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City Budget Shakeup Reveals Some Wins, Some Losses

Ryan Loyd
TPR News

San Antonio city leaders swept through a $2.3 billion budget amid negotiations in the final hour that added line items back in that previously had been eliminated.

With the majority of the city council favoring the amendments, and the 2014 budget as proposed, residents will begin seeing some of the effects.

For starters, an additional $1 will be added to the environmental fee found on CPS Energy bills that will fund $6.4 million toward parks and recreation. Previous budget recommendations would have required people to pay to use city-wide swimming pools and community centers.

For most of the council, the issue seemed like an easy decision. But for several, it was a reminder to them that the council is creating more problems for itself.

"We're in a position right now… looking at a fiscal reality that we really need to be careful about how we spend our money," said District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who is going through his first budget process on the city council. "We have to make tough choices, and I don't want to get caught in a game of kick the can."

District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan jabbed even harder.

"I think we are not living within our means," she said Thursday ahead of the budget adoption. "As a matter of fact, we are living beyond our means. And this is really against my spending principle, and I will not be a part of this irresponsible behavior."

From her seat, she read a statement given to her from the North Side Neighborhoods for Organized Development. She said its 10,000 members wanted to go on the record in opposition to the fee - that they call a tax -- being used for basic services.

"Capital investment money should not be used for routine budget expenditures," Chan read. "This practice is a sign of financial weakness and indicates we are on the financial path that cannot be maintained."

Essential services vs. "pet projects"

Soules argued the city should be focused on providing basic services and should eliminate anything that's extra. He called those extra items "pet projects."

One of those is Hemisfair Park redevelopment. In 2014, the budget includes $1.15 million in funds with a total of nine employees. Budget director Maria Villagomez explained that not all of those positions are city funded.

She also outlined other delegate agencies, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl Scouts and ChildSafe, which will see a 5 percent reduction.

Credit Ryan Loyd / TPR News
Mayor Julian Castro listens to residents during a recent council meeting.

"Personally, I believe this council is missing an opportunity and that opportunity is getting San Antonio's budget back on the right track," said Soules to his colleagues from the dais Thursday. "The issues that we're facing are fairly straightforward. We're spending more money than we're bringing in and I think the fix is equally straightforward: reduce spending in non-essential areas and eliminate spending on non-essential projects."

In a meeting after the budget, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said for the past seven years, she and her staff have made deep cuts to administrative positions. Going forward, she said, it may be time to look at how services are delivered. She stopped short of guaranteeing the time soon could be ripe for a property tax increase.

Additional add-ins and keepers

The city also reinstated 10 of the 20 civilian Crisis Response Team staff, previously taken out of the budget by Police Chief William McManus. As a result, said budget director Maria Villagomez, there will be no reductions to the CRT, which responds to domestic violence cases.

Library board chair Jean Brady walked away content, too. The library could have taken a hit, which would have closed every branch library one day a week.

"The library system means much to the citizens of San Antonio to to the citizens of Bexar County," said Brady to the council Thursday.

Other winners from the budget adoption include children -- $5 million remains on the books for sidewalks specifically for kids to walk to school safely.

Animal Care Services snagged back $100,000 to increase animal intake capacity and for spay and neuter surgeries, Villagomez said.

And, although council members took an $11,000 hit to their own City Council Project Funds (CCPF), which pays for events like back to school fairs, vaccination clinics and other community-wide functions, each council member will retain $50,000. A previous recommendation had the fund dwindled down to $35,000.

In an email blast to his constituents, Councilman Cris Medina boasted about the budget, which does not include a tax increase.

"I was one of the first council members to oppose any increase in taxes and advocate for finding efficiencies like eliminating vacant positions, refinancing debt, and utilizing new technologies," he said in the email.

He also praised the council for increasing funding for core services citizens said were most important to them during the city wide budget hearings: police, fire and EMS.

Mayor Julián Castro agreed the budget this year presented new and different challenges, but said he believed the result is a budget everyone can live with.

"This budget was a more challenging budget than we faced in a couple of years, but I believe that we have come in for a soft landing," he said Thursday.