City Council passes $3.4B budget, including bill credits to CPS customers

Credits averaging $29 for residential customers will be on November/December bills

San Antonio skyline (KSAT)

San Antonio – The San Antonio City Council passed a $3.4 billion budget on Thursday afternoon for the 2023 fiscal year, which includes pay bumps for employees, dozens of new police officer positions, and a property tax cut.

It also includes a controversial plan to give $50 million back to CPS Energy customers, mostly in the form of bill credits worth $42.5 million. All CPS customers, including residents, businesses, and those outside city limits will get credits on their November or December bills based on their July bills.

The average residential customer would get a $29 credit, while the largest class of commercial users are looking at an average rebate of $94,711.

The entire budget passed on a 9-1 vote, with District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo voting against it and District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran abstaining - both upset with a failed attempt earlier in the meeting to delay spending the money for the bill credits.

While Viagran joined colleagues in approving related votes on the tax rate and smaller portions of the budget, Bravo continued to vote against them in protest.

Bravo had vigorously supported Viagran’s motion to put the money for bill credits in reserve so council members could discuss alternative uses for it. The District 1 councilman had been the first to suggest using the money for efforts like home weatherization and tree planting, instead of the credits plan proposed by city staff.

We could give you $26 and then we can tell your grand-kids ‘you go figure it out. You solve these problems of the future.’ But that’s not going to get us where we need to go,” Bravo argued.

The motion ended up failing, though, in a 5-5 vote, with District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval abstaining. That meant the rebate plan remained a part of the budget and was included in its passage.

Sandoval’s position on the rebate plan had remained unclear leading into the vote, telling reporters she was focused on her own budget amendment to establish a new climate resiliency and sustainability fund using a portion of the CPS Energy revenue the city receives every year.

Her proposal was included in the final budget with $9.5 million of funding for FY 2023 and $9.15 for FY 2024.

However, when asked by KSAT why she had abstained from the vote on the credits, Sandoval was evasive, saying at first “I think the takeaway from today is that I think we’re the first Texas city to have a dedicated revenue source for climate action. That’s not $5 million. It’s not $10 million. It’s in perpetuity, and I would really love it if you guys realized how important that was.”

Pressed further on her abstention, though, Sandoval said, with clear frustration, “because I didn’t support either one, okay?”

The final budget included 19 other amendments proposed by council members, on issues including more money for the MLK Commission, an additional sidewalk repair crew and expanding city pool hours.

The San Antonio City Council is making final adjustments before voting on the historic $3.4 billion budget.

The proposed budget is roughly 10.9% larger than the $3.1 billion FY 2022 adopted budget and is broken into three parts:

  • $1.51 billion - GENERAL FUND - Increase of roughly $150 million
  • $641 million - CAPITAL BUDGET - Increase of roughly $49 million
  • $1.25 billion - RESTRICTED FUNDS - Increase of roughly $140 million

The FY 2023 budget proposal includes $156.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act, and city staff are expecting increased revenue from property tax, sales tax, CPS Energy, and other sources than was in the adopted FY 2022 budget.

CPS ENERGY REBATES

READ MORE: City Council still split on plan for $50M in extra CPS Energy revenue

The city is projecting it will receive $75 million more than expected from CPS Energy revenues because high temperatures and natural gas costs have caused bills to soar, too.

City staff proposed sending $50 million of the money back to ratepayers. Their most recent plan, which was passed as part of the budget, transfers $7.5 million to a low-income assistance program, and the other $42.5 million would go back to customers as bill credits.

“These funds are are your money, and it should be given back to the customers,” said District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, who had supported sending the full $75 million back to customers.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg was a strong proponent of the rebate plan, but several council members doubted the bill credits, worth an average of $29 for the average residential customer, would help the people who need it most.

Several pointed to how much money would be paid out to businesses and customers outside of the city. The largest class of commercial users would get an average rebate of $94,711,

Instead, opponents on the council pushed to spend the money on helping the city and its residents prepare for future extreme temperatures instead, through programs like weatherizing homes or planting trees.

But unlike the staff’s rebate proposal, there wasn’t a consensus on the specifics of any alternative plan.

District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran moved to put the $42.5 million meant for bill credits on hold so the council could look at other options, but the motion failed with the council split 5-5 and Sandoval abstaining.

Voting for the delay were: District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran, District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, and District 9 Councilman John Courage.

