- Mary Tuma
A stark departure from the uproar over the non-discrimination ordinance, City Council chambers felt comparatively tranquil as council members, with little controversy, passed a balanced $2.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2014 last Thursday.
However, one similarity between the two meetings stood out—District 9 council member Elisa Chan and District 10’s Carlton Soules dissented from majority opinion, yet again, causing the relatively calm waters to ripple.
While the initially proposed budget plan aimed to reduce library hours, cut park services and scale back an SAPD domestic violence program, a fee tacked on to CPS Energy bills prevented the cuts. The $1 added to monthly environmental fees is expected to generate $6.4 million in parks maintenance, while also allowing money in the general revenue fund to free up, directing dollars toward eliminating some proposed park fee increases, community center renovations and new playgrounds. It’ll also keep libraries open all seven days a week and help halt the loss of 10 of the 20 civilian caseworker positions with the Crisis Response Team, a program that monitors and intervenes in domestic violence cases. Cuts to the CRT came under fire from local groups dedicated to ending violence and Mayor Julian Castro, as the Current previously reported.
Castro said the budget successfully met the basic service needs of San Antonio and was “grounded in the aspirations of the community.” He gave a slight nod to restored CRT cuts, saying the financial plan ensured protection by investing in robust public safety departments. With a $35-$50 million shortfall, Castro admitted this was, “a more challenging budget to face than in the past couple of years,” then added, “but I think we’ve come in to a soft landing.”
The cushioned touchdown felt a little rougher as Soules and Chan, joined by District 8 council newbie Ron Nirenberg, vocalized their objections to the added bill cost. The trio argued the charge was merely a tax hike disguised as a fee.
“I think we are living beyond our means and this is really against my spending principles. I will not be part of this irresponsible behavior, so I will not be able to support the proposed budget today,” said Chan.
District 4’s Rey Saldaña countered, “I want to make certain that people know we are not a city that lives outside its means. … If you reject the fee you are systematically endorsing policy that ignores parks today.”
Prompted by Saldaña, City Manager Sheryl Sculley boosted the point, saying the budget still eliminated 200 civilian positions through the use of technology as well as efficiencies and partnerships with different agencies. In the past seven years, the City cut 1,350 civilian positions, “to be able to provide basic core services.” In other words: we’ve made the cuts, so to say we’re being fiscally “irresponsible” isn’t all that fair.
Soules remained unconvinced. The charge, he said flatly is, “nothing more than a tax increase masquerading as a fee.” The City is missing an opportunity to get the budget on track, said Soules. “I don’t think it sets the City on right path and I am not going to be able to support it.” The fiscal conservatives took issue with the fee falling on taxpayers. Soules, not exactly ignoring parks concerns, offered up cutting the streetcar project, slashing executive salaries and charging higher prices for properties the City is renting out for cheap.
“We have to make tough choices and I don’t want to get caught in a game of kick the can … This park fee is going to be a concern,” said Nirenberg, before asking for the fee to be separated from the budget vote.
Budget Director Maria Villagómez dispels those concerns, telling the Current the fee strategy arose as a direct result of the priorities explicitly expressed by city council and the community at large during budget hearings—the consensus indicated they didn’t want to see taxes raised or a reduction in public safety.
In the end, all three voted down the fee (unsuccessfully) and the budget eventually sailed through a majority. The final adopted budget won’t be available for another three weeks, but here’s a preview from the proposed plan:
Off the chopping block and reinstated:
• 10 of 20 civilian counselor positions with the police department’s Crisis Response Team
• Park renovation funds
• Outdoor swimming pool availability, which was to be reduced at certain locations from Monday-Thursday
• Library hours were to be cut from 56 to 48 hours weekly (either Friday or Sunday)
• Senior centers see a $1.5 million expansion in District 2, District 6 and District 7
• Continues $54 million in funding for Infrastructure Management Program (IMP) including $8.5 million allocated for sidewalks; a $2 million increase.
• Adds $1.2 million for resources to fund HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) Office
• $1.25 million in neighborhood initiatives, such as the Neighborhood Revitalization (REnewSA)
• Animal Care Services sees an increase of $224,400 plus another $100,000 via an amendment for spay/neuter services and/or intake capacity.