SAN ANTONIO – This story has been updated
Despite dozens of proposed changes worth tens of millions of dollars on the line, the San Antonio City Council found little to argue about Tuesday afternoon as it prepared to finalize the city’s $3.7 billion budget.
Expanding a popular mental health team, creating a fund to help cover travel to out-of-state abortion clinics, and giving more money for Animal Care Services were among the most high-profile changes council members discussed making to the budget — largely favorably. The city council will meet again Wednesday to finalize its last-minute tweaks before voting on the final budget Thursday morning.
“The air of compromise was definitely in the room,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
Ahead of the meeting, City Manager Erik Walsh released a list of 66 proposals staff had compiled, either through the council’s discussions in the past month or from ideas council members had submitted in writing. Some additional proposals arose during Tuesday’s discussion, too.
Though city staff had tallied the first-year cost of the proposed amendments at more than $36 million, some of the requests overlap or simply reallocate funding.
The city council will have some extra money to spend on its proposals, though. CPS Energy has recently raked in a windfall by selling power on the wholesale market. So city staff expect to have $20 million more on hand than what they had anticipated when they first presented the budget on Aug. 10.
The proposed spending plan staff presented in early August was already 9% larger than the original version of the current year’s budget passed by the previous council. Most of the increase came from capital expenses, especially to expand the city’s airport.
SA CORE EXPANSION
The city plans to add a record number of San Antonio police officers this year, but city council members’ focus during the police portion of the budget talks was largely centered around its handling of mental health calls.
Expanding the city’s new, multi-disciplinary approach to handling some of the calls was one of the most popular amendments council members discussed Tuesday.
The San Antonio Community Outreach and Resiliency Effort (SA CORE) teams are made up of three members: an SAPD officer, a San Antonio Fire Department paramedic, and a mental health clinician. They respond to non-violent mental health calls with an emphasis on resolving things on scene rather than hauling the person away in handcuffs.
The city already has plans to expand from its initial pilot program downtown to three three teams that can cover the entire city between 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
However, several council members have asked for to expand the program further — either by adding a fourth team to provide extra coverage in that time frame or by going to 24-hour coverage.
“Not only do we need coverage 24 hours a day, but we need it at the peak call volume time, which is oddly Tuesdays at 11,” said Councilwoman Marina Alderete Gavito (D7).
City staff estimate expanding the three teams to 24-hour coverage would take an additional $3.5 million in the upcoming budget and $3.7 million in the 2025 fiscal year.
A fourth team, they say, would cost $2.5 million in the first year, due to equipment costs, and $2.3 million the year after.
REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE FUND
Though it was opposed by only one member of the city council during Tuesday’s discussion, the so-called “Reproductive Justice Fund” could be the most controversial change the council is considering.
Abortion rights advocates have pushed for the creation of a $500,000 fund that, among other things, could help community organizations provide logistical support like transportation or lodging to women who are seeking out-of-state, legal abortions. The procedure has been illegal in Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade in 2022 and opened the door to state-by-state regulation.
Advocates also said the fund could be used to support groups that offer reproductive health resources like STI testing or prenatal vitamins, reproductive healthcare eduction, support for doula training, or training for reproductive health care service providers.
Though the groups were explicit in explaining the various types of help they want to see offered, their supporters on council have used less direct language in their requests to add the fund to the budget.
District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo was evasive in describing what exactly the fund would do during an interview with KSAT last week, though she eventually confirmed in a follow-up interview that it would “ideally” help groups providing travel assistance to women seeking abortions.
During Tuesday’s discussion, she framed the proposal as a way to fulfill the commitment the previous city council made when it passed a non-binding resolution in August 2022 supporting women’s ability to access abortion.
“I believe that we have the responsibility,” she said Tuesday. “I know when we passed the resolution, there was a debate about what was actually tied to it and what we didn’t have. And I believe now there’s an opportunity to put some money behind that request.”
Mayor Ron Nireneberg, Councilwoman Sukh Kaur (D1), Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3), Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), Councilwoman Marina Alderete-Gavito, Councilman John Courage (D9) also supported the idea during the discussion.
The council’s most conservative member, Councilman Marc Whyte (D10), was the only one to speak against the idea. Whyte said he “will always stand for life” and warned there would be “significant legal exposure” to helping fund groups that help women travel over state lines to access abortion.
