San Antonio, Bexar County officials try to figure out how to spend $ 850 million in pandemic recovery funds

San Antonio and Bexar County are on the brink of a major windfall as more than $ 850 million in federal stimulus flows into city and county coffers to help the region recover from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now local leaders have to figure out how to spend it – and ideas are starting to fly.

San Antonio will get more than $ 465 million on the $ 1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act – signed by President Joe Biden in April. This money is expected to help the city fill its budget gaps, keep families in need in their homes and rock the San Antonio International Airport as travelers slowly begin to enter and exit the airfield. Bexar County, meanwhile, is expected to receive $ 388 million.

Local officials have sought to present the glut of federal dollars as a unique opportunity to help the region get back on its feet after a year of crushing job losses, business closures and deaths and to take a bite out of its epidemic. poverty.

“I think we can agree: this is an incredible and unique opportunity for us not only to respond to the immediate needs which have been very clear, but also to use this opportunity as a catalyst for some of the transformations and changes. which we know must happen in light of the pandemic, ”Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a city council briefing Wednesday afternoon.

On ExpressNews.com: County begins to develop 10-year recovery plan

The city and county have already spent nearly $ 457 million in federal stimulus dollars to lessen the pandemic’s blow on small businesses and unemployed residents. Now they should shift gears to be more forward thinking and invest in areas that will have a long-term benefit for the community, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said on Wednesday.

“A lot of what we did with the first money – and we had to do it, and I’m not criticizing it – then we had to stop the bleeding,” Wolff said in a morning session with the commissioners of county. “Now we have to start building for the future, whether it’s taking care of health care, housing, helping do things for a particular industry that we think could help. “

Local officials are sifting through federal guidelines to determine what they are allowed to spend money on over the next five years. Cities and counties can use the money for a variety of purposes, including funding efforts to improve public health, providing financial assistance to small businesses and families struggling to stay in their homes, and making up for budget cuts. They can also use it to help homeless people and victims of domestic violence – or support the city’s struggling tourism industry.

Wolff pointed out that mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and other social services could help reduce the local prison population as potential areas of focus. County officials and Guidehouse, a consultancy firm Bexar uses to help it figure out how to spend federal dollars, said they believe the funds could be allocated to nonprofits to build facilities. that help populations at risk.

Wolff said the county should also invest in preparedness for the possibility of another future pandemic.

City and county officials must define which projects they want to pay for by 2024 – and spend the money by 2026.

For San Antonio, the priority is to make up for lost funds. The city has lost $ 248 million in the past year as hotels empty and sales at retailers and restaurants slump. Even as the pandemic abates, the city’s hospitality industry begins to recover and stimulus dollars are pouring in, city budget writers are not entirely ruling out some of the potential $ 148 million cuts they are making. have contributed to the city’s general fund budget – which pays for services such as policing and fire protection, streets and infrastructure, and parks – over the next five years.

This could leave the county in a better position to help the community recover economically, which could take a decade, officials said. While the county won’t know for at least a month what the impact of local property valuation protests will be, it does rely on a stable property tax base, bolstered by a strong housing market.

City manager Erik Walsh and some council members cautioned against treating the windfall as a windfall. They fear creating new spending obligations that the city will have to figure out how to pay when federal dollars run out in 2026.

“It’s kind of the balancing act that we’re going to have to do not just this summer, but every summer by 2026,” Walsh told board members Wednesday.

Still, board members saw an opportunity to bridge long-standing economic disparities exposed by the pandemic – especially in internet access. Local governments can use the stimulus money to invest in water, sewage and broadband infrastructure, all of which are needed in the city’s southeast, District 3 City Councilor Rebecca said. Viagran.

“With this amount of dollars, there is no reason for us to return to normal conditions here in this city,” Viagran said.

Local officials are worried about the impact of possible cuts to public services, the expiration of moratoriums on evictions and the expiration of additional federal unemployment benefits later this summer. Nirenberg pitched the idea of ​​using a portion of the stimulus dollars to help customers of the city’s two utilities – CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System – catch up with their bills. As of Wednesday, CPS totaled $ 105 million in outstanding balances.

On ExpressNews.com: “We’re going to be fine,” Wolff said.

It is possible that the city will ask for other stimulus funds already given to the state for this purpose, city officials said, but it is not clear if the new money can pay for it.

“I think it will take a number of different avenues and a number of different tools to be able to help these customers get back on track and settle those balances,” said Ben Gorzell, city finance director. .

There will likely be trillions more in federal stimulus dollars that will be filtered through separate federal jobs and stimulus bills. The state received $ 16 billion from the clawback bill, which state lawmakers will decide how to spend in a special session Governor Greg Abbott is expected to convene this fall.

But board members and commissioners are faced with a dilemma: not knowing what the federal aid landscape will look like by the end of the year, while feeling the urgency to plan as much as possible.

“By delaying and delaying and delaying you are hurting people who really need services now,” Wolff said.

Commissioner Trish DeBerry said the county must adopt a plan that will harness the benefits of stimulus dollars and not suffer from “analysis paralysis.”

“We have to work together. We have to work strategically, ”she said.

shuddleston@express-news.net

jfechter@express-news.net | Twitter: @JFReports


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