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City Of San Antonio Braces For 5 Years Of Leaner Budgets Over Pandemic

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg hands a document to the city clerk during Thursday's council meeting.
Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
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San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg hands a document to the city clerk during Thursday's council meeting.

The pandemic has put a strain on the City of San Antonio’s operating budget — not just for 2020, but over the next five years.

Hotel and sales taxes were in a downward spiral this year and will be into next year according to city data and economists. The next five years have multi-million dollar reductions in certain departments but the city manager wants to preserve both jobs and essential services without a disruption in the city’s operations.

For the next two years, the city will need to cut $109 million from its general fund – which funds most city departments like police and fire as well as parks, libraries and neighborhood services.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the city has been proactive in its adjustments.

“The work on ensuring we have a balanced budget has helped us get to a point where we can budget forward without too much drastic impact. But of course we’ve got to stay nimble because we still don’t know how this pandemic is going to continue to play out,” he said.

The budgets for the following three years — 2023, 2024 and 2025 — are also expected to take hits in the range of $81 million to $97 million each year. But those impacts will depend on what happens during response and recovery of COVID-19 in the next two years or so.

San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh said protecting employees from layoffs and providing the city’s core services would be his priorities.

“No reductions to community, neighborhood services, libraries, parks, human services, the health department, I mean all those things that everybody relies upon,” Walsh said.

Less revenue from hotel and sales taxes to the tune of $200 million forced the city to cut the budgets of certain departments — like convention and sports facilities, international relations, and historic preservation. At least 270 employees at the city were furloughed in April and will be through July.

The city is considering reductions in multiple areas. Some of them are internal like the reducing a management fellow program and reducing employee salaries. Although avoiding layoffs is Walsh’s priority, there will be a pinch felt by employees.

“We’ll look at some scenarios that potentially may be adjusting down salaries,” Walsh said. “Obviously we won’t have a pay increase or cost of living adjustments to next year’s budget.”

He added that includes potentially taking furlough days himself.

Others are little more public facing such as reducing the street maintenance program, a hiring freeze, reducing economic development incentives, and a reduction in police overtime.

During Thursday’s city Council meeting, Mayor Nirenberg wanted three points of focus from the city’s budget architects: COVID-19 resiliency and recovery, transportation and public safety.

“I know, as you know, that we ask our police officers to do a lot more than just police work and taking a look at how we find a healthy balance in that budget vis a vis all the other priorities we have at our city — I think is an important one that we begin in earnest,” Nirenberg said.

With that comes the task of answering  how to fund the San Antonio Police Department. Conversations are already underway after property damage during the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests triggered use of excessive force from SAPD officers.

Many protestors in recent days have called for a defunding of the department and Nirenberg has said the responsibilities of police have begun to dive into social sectors that could be addressed by housing initiatives.

Some council members are considering this a change to realign the city’s priorities.

“I keep saying to myself this isn’t the end of the world but this is an opportunity to reset, realign and revision where we need to be with our budget,” District 3 councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said.

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

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