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City Of San Antonio Proposes $100M Aquifer Protection Plan Using New Debt

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Edwards Aquifer Authority

The City of San Antonio is proposing a new funding source for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.

The protection plan was first approved by voters 20 years ago in order to buy properties near the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone to protect it from development. It’s been funded using a 1/8th of a cent sales tax, which voters approved every five years. The sales tax money is expiring next year to make room for other initiatives, and the city is now considering going into debt in order to fund the program.

It would cost about $100 million over 10 years – repaid using some annual revenue the city collects from the San Antonio Water System. During a council briefing on Thursday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he believes this is the solution.

“One that has no impact that SAWS rates, one that has very little impact to the programs that we are all trying to continue,” he said.

Since it began generating funds, the sales tax amassed more than $325 million over the last two decades and 160,000 acres of land in the recharge zone have been purchased and protected. The tax also helped fund the maintenance and creation of the city’s linear creekway system but a plan to support funding for that portion has not been announced.

The sales tax was not slated to be renewed in 2020, but would instead be shifted to fund transportation initiatives under the proposed ConnectSA plan. Nirenberg shelved that plan after the pandemic hit, and voters will now decide if the sales tax money should instead go to a workforce development plan to fund job training for 40,000 San Antonians.

The plan targets those who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city council voted to send that proposal to voters last month. It’s part of a compromise between VIA Metropolitan Transit who will use the sales tax money for different purposes.

That left the aquifer plan unfunded but public desire wanted it to continue.

The city’s debt plan would begin funding the program in 2023.

In order to begin issuing debt, the city would need to pledge a revenue source and the proposal currently suggests using portions of the percentage the city receives into its general fund from SAWS.

“This revenue stream really creates the ability for us to issue debt or bonds for the Edwards Aquifer Protection program, it’s the nexus by which we’re able to do that under the state statute,” said Ben Gorzell, the city’s chief financial officer.

Several council members expressed concern the decision was being made too quickly. There’s not a timeline for council decision, but it could happen within the next couple of months. District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño asked for a pause to see what results of the November election.

“There’s time for us to discuss this further and potentially look at this after a November vote to get a better understanding of what the impact is going to look like,” Treviño said.

If the workforce development ballot proposition fails, the sales tax would go unused until its claimed by another initiative. But that couldn’t be sent to voters until an election in 2022 when the sales tax has expired.

However, District 9 Councilman John Courage said waiting could be detrimental in the long run.

“We’ll then be asking people what we want you to put in a new sales tax… that’s going to be even harder to sell to the public in 2022, then it is for the public to understand that we as a council are taking the action to protect the aquifer today,” Courage said.

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

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