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Nirenberg's State Of The City: ConnectSA Tax Nixed, City Prepared For 2nd COVID-19 Wave

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg holds a televised address from his office on Tuesday night.
TVSA
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg holds a televised address from his office on Tuesday night.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg delivered a rare primetime television address on Tuesday night to talk about the city’s current position in the coronavirus pandemic.  

During the State of the City Address, Nirenberg said the city is prepared for a second wave of COVID-19. The city is expected to make difficult cuts while trying to support residents who are out of jobs due to the pandemic.  The mayor is also putting a hold on funding for his mass transportation plan known as ConnectSA by not placing a tax proposition on the ballot that was scheduled for the November election.

Nirenberg called COVID-19 an unwelcomed stress test, but added through the efforts of residents an unbridled spread of the disease was thwarted.

“By staying home, practicing physical distancing, and wearing masks when close to those who don’t live in our households we slowed the spread of the virus and increased medical capacity,” he said.

It’s typical for San Antonio’s sitting mayors to give an annual state of the city address – they’re usually held by the various chambers of commerce to highlight the progress or challenges that a mayoral administration has faced. However, the pandemic has disrupted the usual luncheon setting where they are normally delivered.

For the last 67 days Nirenberg has held nightly briefings with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in San Antonio and the county. Each night they updated hospitalizations, new cases, hospital capacity, outbreaks, and steps the city and county have taken day-by-day.

“Our community has flattened the curve and avoided the nightmare of an overwhelmed health care system by working together and protecting each other,” Nirenberg said during the address.

The city’s COVID-19 response began in February when a group of cruise ship evacuees. One month later, the city reported its first local travel related case. On Tuesday, June 2, there were 2,882 cases confirmed in Bexar County and 75 deaths.

Nirenberg took a brief moment to comment on the nationwide protests regarding the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. San Antonio saw its own protests turn violent over the weekend.

“Even in the best-case scenario, these last few months have put you and your loved ones on edge. The disruptive events downtown Saturday night, instigated by a few, and separate from the peaceful protests for justice and reform, didn’t help. But throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the world once again has seen the very best of humanity through the people of our city,” he said.

The pandemic catapulted a hole into the city’s economy and it’s own fiscal budget. Unemployment is at nearly 14%t after stay at home orders required businesses to temporarily close and tax revenue is down leaving a $200 million revenue shortfall for the city this year.  

“City Manager Erik Walsh already has suspended more than $80 million in budgeted spending to address the shortfall. Additional steps will be required to balance this year’s budget. And the next city budget is expected to be much tighter. City Council will be forced to make the most difficult cuts in memory,” Nirenberg said. “Business as usual is out of the question, but I know my colleagues are up to the task.”

One of the city’s casualties could be ConnectSA; a $1.3 billion transportation plan that was designed to provide other methods of transportation as a million new residents are projected to arrive in San Antonio over the next 20 years.

A funding mechanism for it was 1/8th of a cent sales tax that currently funds the city’s aquifer protection program. That tax expires this year. Nirenberg and city officials had planned to use that money to fund about $195 million for transportation initiatives.

“As we chart this course, we must put aside previous plans that made sense before the pandemic sent shock waves through our community,” said Nirenberg.

He added it would not be on the ballot this November.

“This is a painful, but necessary, decision for us. But direct action to ensure a healthful economic recovery means rebuilding now. We will take the time we need to fully understand the depth of the pandemic’s financial damage before making new investments.”

What is on the ballot, however, is Pre-K4SA; the city’s tax-payer funded pre-k program. It uses a separate 1/8th cent sales tax to fund its operations. It was created in 2012 with voter approval. Now that tax is up for renewal. Nirenberg asked voters to support it again.

The next hurdle for the San Antonio City Council is relief to the city’s residents. This Thursday the council will vote on a proposed $191 million recovery and resiliency plan designed to ease. That plan is partially funded using $270 million received from the CARES Act.

“It is essential that we get this right. And I am determined to craft a recovery that builds our community in a more equitable way. This is the time to reboot. We must emerge from this crisis as a community that doesn’t accept widespread poverty as a fact of life,” Nirenberg said. “The funds available for recovery will be targeted at housing security, workforce development, universal Internet access, and small business support.”

The city has taken other measures including the creation of a $25 million housing assistance fund to help residents pay rent, mortgages, utilities and buy essential items like gas and groceries. The city council approved that last month.

Although the city’s focus is response and recovery, Nirenberg wanted to make sure the inequirty and residents experienced even before the pandemic is not repeated.

“In the wake of any crisis, we are forced to take a full accounting of our community to understand its core problems and reassess our priorities. What has been made clear in the last few months is that, just as underlying health conditions make the coronavirus more deadly, preexisting poverty and inequities have made the economic challenge more catastrophic,” said Nirenberg.

He made note that the San Antonio Food Bank was already feeding 60,000 people per week before it skyrocketed to 120,000 per week.

“Because if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected. What happens to each person in our community has a direct effect on you, just as what happens to you has a direct effect on all of us. So, yes, the fault lines have been exposed, but it is our collective duty to rebuild, together,” Nirenberg said.

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

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