San Antonio City Council members want ‘concrete’ plans to keep aquifer protection funding flowing

Plan to fund workforce development program with 1/8 cent sales tax means Edwards Aquifer Protection Program needs new funding source

San Antonio – Amid questions over how a proposed sales tax-funded workforce development program would operate, San Antonio City Council members remain concerned about the fate of a popular aquifer protection program.

The city council received a second briefing Tuesday morning on a proposed plan to use a 1/8 cent sales tax to collect roughly $154 million over four years to be used to help train or educate San Antonio residents for in-demand jobs and industries. The tax would need voter approval, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who is championing the plan, wants to get it onto the November ballot.

To do that, the council would have to order the election by Aug. 17. They are scheduled to vote on the measure on Aug. 13, this Thursday.

Council members had various concerns and questions about the program’s implementation and operation, among others. Some also raised the issue of what would happen to the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.

“There’s no way that we could imperil our Edwards Aquifer just to do this program. But I’m pretty confident that we’re going to get to a place where I’ll feel good about what we’re doing to protect our drinking water,” said District 8 Councilwoman Manny Pelaez.

The 1/8 cent that the city is considering for the workforce development program currently funds Linear Creekway Parks and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. However, that use expected to reach its voter-approved limit of $180 million by April 2021, freeing it up for other uses.

Under an agreement between the Mayor and VIA Metropolitan Transit officials, the city would use the tax for four years before it would be redirected to the Advanced Transportation District, which would send part of the money to VIA. Both uses must be approved by voters.

The VIA board, which also serves as the ATD board, is also expected to order an election for its own ballot initiative on Aug. 13.

If the city were to take the 1/8 cent sales tax for the new workforce development program, though, Pelaez and District 9 Councilman John Courage want to ensure that the future of the EAPP is secured.

"I'm going to support a ballot initiative on one condition -- and that is that I get trustworthy and concrete assurances that our Edwards Aquifer protection will continue to protect the Edwards Aquifer," Pelaez said.

“I think if we can do that, we can reassure a lot of the voters that are spending this money for training and helping people move forward with a new job is something they’d be supportive of,” Courage said.

Funding for the EAPP has been a hot button issue for months. Before the pandemic, Nirenberg originally wanted to use the 1/8 cent tax to help fund mass transit and found himself trying to reassure San Antonians the proposal was “not an either/or choice.”

Though the proposed use for the 1/8 cent may have changed because of the pandemic, the question of what will happen to the aquifer protection program hasn’t gone anywhere.

The EAPP uses the money from sales tax to buy properties or conservation easements over the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zone, preventing any future development that could affect the quality or quantity of water in the aquifer. Voters first approved using sales tax money for aquifer protection in May 2000 and have approved similar taxes three times since then, most recently in 2015.

The current tax provides $90 million for the EAPP and $10 million for water quality protection zones in Bexar County. The remaining $80 million goes to the development of Linear Creek Parkways.

Francine Romero, the chairwoman of the Conservation Advisory Board, which makes recommendations on how to spend the EAPP money, told KSAT the board has been briefed about the city’s current plans for continuing to fund the program.

Right now, she said, the city is proposing a program to borrow the money and then pay down the debt service with the money it receives from the San Antonio Water System.

“The idea is that they would get to about $108 million over 10 years. But they would just borrow a little bit at a time to try and cut down the interest rates on that borrowing,” Romero said.

Romero believes the board would support that option but noted nothing is set yet.

“I can’t say it’s concrete until the ordinance is written,” Romero said. “I think their intention is concrete. But I do think there are some last little pieces that need to be put in there.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg told council members an ordinance should be sent to the Conservation Advisory Board by the end of the month.

Courage also raised the issue of what would happen with the Linear Creekway Parks.

“I know we’ve got a tentative nod from the county commissioners that they’re willing to take that on, Courage said. “These kinds of things need to be nailed down. So the voters understand we’re not trying to do a bait and switch for some reason.”

A Bexar County spokeswoman said the commissioners have discussed taking over their expansion as a capital project, but because of the pandemic’s effect on the county budget, it’s not clear what the timeline for that would be.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.