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For Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the post-pandemic plan to fund the City’s popular aquifer and linear trails programs is basically the same as his pre-pandemic plan.
Nirenberg and VIA Metropolitan Transit have agreed on a proposal to temporarily fund the City’s coronavirus response, then shift that funding to VIA Metropolitan Transit. The funding would come from a one-eighth-cent sales tax that currently pays for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) and the Howard W. Peak Linear Greenway Trail system.
The compromise seemingly put an end to weeks of arguments between Nirenberg and San Antonio’s transportation authority. But the agreement didn’t address alternative means of funding the EAPP and trail system, and the silence over the future of the two environmental programs left aquifer and trail advocates feeling abandoned.
“I think it’s just shortsighted to shift that sustainable funding source away from these beneficial programs, aquifer protection and greenways, that have been overwhelmingly supported,” said Greg Hammer, chair of the City’s Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board.
In an interview Thursday, Nirenberg said he’ll still be pushing for the latest versions of his plans for the sales tax shuffle. After a year and half of haggling, Nirenberg and allies in February settled on funding aquifer protection by borrowing against annual revenue the City gets from the San Antonio Water System.
“We’re actually in the final stages of a framework to continue the aquifer protection program with the same governance and same management, but using City revenues” rather than sales tax, Nirenberg said. “That’s still the plan.”
However, it’s not clear how funding for trails would continue. Nirenberg and Bexar County Nelson Wolff said earlier this year the County could take up trails in budget talks that begin in August.
But on Thursday, Wolff told the Rivard Report that with the economy in flux because of the pandemic, he has “no idea what will happen yet.”
“Who knows what we’re going to be able to do?” Wolff said. “It’s questionable at this point.”
Over the past 20 years, San Antonio has funded the EAPP and its program to build paved trails along local waterways through an eighth-cent sales tax. Since 2000, voters have approved $325 million in aquifer funding and $190 million in trail funding.
The latest round approved in 2015 allows the City to collect $100 million in aquifer funding and $80 million in trails funding. Officials expect that tax collection to hit its cap in the summer of 2021.
Over its life, the aquifer program has paid landowners not to build on roughly 160,000 acres of sensitive land where water trickles into the underground rock layer. As of earlier this year, the trails program has paved approximately 70 miles of trails along local creeks and rivers, with another 33 miles under design or construction.
The future of both programs has been in limbo since 2018, when Nirenberg, Wolff, and VIA officials proposed shifting the tax back towards transportation, the original reason the Texas Legislature began allowing such taxes in the 1970s.
After the pandemic started, Nirenberg changed course on the tax shift, with he and Wolff saying the timing was wrong. The VIA board then responded by moving to call its own sales tax vote, action that led to the compromise announced Thursday.
The compromise involves putting two measures on the November ballot. One would ask voters to approve reallocating the sales tax revenue to the City of San Antonio to use for short-term coronavirus response initiatives, including funding workforce development programs. The other would ask voters to shift that same sales tax revenue to VIA permanently after the City has collected the maximum approved amount.
On Thursday, Nirenberg maintained that he wants to continue some level of funding for every initiative involved: aquifer, trails, workforce training, education, and long-term transportation.
“I’m confident that if everybody looks big-picture, we can get it done,” Nirenberg said. “It should be a win-win-win.”
Aquifer and trails advocates remain skeptical.
“Why fix what isn’t broken?” said Hammer, who led the advisory board when it passed a resolution in February against defunding the trails initiatives.
Earlier this year, local environmentalists were split in their reactions to Nirenberg’s proposal.
“Our groups did not like the previous proposals because there were such cuts in funding and no secure funding for the greenway trails,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.
Francine Romero, chair of the Conservation Advisory Board that oversees the aquifer program, is part of a small group that was tentatively open to using the City’s income from SAWS to keep the EAPP going.
“A lot of other people said, ‘Forget your alternative; we’re going to battle for that eighth-cent tax,’” Romero said. “And I absolutely support them in that. But we were saying, ‘Yeah, this sounds like a good alternative.’ We just wanted things clarified; we wanted to see it in writing.”
One outcome of the pandemic and subsequent recession is that all the parties have more time to come to an agreement. Officials expect the collection of the full $180 million in the current round of aquifer and trails funding to continue until next summer.
Even so, as the economic crisis deepens and spreads to more sectors, local government leaders struggle to project how much tax revenue they’ll receive. The amount of land that both programs can preserve also is closely tied to the local real estate market.
“You can go downtown and it’s like a ghost town,” Wolff said by phone Thursday. “You can imagine what those [property] values are going to be. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen.”