None of the council members asked City Attorney Andy Segovia for a legal opinion during Tuesday’s meeting, though he and First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio told reporters afterward that providing logistical assistance would not be a criminal offense — at least based on the latest court rulings.
But another Texas law that predates the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion also allows anyone to sue someone who “aids or abets” in an abortion past six weeks. So, depending on what services the city funds, Segovia said, it’s possible the city could end up facing a lawsuit.
“It will be dependent what’s (sic) it’s funding and what the state current state of the law is...and what the legal risks are, which I’ll tell them (council members), obviously, before I tell y’all,” Segovia said.
Even if the council adds the new fund to the budget, Segovia said council members would still have to define how it will be used.
ANIMAL CARE SERVICES
The city’s Animal Care Service’s department is already in line for a 26% bump to its budget.
But as the department faces increased public scrutiny following high-profile issues with dangerous dogs, council members have been eager to throw ACS an even bigger bone.
The proposed amendments include additional spay and neuter locations, funding for a spay and neuter mobile clinic or for more surgeries at standalone clinics, and body cameras for the ACS Dangerous Animal Response Team.
Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez also submitted a $1.2 million request, which staff say Nirenberg also supported, to hire 14 additional positions so the city can begin answering all of the ACS “critical” calls for service.
The city says it only has enough staff to respond to about 44% of the 50,000 critical 311 calls it gets for ACS issues like cruelty, neglect, and aggressive dogs. Staff had proposed a three-year plan to add enough officers to reach a 100% response rate, with a goal of achieving a 64% response rate for the next year.
“That’s not an acceptable score for me to give a student,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “And so for us to tell our constituents that we’re going to — ‘Yay! We’re going to respond to 64% of critical calls’ is unacceptable. And so I think we need to move to 100% as quickly as possible.”
SIDEWALK AND TRAFFIC IMPROVEMENTS
Half of the city council had also asked for more discretionary funds to spend on traffic and sidewalk projects in their districts.
The 10 council districts each currently receive $450,000 to spend on the Neighborhood Accessibility and Mobility Program (NAMP) projects, which council members allocate. That covers expenses like sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic studies, and traffic signals.
City staff had originally proposed maintaining that level of discretionary funding, but Walsh says five of the council members asked to raise that amount to $700,000, which would cost another $2.5 million in the budget. Councilman Marc Whyte (D10) suggested a smaller boost to $500,000 per district.
Staff say three council members also requested increasing city council infrastructure funds from $1 million to $1.25 million per district.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg suggested the requests be combined into a larger $5 million pool. But rather than divide it evenly among the districts, he said the money should be doled out based on the city’s “equity matrix.”
“So that we can continue, again, to put our resources where they’re needed the most rather than going backwards in terms of rough proportionality and dividing every resource by 10,” Nirenberg said.
BALLISTIC GLASS FOR POLICE CARS
One amendment has all but been added to the city budget is ballistic glass for San Antonio Police vehicles.
Following a recent slew of shootings of SAPD officers, Walsh said he had already told Police Chief William McManus to begin the procurement process for ballistic glass to replace the windshields and side glass in 30 SAPD specialty unit vehicles.
After that, Walsh said the city would include the ballistic glass in the approximately 200 patrol vehicles it replaces annually.
Walsh said several council members and Mayor Nirenberg have since brought up the idea, too.
One massive proposal that had been expected to come up on Tuesday, instead got kicked down the road.
Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda unofficially floated a plan last week to scale back how much the the city collects from its electric utility, CPS Energy, in order to stave off an expected rate hike.
The idea that she laid out for KSAT would have meant foregoing $90 million in the next year alone. Though the councilwoman has said she believes that could be done without cutting into existing city services, Walsh said it would require “permanent cuts to the budget.”
Instead of formally propose the idea as a budget amendment as she had planned, Cabello Havrda submitted a request Tuesday for the city to take a more in-depth look at the idea later on.
“I know how difficult this would be in the last three days of the city budget process,” she said.
CPS Energy is expected to request another rate increase within the next year.
READ WALSH’S MEMO AND THE FULL LIST OF PROPOSALS BELOW
CITY STAFF PROVIDED AN UPDATED LIST OF THE PROPOSED AMENDMENTS THAT RAISED THE ESTIMATED TALLY FROM $33 MILLION TO $36.2 MILLION FOR FY 2023
READ THE BUDGET CHANGES THAT COUNCIL MEMBERS REQUESTED IN WRITING