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San Antonio, Bexar County Eye COVID-19 Relief Programs Through Federal Funding

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh (right) talk with a constituent before an April city council meeting.
Joey Palacios| Texas Public Radio
In this April file photo, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh (right) talk with a constituent before a city council meeting.

The San Antonio City Council is considering nearly 15 initiatives in providing public and workforce assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the city’s $270 million in federal coronavirus relief funds will be used for these projects.

The city hasn’t put a dollar figure out yet, but the priorities the city is considering are centered on workforce development, small business support, the digital divide and housing security. In those are programs like training for new careers, child care support, providing cash assistance and support to families, and providing additional emergency homeless shelter options. Meanwhile, Bexar County is looking to also put Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to work. 

San Antonio’s City Manager Erik Walsh says there will be a focus on the city’s immediate needs and long term damage.

“I’m specifically talking about unemployment and struggling businesses and those long term strategy efforts ideally should better position us and our community for recovery and possibly put us in a better position for the future,” Walsh said.

The city council participated in a remote work session on Wednesday to provide feedback and direction for city staff on what programs should be developed.

There are more than a dozen initiatives the city is considering:  a fair housing counseling and family resources center,  outreach teams to conduct door-to-door engagement with hard to reach businesses and families, and domestic violence prevention and intervention strategies.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed plans articulate what the community and city council values.  

“Particularly with regard to equity and resilience that’s what we’re trying to build in this city as we recover from the crisis,” Nirenberg said.  

Not all of the $270 million would be used on these suggested initiatives. That money comes from the federal CARES Act fund. It can only be used for COVID-19 response and unbudgeted expenses like personnel costs and testing.

Several council members expressed refining some of the programs. District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry said a program that would help people gain new skills after losing their jobs, could instead better serve people by helping them get back into their own industries.

“The people that I’ve talked to that have lost their jobs; they’re not looking to retrain, they don’t want to go out into a different field. They want their jobs back, where they used to work.”

Perry suggested focusing on restoring small businesses.

“I mean let’s face it, our economy here in San Antonio is built on the backs of small businesses, they are our backbone,” Perry said. “And that’s to me where our concentration should be at and the majority of the resources going to.”

One of the suggested programs puts an emphasis on supporting micro-businesses, which have 20 employees or less.

In March, the city projected unemployment for San Antonio could reach as high as 14%. According to unemployment statistics for Bexar County from the Texas Department of Labor, the unemployment rate was reported at 3.1% in February but it jumped to 4.2% in March. April data was not immediately available.

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño wanted an emphasis on arts support. Many of the city’s arts organizations found themselves with less revenue during the pandemic.

“The arts are so, so critical to who we are as a community,” Trevino said. “It would be one of the greatest shames if we come out of this crisis in a way that we potentially lose some access to it and not provide the support that they rely on us to give them. Where are the arts in this plan?”

Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras said funding for nonprofits, such as arts organizations, could be arranged in the form of something similar to small business assistance grants.

Some of the city’s federal dollars have already been allocated. For example, one existing program out of the city’s Economic Development Department is creating supply boxes for small businesses. The boxes contain a non-contact thermometer, two gallons of hand sanitizer and face masks. The city has spent about $1.9 million on that initiative to provide the kit for about 5,000 businesses.

Walsh said the input from council would be used to shape what the city will focus on.

“As we enter this next phase we are still kind of in an emergency situation but a conversation about community resiliency and recovery I felt was important to get feedback from everybody today before we start dishing out numbers and scenarios,” Walsh said.

Council members will review the suggested programs next week and vote on June 4. Any programs that are created would run from June to September.

Bexar County is considering its own COVID-19 relief efforts using federal money. Last week the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court discussed its plans for nearly $80 million in CARES Act Funding. Half of the funding would go to retain workers for new industries who were left out of jobs during the pandemic.

The rest would be used for people who are experiencing hardships with their homes and small businesses. One such program approved by commissioners on Tuesday was a program with LiftFund to provide $1.5 million in grants for small businesses.

Bexar County Economic and Community Development Executive Director David Marquez says the fund is targeted to local small businesses who have not been able to fully operate during the shutdown.

“We really want this to be a main-street type of business that is hurt because folks were asked to shelter, they were asked to stay home, and as a result these businesses are not going to see any business until that gets lifted, they won’t see any revenue. So, these grants are intended to help them survive,” Marquez said.

Commissioners were also considering a $5 million loan program using CARES money but asked for further review before approval.

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

TPR's Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report. 

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