh said.
“I think it’s at a certain point where we’re all going to have to have a larger conversation about the general support of our cultural programs, our arts programs, and how they were funded,” Walsh said. “And not just the individual program. This has been a topic of discussion, even pre-pandemic, for the City Council, and there’s a strong desire to enhance the funding for those programs.”
Wednesday’s final panel was a discussion on the thin new line between policing and public health, moderated by Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick. The panelists were Eric Estrada, president and executive director of SA Clubhouse; Jenny Hixon, public health administrator for San Antonio Metropolitan Health District; Mike Lozito, director of the Bexar County Office of Criminal Justice; and San Antonio Police Dept. Lt. Jesse Salame, chief of staff for Police Chief William McManus.
While the line between police and public health has grown thinner, public safety starts with public health, specifically mental health, Hixon said. She emphasized that improving lives has the downstream effect of reducing crime.
“Backing up and looking at what are the other things we can have in our community and making access to stable housing, living wages, making sure everyone has equal opportunity in terms of educational opportunities — these are the things that we know are actually the most predictive of health, all types of health,” Hixon said.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the needs of different communities, Salame said.
“By the time that we’re involved, our choices are fairly limited and it’s going to be to have to take a law enforcement action,” Salame said. “So what we’re trying to do, by working with public health, with mental health, and taking that approach, is trying to catch these things, trying to stop these things, and trying to break the cycle.”