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Proposed workforce development options could range from two-week certificate courses to four-year degree programs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Most San Antonio City Council members seem ready to present an ambitious workforce development and education initiative to voters for approval in November, but they said critical details about how the sales tax money funding the $154 million program will be spent need to be ironed out before then to get buy-in from the Council and the community.

Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to place the issue on what is expected to be a crowded Nov. 3 ballot, and on Tuesday Council heard a second briefing from the City’s top economic development official about the program. Council members are facing a deadline of Aug. 17 to call an election.

The workforce development and education proposal, developed by a high-profile task force and the City’s Economic Development Department, would spend $154 million in sales tax revenue to connect 40,000 under- or unemployed workers to job training and higher education, a spending average of $3,850 per worker. The initiative aims to be a longer-term remedy than the $191 million economic recovery plan approved in June to get people back to work during and after the crisis caused by the pandemic.

Chief among the items that need ironing out is to ensure that the aquifer protection and greenway trail development – which the one-eighth-cent sales tax currently funds – doesn’t evaporate, said Councilman John Courage (D9).

“These kinds of things need to be nailed down so the voters understand we’re not trying to do a bait and switch … that we’ll continue to protect the aquifer, that we’ll continue to develop the trail system,” Courage said. “There’s a lot more detail that has to be put out there to educate people” about the workforce initiative.

Among those details are which nonprofit organizations and educational institutions will receive funding, how much they’ll be paid, how the initiative measures success, and which residents will qualify. The initiative will be aimed at training or retraining workers for high-demand jobs with training opportunities ranging from two week-certificate courses to four-year degree programs.

Letting voters know how the program will work and why it’s a needed investment is crucial to getting the tax revenue proposition passed, said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8).

“There’s an adage in politics that all elected officials know: when you’re explaining, you’re losing. But the only way to get big things done is to explain – a lot,” Pelaez told the San Antonio Report. “Herein lies the risk. The more complex the explanation, the more you open yourself up to critics that only need one-liners to attack you [such as] ‘this is just another tax.'”

Revenue from the one-eighth-cent sales tax dedicated to aquifer protection and the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System is projected to end in the summer of 2021. Bexar County has agreed to put funding for the trail system in its five-year capital project plan, but the proposal hasn’t been finalized.

To continue funding the aquifer program, though likely not at the same level, the City could use some of the money it gets from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and bonds or change the City’s charter to allow bond money to be used.

Work on the SAWS option continues, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said a related ordinance will be reviewed by the City’s Conservation Advisory Board “by the end of the month.” A Council vote could come as soon as next month.

“It’s good progress in support of a sustainable future for the aquifer protection program,” Nirenberg said.

Even if aquifer protection and greenway trails get funding elsewhere, the Council, business leaders, and the community are concerned about ensuring that the workforce initiative’s programming is effective and provides a meaningful return on investment.

Councilman Clayton Perry (10) said he wants to see funding levels and targets for the number of certificates, apprenticeships, and two- and four-year degrees, benchmarks that haven’t been established yet.

“Until I see those kinds of details, I really can’t support this program with this kind of money that we’re talking about,” Perry said. He’d like to see an emphasis on apprenticeships “to get people to work now … not four years from now.”

“I think we’re pushing this thing through a little too fast,” he said, and he doesn’t want to ask voters to sign a “blank check.”

Suspicion of government-run workforce development initiatives, whether local or federal, is not new or entirely unfounded. Some have seen mixed results, while others have been associated with spending waste and widespread corruption, such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 1970s.

Because it is smaller than federal programs and has been developed in San Antonio and tailored to the city’s needs, the workforce initiative could avoid some of the pitfalls of state and national programs.

“I think this is a good example of the kind of initiative the City’s undertaking that the people ought to have the opportunity to vote on,” Courage said.

During Council’s first public discussion of the proposal last week, Perry said the City should consider making participants pay back tuition or certificate fees if they drop out of the program or relocate.

Alejandra Lopez, director of the City’s Economic Development Department, said the Education and Workforce Leadership Team didn’t support penalizing participants for failing to complete training because of the number of circumstances that can arise, even with support services like child care being offered.

“Also, meaningful employment opportunities may present themselves, and the financial burden of repaying tuition costs shouldn’t prevent participants from accessing these careers,” she said.

The overhead costs of developing and overseeing a loan payback system and tracking 40,000 participants to ensure they say in San Antonio would be substantial, she added.

Dozens of education and training organizations will likely be involved in the implementation of the program. Those partner organizations are going to have “contracts with deliverables” in terms of measured outcomes that they will be responsible for, Lopez said.

The tax money will flow through the municipal development corporation set up when voters approved Pre-K 4 SA, which also is funded by a one-eighth-cent sales tax, in 2012. By law, the City can only have one, Lopez said.

The Pre-K 4 SA board would then reach a contract with the City to implement the workforce initiative. Council appoints members to the board and approves its budget.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said last week she would be hesitant to support the initiative unless there was considerable buy-in from local employers to hire people out of the new or expanded programs.

“We heard loud and clear from the leadership task force their commitment to hire participants, which is the most important contribution and commitment they can make,” Lopez said.

Councilman Roberto Trevino (D1) said he generally supports workforce programs but wants to see more money from other sources go towards shorter-term, immediate assistance – such as affordable housing – so participants can better benefit from education and training.

“I think we need to prioritize the basic needs of our residents, like shelter,” Treviño said.

The proposed initiative also would provide financial and career support, so-called “wraparound” services such as child care that might also include emergency assistance stipends as needed for items such as rent or car payments.

Pelaez said he sees the workforce and education ballot initiative as being similar to Pre-K 4 SA, a program that serves low-income families that wasn’t always widely accepted as a wise investment. It took a massive awareness and education campaign to explain the longterm economic benefits of investing in children.

“San Antonio stepped up,” Pelaez said, to invest in the program for the greater good, even if the children of all city residents wouldn’t directly benefit from it.

“In this instance, we’re not talking about 4- or 5-year olds, we’re talking about, you know, adults,” he said. “When we all present thoughtful ballot initiatives and give San Antonians all answers to their questions, they’ve always done the right thing.”

Sandoval said she supports the ballot initiative, but noted the city shouldn’t forget about essential workers who are employed in low-wage jobs.

“As long as San Antonio exists – as long as we have an Alamo, and a River Walk, and a beautiful convention center – we will always have service jobs in San Antonio,” Sandoval said. “I want to make sure that we do what we can to make those jobs dignified and allow people to make a living off of them. That may not be part of this initiative, but it may be something we have to consider going forward if we’re really saying we want to pull people out of poverty.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org