Some City Council members worry about consequences of proposed charter amendment

Amendment would let bond dollars pay for affordable housing initiatives, but could have unintended consequences

SAN ANTONIO – A proposal to amend the city charter in the upcoming May election has some council members worried about unintended consequences.

City staff presented a proposed charter amendment during Wednesday’s council meeting that would allow more flexibility in how the city uses bond dollars, including for affordable housing projects.

Changing the current charter language, which restricts bond dollars to “public works” was one of the recommendations in the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force’s 2018 Housing Policy Framework report.

City Attorney Andy Segovia recommended the current charter language be broadened to include “permanent public improvements or for any other public purposes not prohibited by the Texas Constitution or the general laws of the State of Texas.”

This would allow the city to use bond dollars for things like acquiring properties for land banking, paying for home rehabilitation projects, or even helping to pay for new construction, according to Segovia’s presentation.

“San Antonio, as a reminder, is the only major Texas city that is operating with this limitation,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who is pushing for the change. “So, providing housing flexibility will be a significant step forward for our efforts to accommodate the needs of our community.”

However, several council members said they want the proposed language tightened up, concerned about how that new flexibility would be used and what else might be allowed.

I think that we are opening up Pandora’s box,” said District 9 Councilman John Courage. “We are not offering any kind of limitations on what could happen with this. And I know this council is committed to affordable housing, but I don’t know what another council would be committed to, or I don’t know what might come out of the Economic Development Department, or what might come out of the Public Works Department, or what might come out of private enterprise coming to the city and saying ‘we need certain things’.”

The council is under a time crunch if it wants to put the proposed change before voters on the May 1 ballot, which Segovia said is necessary to have any effect on the upcoming 2022-2027 bond program. The council is scheduled to order the election on Feb. 11, the day before the Feb. 12 deadline.

Segovia told council members the proposed amendment would not affect their ability to have input on what bond projects eventually go to the voters.

“The council can still work in terms of what specific bond categories we have, what projects we have, what the parameters are around those. So, that all is still in place,” Segovia said.

Changing this portion of the charter would undo a 1997 amendment that originally limited the use of bond dollars. Segovia told council members that “from what I understand” the amendment came about partly because of backlash over public funding for the Alamodome.

A 2018 Charter Review Commission previously considered changing the charter language surrounding the use of bond dollars, at Nirenberg’s request. However, Segovia said the commission didn’t give a final report because the fire union’s amendments beat them to the ballot.

Because charter amendment elections may only be held every two years, the May 1 election is the first chance to revise the city charter since the Nov. 6, 2018 election.

Amending the charter would also allow the city to use bond dollars to fund the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, though City Manager Erik Walsh cautioned the city council has already passed a 10-year plan for funding the EAPP.

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.