San Antonio – The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program could soon have a new source of funding secured, as it faces the loss of the 1/8 cent sales tax that has funded it for the past 20 years.
The city council could vote as early as Sep. 17 to approve a new plan to send $100 million in mostly borrowed money to the program over a period of “up to” 10 years, beginning in FY 2023. However, some council members questioned the need to act on the plan now or raised concerns about the funding plans for the expansion of city’s greenway trails system.
The EAPP and the trails system’s expansion have both been funded through a 1/8 cent sales tax since 2000. The latest iteration of the tax, which voters approved in 2015, is expected to reach its $180 million limit in the spring of 2021.
But city and VIA Metropolitan Transit officials hope voters will redirect the tax towards a workforce development program and transportation once it expires. Both issues will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Even after the tax expires, the city believes the EAPP will have enough cash to continue operating through FY 2022. City staff have presented the borrowing plan as a way to keep the aquifer protection program going after that point.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has been the driving force behind diverting the sales tax towards a workforce development program, painted this as the best solution.
“The first, and most important part of this agenda, is for us to put our money where our mouth is. We can’t do it all, but we can try to strike as close to a balance of our community’s need as we possibly can,” Nirenberg said.
The EAPP is used to buy properties and 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 city’s primary source of drinking water. So far, the EAPP has been able to protect 160,330 acres - primarily in Bexar, Medina, and Uvalde Counties.
The latest sales tax allows for the collection of $100 million for aquifer protection - $90 million to purchase land and conservation easements, and $10 million for water quality projects in Bexar County.
The plan the council is considering would send the same amount of money to the EAPP, but over a period of “up to” 10 years, instead of the five to six years the current sales tax has taken.
Nirenberg, though, said the new commitment would be comparable since the program has taken longer to spend money than it has taken to accrue it.
City staff expect to allot money to the EAPP at a rate of about $10 million each year, though Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell stressed that they could adjust that figure as needed. The funds would mostly be borrowed, using a portion of the payments the city receives from SAWS to secure the debt.
Gorzell said the city could also choose to send cash directly to the program, depending on its financial situation in a given year.
The city would pay operations costs and the debt service on the borrowed money out of its annual budget, which Gorzell estimated would max out at “just under $7.1 million in 2034, and it would continue until that debt was paid off. And then it would start to drop off at around 2051.”
The Conservation Advisory Board, which is made up of nine members appointed by the city council, would continue to help guide the city’s management of the EAPP. The CAB passed a resolution supporting a 10-year, $100 million extension of the program, on Aug. 26.
District 9 Councilman John Courage called it a “solid plan.”
“These protections - the land acquisition, the conservation acquisitions - are going to be perpetual. And I don’t see it ending at the end of this $100 million, and I don’t think anyone in the community expects that either.”
District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, however, questioned why the council needed to pass it now, rather than wait to see how the city and VIA’s sales tax initiatives do at the polls on Nov. 3.
If voters reject those plans to use the sales tax, it would theoretically leave the 1/8 cent available to fund the EAPP again.
“I’ve seen several polls that said the aquifer is way higher than workforce development or VIA. And yet we’re not giving our voters an opportunity to vote,” Perry said. “That’s what really gets me.”
City Attorney Andy Segovia said state law would prevent the city from putting another tax initiative onto a ballot until the May 2022 election.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino expressed concern about the room the plan would take up in the city’s budget, and said he agreed with Perry that the council could vote on the plan after the November election.
He and others also expressed doubts about the separate issue of funding the city’s Linear Creekway Parks Program, which has also been funded by the sales tax since 2000. The program has funded the development of dozens of miles of hikeable and bikeable trails throughout the city - mostly along waterways.
“My concern has been for the creekways program because, you know, as we were building out those facilities, the ones that were left 'til the end were all the West Side creeks and the urban creeks - the inner city,” said District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. “And so, no surprise, you know, as soon as those are left, the funding gets shifted to some other priority.”
Though there has been talk of Bexar County funding further expansion of the trails system through its capital program, that plan remains up in the air.
County Judge Nelson Wolff told KSAT he is committed to the idea. However, both he and the county manager say the county needs to wait until at least next spring, when it has a better idea of the effect of COVID-19 on property tax revenues, before it can commit to a funding plan.
When the issue was raised earlier Thursday during Bexar County Commissioners Court, Wolff said, “I’ve told them a million times that we won’t know anything 'til January. Then it’ll be April before we know whether we’ll be able to go to the voters on a bond election. And we haven’t decided yet. I said ‘personally, I support it, but we haven’t decided anything’ and that we have to wait to see whether we have the financial capability to do any of these things.”
Segovia suggested the city council could host another meeting on the subject of the trails system funding.