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San Antonio City Council approves use of $212M in COVID-19 aid for social services, Texas BioMed, Morgan’s Wonderland

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Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio City Hall chambers reopened in May 2021 following renovations.

In a 9-1 vote, the San Antonio City Council gave the green light to spending for more than $212 million over the next four years. The majority — about $200 million — comes from the American Rescue Plan Act on Thursday. The aid is part of $326 million the city is receiving from ARPA, some of which has already been previously allocated.

The wide-ranging package will fund COVID-19 response, mental health services, city street repair, small business support and many more initiatives, including requests from Texas BioMed, Morgan’s Wonderland and Educare at Texas A&M San Antonio. The last three generated some controversy on the day of the vote.

ARPA was approved by Congress shortly after President Biden took office in 2021. It’s the same coronavirus package that provided $1,400 to most Americans.

“We stand among the very best in the country when it comes to our recovery and our resiliency program as well as the investments that we’re making to get our economy and our people back on our feet,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was the one vote against the package. District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry was not present for the vote.

The city already received about half its allotment in May of 2021 and will receive the second half this May. The city has until 2024 to decide on how to spend the money, and it has to be used by 2026. Some of the funds were previously allocated to fix pandemic-related revenue loss on the city’s budget, and the council approved $30 million to help pay off some overdue bills of San Antonio Water System and CPS Energy customers last year.

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A breakdown of the city's ARPA funding framework

Among the biggest expenditures, the ARPA package contains approximately $50 million for COVID-19 response, $30 million for small business support, $10 million for emergency housing assistance, $13 million for city streets, $15 million for Morgan’s Wonderland, $10 million for Texas BioMed and $6 million for Educare.

Multiple residents spoke on the funding for Texas BioMed. The research agency would use the funding for improvements to the facility such as sewer, electrical and water infrastructure. In a public comment period that lasted nearly two hours, many were at odds over the agency’s use of animals in research for the treatment of diseases. .

However, members of the scientific community came to Texas BioMed’s defense. Heather Hansen, president of BioMedSA - an advocate of San Antonio’s bioscience industry, said the research conducted at Texas BioMed is crucial to the city.

“The research conducted at Texas BioMed has saved lives and improved the quality of life around the world including right here in our community,” she said. “Vaccines and therapies for SARS, anthrax, Ebola, Diabetes, heat disease, Hepatitis C, HIV, neurological disorders and much more have advanced because of the research conducted at Texas BioMed.”

Bruce Edwards, a vice president at Texas BioMed, said the funding would be put to good use.

“A lot of things that keep the campus humming, keep our labs operating, keep our animals warm in the wintertime, keep water flowing … All of those systems are pretty old. Some in fact are 60 years old, and they just desperately need to be replaced so that we can have a resilient campus.”

Morgan's Wonderland would use its $15 million for four different initiatives: an extended pediatric care center, a center to assist people with medical and non-medical services, a wheelchair station and a simulation roller coaster for people with special needs.

Founder Gordan Hartman said the funding will allow for the creation of facilities that provide services to people who have acute special needs like visual impairment, feeding tubes and mobility impairment.

“These funds are really making a major impact and will make a difference in the lives of so many individuals, both in this community and those who come to this community, and really say something about San Antonio and what it represents when it comes to assisting our friends with special needs,” he said.

Several amendments on the spending were proposed. An amendment proposed by District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval moved about $4 million into a new social services category by taking $2.5 million from the small business support and $1.5 million from digital literacy. It passed.

“As initially designed, the framework risked leaving out critical social services that our community needs right now, such as those offered by the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, Academia América and the American Organization for Immigrants.”

One amendment proposed by Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez requested the funding for Texas BioMed, Educare and Morgan’s Wonderland be removed and placed into a separate council vote. That measure failed.

McKee-Rodriguez ultimately voted no on the overall APRA package.

“Three organizations will not have to follow the process that is expected of other nonprofits and small businesses. As wonderful as these organizations may or may not be, this sends a message I cannot support,” he said in a statement after the vote.

A third amendment proposed by District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo also failed; it would have altered how city employees receive about $10 million in APRA funding for combination, benefits and retention. The councilwoman had hoped to allow the money to be considered as hazard pay and give employees the option of putting the funds in for health savings accounts instead of direct payments.

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