The City of San Antonio will be allocating more than $2 billion. Here's how police reform and public health are weighing on this year’s discussions
Author: Jade Esteban Estrada (San Antonio Magazine)
Each fall, the City of San Antonio adopts a budget for the next fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. While community input is always sought, this year there are more eyes than usual on the city as it must address public health needs, shortfalls due to COVID-19, and calls for police defunding. District 4 City Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia, Ph.D., provides some insight into what the process looks like and which areas she proposes to focus on.
The council members each advocate for what services they believe are most important for their districts. Out of the hundreds of city services, there are some daily services Rocha Garcia believes residents can’t live without. She compares her prioritization process to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For her Southwest district, the top three requests from residents are utility or rental assistance, code compliance and police. “They want to feel safe,” she says.
She adds that this year’s process is also impacted significantly by the pandemic and that the council will likely have to continue reassessing, shifting priorities and staying flexible enough to meet unexpected needs. “This year’s budget process is unique because we are simultaneously addressing the effects of a public health emergency with an understanding that our public health department was severely underfunded prior to the pandemic and that our residents will need a myriad of support through social service programs,” she says.
Through virtual town halls, phone calls, emails and social media, Rocha Garcia and other council members can analyze the rich resource of community input. City spokesperson Laura Mayes says the city has seen higher community engagement in their virtual sessions this year and that all of those opinions are taken into account. This year, over 20,000 residents participated in a budget survey that asks them to prioritize what they think is most important, whether parks, libraries, streets, police or some other area.
After accessing the community needs and gathering input from residents, the council prioritizes where the budget’s funding will be directed to have the maximum effect. Following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests in San Antonio (and elsewhere), Rocha Garcia sees an opportunity to reassess what policing looks like. “I think that we need to shift some money from the police over to a different department. In my opinion, we need to address the roots of our problems,” she says. “We should be investing in programs that help with awareness with mental health (and we should) invest a little bit more on social workers.”
At present, public safety—which is shared between the fire and police departments— accounts for over 60 percent of the general fund. “Public safety takes $820.3 million,” she says. “I think we need to reinvest, redirect and reprioritize.” Of course, a majority of council members would have to agree with her for there to be a redistribution of funds.
On June 26, the council engaged in a goal-setting session that left it with a handful of priorities that the majority of the council agreed need to be addressed. Among those was the goal to develop a long-term plan for police services that also focuses on social services rather than relying solely on police response. The majority also agreed public health will require continued investment and that they support endorsing a $10 million contribution o VIA over the next five years, with flexibility for more route frequency in fiscal year 2021.
On Aug. 6, the city manager presented the proposed operating and capital budget to the City Council. “This is when we see where we are and see if any priorities that we brought up were included or not,” Rocha Garcia says. Council members then review the budget and offer feedback through budget sessions which extend through Sept. 16. The council will also hold two community input sessions, on Sept. 2 and 10, where locals can provide feedback.
The city has said it anticipates a budget shortfall of over $100 million, which Rocha Garcia says will require some “cost-saving solutions” that could include things like postponing large capital projects, delaying some public works projects and tightening department budgets.
Adopting the Budget
The council will adopt a budget on Sept. 17. The city’s charter states that the council must adopt a balanced budget prior to the start of the fiscal year. “The current economic situation is affecting cities across our country so, realistically, there will be some adjustments across departments to best meet our current needs and fit within projected revenue forecasts,” she says.