SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio City Council passed a $2.9 billion budget Thursday that makes few changes to the San Antonio Police Department, over the strong objection of activists.
Despite anticipating lower revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, city staff say the budget, which is $4.4 million less than FY 2020, is balanced and will not require any city layoffs or tax increases. The San Antonio Police Department’s general fund budget will increase more than $7 million over the FY 2020 budget to roughly $486.5 million, largely due to a scheduled 5% pay increase for officers.
More than 20 people called into the online meeting to urge council members to defund police, invoking the names of Darrell Zemault Sr. and other black men killed by SAPD officers. Funding for the department should be directed to other areas, they argued, away from a department they don’t believe truly serves the community.
“We all understand that budgets are moral documents, and the reality is the biggest piece of the pie that is the budget goes to law enforcement,” said Karen Munoz. “And law enforcement - as we’ve seen countless times - continues to abuse our community, especially Black people in this community.”
The only new change to the proposed police budget, which activists called a “slap in the face” when it was unveiled in August, was the elimination of $739,500 in police cadet hiring bonuses, which City Manager Erik Walsh said were unnecessary given the current strength of the department.
City officials have pointed out that 79% of the SAPD budget is tied to the collective bargaining agreement it has with the San Antonio Police Officers Association, while the remaining portion funds things like the 911 communications center, technical support, and facility maintenance. People who called in to the Thursday council meeting said there were still cuts that could have been made.
Both city staff and elected officials have tried to show they are still pursuing changes to the police department. Walsh has proposed a months-long review of SAPD and its functions, including possible alternatives. However, that would not conclude until next spring.
City leaders have also put their focus on renegotiating the police union contract, which will expire after September 2021. The contract contains measures that opponents say keep officers from being held accountable for wrongdoing.
None of the city council members moved to make any large cuts to the police department during the meeting, nor did any of them include it in their requests to amend the budget. However, several acknowledged a need for change.
“I will not sit by and not recognize that there are reforms that need to be made in law enforcement in our community,” said District 9 Councilman John Courage.
His neighbor on the dais, District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez, said one of the council members' jobs is to balance competing interests. While Pelaez said he hears the message “loud and clear” that “many of you believe that funding a police department is tantamount to hating black or brown people - or to not caring about them,” the northwest side councilman said he also hears from residents who want a well-funded department.
“I can’t ignore those voices. And just because they don’t show up to city council, you know, and holler at us, and because they’re not marching in the street doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to them,” Pelaez said.
As police funding discussions take place in San Antonio and cities around the state, Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans have said they will pursue a plan that would freeze property tax revenues for any city that de-funds its department.
Abbott tweeted his support of the city’s budget Thursday evening, saying “I applaud San Antonio for passing a budget that boosts police spending rather than cutting law enforcement spending like some other cities. Having well-trained law enforcement is essential to safe communities.
The San Antonio Police Officers' Association released a statement from its president Mike Helle in support of the budget vote, too. In it, Helle also warns of efforts to repeal state laws on a local level that would drastically reduce the protections police officers have during the disciplinary process.
“The City Council, and the people of San Antonio, should make no mistake: this ‘repeal’ movement is just one more way to ‘defund police!’” Helle wrote in the statement.