Follow the money

What a difference four months make.

In April, we learned that San Antonio would be looking at a $13-million deficit in fiscal-year 2009, with a more worrisome $58-million projected shortfall looming the following year.

But what looked to be a cruel summer for City numbers crunchers took an unexpected turn last week with the announcement that the $13-million hole had miraculously turned into a $12-million surplus, thanks, in large part, to a revenue windfall from CPS.

As City Manager Sheryl Sculley ran through her hour-long, annual budget presentation at the Council’s August 14 session, some Council members were like third-graders at a birthday party, mesmerized by a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. The response was understandable. The $2.3-billion budget outlined by Sculley did have an aura of magic about it.

In a year when most American cities are reeling from the early signs of a recession, a major housing slump, and runaway gas and food prices, the San Antonio described by Sculley seemed immune to the pain: A balanced budget, achieved even while slightly reducing (one-half of one percent) property-tax rates; 100 more policemen on the streets; 30 new firefighters; $15.5 million added to our reserve fund (a big legacy priority for Sculley and Mayor Phil Hardberger); $8 million for sidewalk construction; a 5-percent hike for libraries; even a 6-percent increase in arts funding, usually a swift casualty of tight fiscal times.

Hardberger called it a “great budget,” and his would-be successor, District 8 Councilwoman Diane Cibrian (back in exuberant, pontificating form after shunning the media over questions about whether she stayed for free at the condominium of real-estate investor Hugo Gutierrez Jr. during a 2007 Cancun vacation) lauded the presentation as proof that Sculley is the finest city manager in the nation.

In truth, however, the magical reversal of budget fortunes that Sculley described was a flashy, sleight-of-hand trick. It didn’t take much thought to recognize that San Antonians were paying a hefty price for this balanced budget. Despite the appearance of a tax reduction (and, let’s face it, a one-half-of-one-percent property-tax cut will save the typical homeowner about $5 next year), local residents have faced outrageously large spikes in their CPS bills, which the agency has chalked up to rising gas prices and the hotter-than-usual weather this summer. It’s a tax by another name, and citizens who spoke at the session were conspicuously less enthralled than the Council members.

A Sierra Club representative suggested that the City use the CPS-generated surplus for utility retrofitting downtown, in the hope that it would bring down utility costs, reduce downtown pollution, and steer the City away from a nuclear-energy option.

Jack Finger, the Council’s perennial fly (or finger) in the ointment, openly mocked City leaders (particularly the beleaguered Cibrian) for the puny 2009 tax cut and the Council’s recent decision to enact a 3.5-percent rate hike for CPS, effective September 1.

“You, the City of San Antonio dodged a bullet,” Finger said. “That `rate hike` saved you.”

Garbage in, garbage out

City Council sessions can be drab affairs, but May 15 was a day of high drama in Council chambers. Facing heated citizen opposition, the Council prepared to vote on a Phil Hardberger-backed, 5-percent rate hike for CPS. It was a vote that everyone knew would have serious implications for this year’s City budget process.

With one Council vote remaining, the measure’s fate was locked in a 5-5 tie. District 5 Councilwoman Lourdes Galvan, the lone holdout, made her choice and apparently voted for the 5-percent hike. But just as Hardberger announced the proposal’s passage (to the surprise of almost everyone on the dais), Galvan announced that she’d accidentally pushed the wrong button, and voted “yea” when she intended to vote “nay.” Council veterans say it was one of the few times they’ve ever seen a public flash of anger on Hardberger’s face, but he paused and regrouped while Galvan voted again and swung the verdict against the 5-percent hike. A compromise 3.5-percent rate increase (which some City Hall opponents had argued — incorrectly as it turned out — would be insufficient to offset the City’s budget problems) subsequently passed unanimously.

Now that CPS’s revenue windfall has turned a $13-million deficit into a $12-million surplus, the question is: What will that 2009 surplus money be used for? Most of it ($10 million) will go into Solid Waste Operations in the form of a Utility Rebate Transfer, which is expected to save solid-waste customers $29 over the next fiscal year.

Gilbert Garcia

Public budget hearings

Got a few ideas of your own for that unexpected CPS (ahem) windfall? This week the City offers you the opportunity, or at least the appearance of the opportunity (which as we learned in Man of the Year, is better than opportunity itself) to weigh in. District 1 & 2 meetings were held Tuesday evening, but there’s no rule against crashing the next nearest district’s budget confab. All hearings begin at
6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, August 20

District 3: Holy Name Parish, 3814 Nash Blvd.
District 8: Clark High School, 5150 DeZavala

Monday, August 25

District 5: El Progreso Community Center,
1306 Guadalupe
District 6: Northside Activity Center, 7001 Culebra

Wednesday, August 27

District 4: Millers Pond Community Center,
6175 Old Pearsall Rd.
District 7: St. Mary’s University, 1 Camino Santa Maria, Gate A – AT&T Center

Thursday, August 30

District 9: Reagan High School, 19000 Ronald Reagan
District 10: Northeast Service Center, 10303 Toolyard

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