Voting against it were: Mayor Ron Nirenberg, District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia, District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda, District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez, and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry.

Sandoval wasthe author of a separate proposal to establish a dedicated “Resiliency, Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Fund.”

She proposed using the money to incentivize businesses to participate in relevant programs, reduce temperatures in so-called “urban heat islands,” provide grants to local community organizations, and leverage federal funding. The specifics, though, still need to be worked out.

Her idea would be funded in long-term portion of the city’s revenue from CPS Energy -- roughly $8 million to $10 million per year.

In the first year, the city is budgeting $9.5 million - using a portion of the $75 million extra CPS Energy revenue that staff had originally earmarked for an aquifer protection program.

The aquifer protection program will still be funded, just through borrowed money, which was the original plan before the CPS Energy windfall.

EMPLOYEE PAY BUMPS

READ MORE: Proposed SA budget includes pay raises up to 20% as city tries to match market rates

The city has a 9.7% vacancy council in its positions compared to 7.6% or 7.7% before the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, when the city had a hiring freeze, it got up to 15%.

After conducting its first market analysis since 2008, the city’s proposed budget would give a 5% increase across the board, with additional market adjustments between 2% and 15%. The raises, which total $53 million, are for civilian employees, as well as airport and park police officers -- nearly 9,000 positions in all.

SAPD officers and firefighters, however, are covered under separate union contracts. Police are scheduled for a 3.5% increase, and firefighters will get a 2.5% bump with a 0.5% lump sum.

Roughly two-thirds of the city employees are looking at 7% raises, including contract coordinators, management analysts, and planners. Another third would get raises between 7% and 12%, like veterinarian techs, licensed vocational nurses, 311 customer service representatives, and solid waste collectors.

A select 244 employees in jobs like welding, public health nurses, and family support workers would get raises totaling 12% to 20%.

The minimum city wage for all employees -- part-time, full-time, and seasonal -- would also be raised to $17.50 an hour.

PROPERTY TAX CUT

Despite the additional costs, property owners will still get tax relief.

To stay below a state-imposed revenue cap, the city also plans to lower the property tax rate by 1.67 cents per $100 of value. The tax rate cut is on top of the increased homestead exemption and other tax breaks for homeowners the City Council passed in June.

It’s the eighth property tax rate reduction in 30 years, according to city staff.

PUBLIC SAFETY

READ MORE: More police officers and firefighters part of proposed city budget

The combined public safety budgets of fire and police would be 60.7% of the general fund, well below the city’s typical guideline of 66%.

Although City Manager Erik Walsh said the San Antonio Police Department budget -- the largest of all city departments -- is growing, the general fund at large is growing at a faster pace.

Police officer and firefighter wages are determined by their union contracts and are not part of the city’s plans to increase pay for civilian employees.

Under the proposed city budget, SAPD would get 78 new uniformed positions for a total of 2,581. Meanwhile, SAFD’s firefighter and EMS positions would rise to 1,795 with the addition of 21 new spots.

The new police positions are split between 28 supervisory positions at the St. Mary’s Street substation, which is expected to be completed in January 2024, and 50 to focus on violent crime prevention strategies as determined by a UTSA study, which the city expects to receive a draft of in the fall.

The fire positions are broken into 15 positions for a new platform truck out of Fire Station 45 near Sea World and six for a medical responder team out of Fire Station 24 on Austin Highway.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

  • $116M for streets, $21M for sidewalks, and $1M for bike facilities
  • $19.6M in new parks and recreation improvements
  • $136M for affordable housing to create 2,500 new housing units
  • $160M of spending out of the city’s record $1.2 billion bond
  • $35.3M for improvements at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the Alamodome
  • $3.2M for renovations and improvements at eight libraries
  • 30 new positions in the airport and support departments ahead of the Terminal Redevelopment Program
  • Focus of two code enforcement officers to be redirected toward proactive inspections at apartment complexes
  • $1.2M for ACS Emergency Overflow and transport kennels
  • $1.3M in new funding for homeless outreach and hotline
  • $1.2M in new funding for six months of the lease and operations of the homeless hotel
  • No fee increase for solid waste service, though one is expected in FY 2024
  • $300K for Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission
  • $400K for a fund to help businesses affected by city construction
  • New crime prevention and recidivism coordinator position, created by reallocating position and funds from Metro Health

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.