SAN ANTONIO – The “extraordinary times” the city faces resulted in a reshuffling of priorities as laid out by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in his State of the City address Tuesday night.
While San Antonio has managed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the mayor said the pandemic has taken a toll on the city’s economy and budget. Nirenberg spent much of his 20-minute speech advocating for fixing the city’s various inequities as it recovers from the pandemic.
“We know which way we must move and where we must end,” Nirenberg said. “We must find a healthier normal. We must end as an equitable city, where all residents have enough food, a roof over their heads, and a fair chance at an education and a good job.”
But as those issues took center stage, Nirenberg swept the plans that began the year in the spotlight - transportation system improvements - off into the wings.
After commending San Antonio residents on their efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Nirenberg announced city leaders will no longer ask voters to redirect a one-eighth cent sales tax to the transportation system, which was a key part of the ConnectSA mobility and transportation plan.
“This is a painful, but necessary, decision for us," Nirenberg said. "But direct action to ensure a healthful economic recovery means rebuilding now.”
The sales tax was originally planned to fund VIA Metropolitan Transit’s “VIA Reimagined” plan, though the transit agency’s vision for the tax has shifted to more immediate needs as it faces a projected $126 million shortfall over the next five years.
In an emailed statement Tuesday afternoon, ahead of Nirenberg’s speech, the agency said reallocating the one-eighth of a cent sales tax could help VIA restore and maintain its service levels. The tax could bring in a projected $152 million between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2025, according to a presentation supplied by VIA.
Sales tax, the agency said in its statement, is its primary revenue source and the "only legally authorized mechanism to increase revenue.”
Following the mayor’s speech, VIA Board Chairwoman Hope Andrade said in another emailed statement that the agency is looking to “preserve the lifeline that our service provides.”
“But let’s be honest,” Andrade wrote in her one page statement, which never specifically mentions the sales tax issue. “The funding VIA receives is not enough to get us through this or move us forward.”
Nirenberg also said a decision on funding the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, which is currently funded by the same one-eight cent sales tax that had been considered for VIA’s use, will also be delayed. Because of the slowdown in sales tax collections, that tax is expected to last until the summer of 2021 anyways - later than originally expected.
“Prudence requires that we wait until next year to make a final decision about the future of the program’s funding, which for decades has made progress to ensure an adequate amount of clean recharge flows into the aquifer," Nirenberg said.
But while San Antonio carefully balances reopening and keeping COVID-19 cases down, Nirenberg pointed out that the city’s inequity issues must also be addressed.
“What has been made clear in the last few months is that, just as underlying health conditions make the coronavirus more deadly, preexisting poverty and inequities have made the economic challenge more catastrophic,” Nirenberg said.
The mayor described the pandemic as a stress test that exposed the city’s “buried fault lines” and “massive disparities."
“The COVID crisis has shown us that San Antonio’s neighborhood boundaries often serve as barriers to that opportunity,” Nirenberg said. “The Zip codes that lack adequate internet access are the same Zip codes that lack access to basic health care.”
As he spoke of the need to “reboot” the city, the mayor pointed to the $191 million “recovery and resiliency” plan council members are scheduled to consider on Thursday. The plan, which relies on both federal and city funds, would include money for job training, rent assistance, micro business grants, and in-home internet access for students.
He also promised to convene a group of community leaders to help the city determine how it can fight “socioeconomic inequity through education and training.”
The pandemic hasn’t just taken a toll on the economy, but on the city’s budget, which is expected to see a nearly $200 million hit in revenue this year.
Nirenberg hinted to a much slimmer budget next year.
“The next city budget is expected to be much tighter,” Nirenberg said. “City Council will be forced to make the most difficult cuts in memory.”
In an effort to stimulate the economy, Nirenberg said he has also instructed City Manager Erik Walsh to accelerate all construction and infrastructure projects that are already funded.
Watch the full address below: