Proposed city budget tweaks add money for housing, health, and small businesses, but avoid large changes to SAPD

Council to vote on $2.9 billion FY 2021 budget on Sep. 17

San Antonio skyline (KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – On the eve of the city council’s vote on the FY 2021 budget, proposed amendments to the $2.9 billion document would make small adjustments to areas like housing, health, and small businesses programs.

However, the large-scale “de-funding” of the San Antonio Police Department activists have been calling for remains off the table.

City staff presented $4 million worth of proposed amendments to the city’s operating budget and $2.4 million worth of additional capital spending on Wednesday, following dozens of council member requests. However, none of those requests pertained to the San Antonio Police Department, which has a general fund budget that’s set to increase next year, largely because of a scheduled pay increase for officers.

District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda, the chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, briefly said during the online meeting that she felt the council was not doing enough to look at police funding. Otherwise, the big, blue elephant in the room went largely unmentioned.

City Manager Erik Walsh included eliminating police cadet hiring bonuses in his presentation, to the tune of $739,500, as a way to help pay for the proposed budget adjustments. However, the cut appeared unrelated to the months-long calls to “de-fund the police." Instead, Walsh told council members that based on the current strength of the department and academy classes, the bonuses, which were instituted when the council was focused on filling vacancies, were not necessary.

Instead of making large changes to the SAPD budget this year, Walsh has proposed a “deliberate," months-long process to examine the department’s functions and consider possible alternatives. However, that process would not be finished until spring 2021.

City officials have also pointed to the current collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Officers' Association as an avenue for change.

In a tweet-thread on a variety of police-related issues after the meeting Wednesday night, Nirenberg wrote that most of the department’s budget is tied to the current police union contract and can’t be altered by city action. The rest, he tweeted, “accounts for things like fuel, bodycams, and 653 civilian employees -- including 911 call center operators, mechanics and IT support. Because of the nature of these jobs and services, it’s not as easy as it might seem to immediately reallocate or take an axe to this portion of the budget.”

The current union contract expires after September 2021, though an evergreen clause could keep it in effect for eight years afterwards if a new agreement isn’t reached.

City staff proposed these $4 million worth of amendments to the city budget. (City of San Antonio)

The changes the council is considering in its operating budget are to areas it has focused on as part of the city’s fight through the COVID-19 pandemic: housing, health, and small businesses. The largest chunk, $2.2 million, would go toward the city’s COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which helps struggling residents pay their rent and other bills.

That money, in conjunction with the $21.9 million the city is already considering adding to the program, could keep payments flowing into mid-December or mid-January, depending on how council decides to adjust the program.

The program currently puts a three-month or $5,000 limit on assistance. While staff have recommended tightening the limit to just one month with only a cash payment for a second month, Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked about doing two months of full assistance and then cash. District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino has been even more vocal about his opposition to reducing benefits.

District 9 Councilman John Courage and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry both recommended sending the full $4 million to go toward housing.

“If this is available to us, we need to give it to the people that need the help now because that should be our number one priority, and it is for me. So I am going to say, ‘Hey, take all my projects off the list.’ I want to support our emergency housing fund and get the people help that are not able to make their rent payments, and get those rent payments to the to the owners, where they can keep the doors open and not have to go through an eviction process,” Perry said.

Aside from cutting the hiring bonuses, $3.2 million in extra revenue the city has received since presenting the original budget proposal would help pay for the operating budget amendments. The capital spending amendments would be funded through the $2.4 million the city has available in its capital reserve.

City staff are recommending $2.4 million in additional capital funding in the FY 2021 budget. (City of San Antonio)

The city council is scheduled to vote on the FY 2021 budget on Thursday, Sep. 17. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.