At the beginning of 2020, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was focused on a few goals: expanding the University Hospital System with a women’s and children’s hospital, working on criminal justice reform, and making progress on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project. But by March, he realized that his priorities would need to shift drastically because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The county has always struggled with poverty and inequity, but never truly addressed those issues before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Wolff said on Tuesday. The pandemic and the accompanying recession has highlighted longstanding economic divides.

“I think we knew it, but we didn’t talk about it,” Wolff during a discussion about the state of Bexar County with former Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros. The event was hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Now, the City and County are both working on their own initiatives to give residents the skills and tools needed to get back on their feet after the economic upheaval sparked by the novel coronavirus. Bexar County commissioners allocated half of the county’s total federal coronavirus relief funding to workforce development initiatives. And the mayor put out a proposal alongside VIA Metropolitan Transit on Thursday that would ask voters in November to approve reallocating the one-eighth-cent sales tax that currently funds aquifer protection and linear creekway trails to fund workforce development and educational and training programs for short-term coronavirus response efforts.

Wolff said Tuesday that he supports Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s proposed ballot initiative, but said the City Council needs to make the proposal clearer to voters. He also said he would support the proposal from VIA, which would take over the one-eighth-cent sales tax revenue after the City finishes collecting its portion – somewhere between $100 million to $125 million, or roughly three years of revenue collection, according to the mayor’s office. But VIA needs to clarify its vision for that funding as well, Wolff said.

“I think it’s extremely important that VIA be able to tell people exactly how they’re going to spend that money,” Wolff said. “And to me, the most important thing we can do is offer diversity [in services] – whether it’s [mobility] on demand, whether it’s a smaller bus, whether it’s [partnering] with Lyft and Uber, whether it’s bicycles, whether it’s autonomous automobiles.”

Though Wolff continues to champion criminal justice reform, he said he did not support calls to “defund” law enforcement agencies. 

“There’s not going to be any defunding,” he said. “If anything, I’m going to increase it.”

Wolff did emphasize his support for ensuring the collective bargaining agreement between the deputy sheriff’s association and the County, which expires at the end of September, contains certain changes. On Thursday, commissioners approved a resolution sponsored by Commissioners Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) and Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) that directed staff to negotiate certain points with the deputy sheriff’s association that Wolff said would help “plug holes” in the current union contract, including creating a civilian review board and reforming termination procedures.

Cisneros also asked Wolff about the results of the recent primary runoff election, in which Rebeca Clay-Flores ousted Democratic incumbent Commissioner Sergio Rodriguez (Pct. 1) and Trish DeBerry won a Republic runoff in Precinct 3 to become the likely successor to Wolff’s son, Commissioner Kevin Wolff.

“You’re the leader of that [court] and have to count on three out of five votes, but usually get five,” Cisneros said as Wolff chuckled.

Wolff said he’s intrigued to see what the court will look like after the Precinct 1 and Precinct 3 commissioners are elected in November. Both Clay-Flores and DeBerry are expected to win in the general election, as they sit in historically Democratic and Republican districts, respectively.

“I look forward to it,” he said. “Trish brings a great deal of experience from the business community. She’ll do a great job, I think. I don’t know the new lady yet, Rebeca Clay-Flores, but I read her papers and she’s very much into criminal justice reform. And so that will add a really strong voice to getting that done.”

“It’s a younger court, more progressive. So, it should be a lot of fun.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.