SAN ANTONIO – By a 9-2 vote, the San Antonio City Council on Thursday passed a new funding plan to keep a popular Edwards Aquifer Protection Program going after the sales tax that has funded it since 2000 expires.
The $100 million plan, which council was briefed on Sept. 10, would rely mostly on borrowing money over the course of 10 years, and would begin in FY 2023 after the EAPP uses up the sales tax revenue. The program will take the place of a 1/8 cent sales tax that city and VIA Metropolitan Transit officials are asking voters in the Nov. 3 election to redirect to fund workforce development and transit rather than renewing the EAPP and the development of the city’s greenway trails system.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has been the driving force behind using the sales tax for a workforce development program, said the city still needs to protect the aquifer.
“We cannot abandon our neighbors who need help. That would be callous and inhumane. San Antonio is better than that. Fortunately, we aren’t choosing between the aquifer and our neighbors. We can address the needs of both,” Nirenberg said.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry voted against the plan after failing to delay action on the new funding plan until after the Nov. 3 election.
Three sales tax initiatives will be on the ballot. Beyond the pair of proposals to redirect the 1/8 cent that currently funds the EAPP and the trails system, Pre-K 4 SA is also seeking a renewal of its 1/8 cent sales tax.
If at least one of the sales tax initiatives on the Nov. 3 ballot were to fail, it would leave an opening to further fund the EAPP through sales tax. However, that would also need voter approval, which wouldn’t be able to get until May 2022 at the earliest because of state law.
“I think this is common sense,” Perry said. “Let’s see what happens first during the election versus forcing something through within one week’s time.”
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 program has proved popular with voters, who have approved using the sales tax to fund it on four separate occasions. The most recent vote in 2015 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.
In the same election, voters approved the collection of $80 million for the city’s Linear Creekway Parks Program using the same tax. The city expects to hit the tax’s combined $180 million cap in the spring of 2021, at which point it will expire.
City staff estimate the EAPP will still have $20 million at that point that it hasn’t spent. The money should take it through FY 2022, the city believes, after which the new program will take over.
The new funding plan would allow the EAPP to continue operating as-is but with a new source of revenue. The city would plan to borrow about $10 million per year to fund the program - though city staff said, depending on a given budget, the city could use cash payments.
The city would pay the debt service on the borrowed money through its general fund, which would last until FY 2057.
The funding details for the program have created constant consternation with the EAPP’s supporters, who worry how changes in funding could affect the program. The Conservation Society of San Antonio’s First Vice-President Kathy Rhoads spoke against the plan at Thursday’s meeting.
“The Edwards Aquifer and the San Antonio greenways are more robust today because of the sales tax fractions. To suddenly remove that protection and funding from aquifer conservation is dangerous,” Rhoads said.
The issue of funding the expansion of the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System - the other purpose of the 1/8 cent sales tax - continues to be a thorny issue. The city is banking on Bexar County helping to fund the expansion of creekway trails through its capital program, but the details are far less concrete than with the EAPP.
While Judge Nelson Wolff has indicated his support and intent to follow through on the plan, the county is holding off on any concrete commitments until April 2021, when it has a better idea of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect its property tax revenues.