City staff propose keeping aquifer protection program under city control

Plan to redirect tax that funds aquifer protection program to transit, replace funding with SAWS money

San Antonio – As city officials try to get massive transportation plans moving, they are pushing a new plan to continue funding the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.

In a presentation to council members on Wednesday, city staff recommended keeping the EAPP under the city’s control but using a different pot of money to fund it. Instead of using the sales tax revenue that has been targeted to fund transportation plans, staff said the city could borrow $109 million to continue buying conservation easements or acquiring properties over the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zones over 10 years.

City staff said they could pay the debt using a portion of the money the city receives from SAWS, which began sending a bigger cut of its revenue this year.

“This is a commitment to make sure that that program continues,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg has been a vocal supporter of the transportation plans developed by the non-profit ConnectSA. The plans, which include the creation of a new mode of public transportation called Advanced Rapid Transit, which would require an additional $1.36 billion over five years.

To get there, ConnectSA has recommended steps like leveraging federal money, devoting more money to transportation issues in the next city bond program, and using Bexar County capital funds. Another key funding component of the plan is redirecting a 1/8 cent sales tax that currently goes toward funding Linear Creek Parkways and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.

Rather than having voters renew the tax when it expires in 2021, Nirenberg and other supporters of ConnectSA’s recommendations want it to be used to send roughly $36 million to VIA Metropolitan Transit.

But that plan raised the question of what would happen to the aquifer protection program, which is popular with voters, once the tax is redirected.

While Nirenberg had requested SAWS consider taking over the program, city staff said it made sense to keep the program “in house.”

“We felt that continuing the program by the city, we already have the infrastructure in place - meaning the employees that do the work, we have the contracts with the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program to do the monitoring,” said Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, who presented the plan to council members.

Francine Romero, the chairwoman of the Conservation Advisory Board, which helps determine which properties the city acquires through the EAPP, agreed.

“We have almost 20 years of history of doing this exact thing in the city,” Romero said. “And so, the city staff is in place. The Conservation Advisory Board is in place. Our support teams are in place. It would be inefficient to move a really well-functioning program to another entity for no reason.”

While Romero said originally she would have preferred to see the EAPP continued to be funded by sales tax, she’s satisfied with the current plan put forward by the city, noting she has doubts on how much more longer voters would have approved of the sales tax.

The sales tax funding for aquifer protection and greenway trails has been voter approved since 2000, with three continuations in 2005, 2010 and 2010 as the tax approached the limit it could collect.

In 2015, voters approved collecting up to $100 million for the EAPP. Romero believes supporters could have gotten voters to pass another allocation for $90 million, but she isn’t sure about a renewal beyond that.

“So this way, we have an immediate $110 million. So that's $20 million more than we would have gotten just bringing it back to the voters,” she said. “And I think that's a good outcome because honestly, I don't think we could have gotten gotten it renewed twice.”

City council members like District 10’s Clayton Perry or District 3’s Rebecca Viagran had questions about the use of SAWS payments to fund the aquifer program into the future, especially as it related to water rates.

The utility upped its contribution to the city coffers from 2.7 percent of its gross revenues in fiscal 2019 to 4 percent in fiscal 2020.

The city’s Chief Financial Officer, Ben Gorzell, said the city assumed when it made the change that the payments would continue at 4 percent into the future. So whether the city used part of that money to fund the EAPP or not would not directly affect how SAWS adjusted its rates.

The utility had indicated it could make the additional transfer payments for two years without affecting rates, Gorzell told KSAT after the meeting.

“They’re going to evaluate it at the end of that two year period of time,” Gorzell said. “It is a cost to SAWS. So eventually it would be something that would make its way into rates.”

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.