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City To Consider Self-Funding Aquifer Protection To Allow For ConnectSA Tax Swap

Courtesy VIA Metropolitan Transit

The City of San Antonio is expected to phase out a long-standing sales tax that funds land purchases in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in order to fund a portion of the ConnectSA transportation plan.

To do so, the city would instead fund the protection program using money it already collects from the San Antonio Water System. A previous proposal had SAWS entirely take over the responsibility but that was scrapped in favor of the current plan.

Members of the San Antonio City Council expressed support for the city to fund future aquifer protection purchases during a council work session Wednesday.

“It’s always been that the SAWS revenue is the only other option for us,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.  “The difference between what was proposed at SAWS and what this is that the City of San Antonio will continue to manage the program but it’s still the SAWS revenue that enables this thing to begin.”

The linear creekway and aquifer protection program are currently funded through a 1/8th of a cent sales tax that voters first approved in 2000. Over the last five years it’s collected about $180 million.  It would be up for renewal this year however the city council will likely not send it back to voters in order to use the sales tax for ConnectSA.

The city council would need to approve that later this year and the VIA Metropolitan Transit Board would call for the election.

Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez said using city money for the protection program wouldn’t affect services the city currently provides.

“Based on our financial projections what we are anticipating to use is the growth in that transfer that we get from SAWS to be able to cover that additional expense – so no impact to current city services,” she said.  

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry asked city staff about the city’s investment in the aquifer protection program and if it would be enough to fund what was needed. The city estimates the cost would be about $109 million over 10 years.

“Let’s know what the requirement is first and then match the resources to that requirement. I don’t know what $100 million is going to get us over 10 years that might be a thimble amount trying to fill an ocean and is it even worth it,” Perry said.

Using city funds would not prompt a SAWS rate increase city officials said.

The suggestion is also receiving the support of the city’s Conservation Advisory Board. UTSA professor Francine Romero is chair of the board.

“SAWS has their own mission and they should have their own mission but it’s not this mission. It’s not the mission to protect the aquifer in the same way,” Romero said. “With the city continuing the program, it keeps all the infrastructure in place, it keeps the staff in place, it keeps the procedures in place so we don’t lose anything by transferring it to an agency that doesn’t have the experience in this program.” 

ConnectSA is a multi-year proposal by Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to expand the city’s transportation network by increasing the bus frequency, sidewalks, rapid transit and other modes of getting around.

The challenge is money. ConnectSA has a price tag of $1.3 billion it still needs to secure. ConnectSA’s leadership – which includes former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros,former VIA Board Chair Hope Andrade and former City Attorney Jane Macon – say they have identified the needed funding. It includes the proposed sales tax, federal funds, money from the Texas Department of Transportation, Bexar County and other sources.

District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez said he believes it’s a worthy investment.

“It’s settled science that improved access to public transit – it has a causal relationship and positively impacts the special poverty distribution problem in metro areas, that’s just a fact,” said Pelaez.

In addition to the sales tax, ConnectSA projects it would need to dip into the city’s 2022 bond program which voters will also need to approve in two years. The bond is estimated to reach $950 million. ConnectSA would use about $650 million of that for transportation projects.

The San Antonio City Council is expected to receive another update on ConnectSA in March.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.