The Say-Town Lowdown

OK. Maybe I’ve just gotten old and cranky. Maybe a more sensible person would consider it junk mail and throw it out.

The “Foundation for the Future” mailing for the May 12 bond issue just arrived the other day. It is colorful — mostly black and red, with some cute color photos.

But it lies.

Best to say it straight out.

It lies.

“$550 million for 151 citywide projects. Cost to you? Only your YES vote.”

“No tax increase.”

That’s simply not true. Anyone who owns real property in San Antonio knows that the annual property-tax bill for the city of San Antonio is the product of two figures — the City’s tax rate and the appraised value of their property.

Is the Foundation for the Future organization (“Betty Sutherland, treasurer”) promising me that my tax bill won’t go up, that it will not raise taxes? That’s what the flier seems to say.

It’s not true. If the appraisal district determines, in their wisdom, that my property is worth more this year than last, then my City tax bill will go up. It has pretty regularly in recent years. And it likely will some more this year, and maybe next. And as the appraised value goes up and up, so does the property-tax bill.

What they really should have said in the mailer is that the City’s tax rate won’t increase because of the bond issue. When City staff talk about the tax impact of the proposed bond issue, they very carefully talk about the tax rate. That’s the part of the tax bill the City can directly control.

But even that’s not necessarily true: It depends on a bunch of assumptions about the growth in the overall appraised value of property in the city; mostly that those values will continue to increase year after year —increases that are sustained by the regular upward appraisals on my house and yours, courtesy of the Bexar Appraisal District. As those values go up, we all pay higher City property tax bills.

But what if house values don’t keep going up?  What if the cooling housing market taking place throughout the rest of the country happens here, and values don’t increase? What if they go down?

It’s happened before. During the 1980s, San Antonio voters supported a regular series of bond issues for drainage, streets, and even a new police training center. The City claimed it wouldn’t raise the tax rate, wouldn’t cost us anything. Except it did.

Some may remember the days when then-Mayor Henry Cisneros deemed the construction crane the city’s “native bird,” when new houses and office towers seemed to be rising all over town; then the housing market crashed in the wake of the savings-and-loan debacle, a time when folks found that they couldn’t sell their homes for what they had paid, and when foreclosed RayCo houses littered the North and South sides.

As the city’s overall property values dropped from 1989 to 1992, the City of San Antonio’s property tax rate — the rate that wasn’t supposed to increase — steadily went up, because by voting for those bond issues, we had agreed to pay the taxes required to pay off the bonds, promises notwithstanding. We make the same agreement every time we pass a bond issue.

Of course, you may believe that the city will always grow and prosper, that the housing market has no slowdown or downside, that San Antonio’s prospects are eternally bright, and that all of the assumptions about increasing property values and the cost estimates of the projects in the $550-million bond package are absolutely right.

But some of you may recall Mayor Cisneros’s promise that the 1988 bond would provide automatic railroad-crossing type barriers for the worst of the city’s low-water crossings.

Too expensive, it turned out. Never happened.

Maybe I’m cranky. But I remember the promises.


And just for fun, while doing research for this article, I turned to the “Dome Fact Book,” (published by Citizens for the Dome, a campaign that relied on City projections to get our support for a sales tax to create the Alamodome) just to refresh my memory about promises made in early 1989.

The Dome would house four “religious event” days each year, as it would be “ideal for single religious meetings such as crusades.” There would be two pro-basketball events; four days of college basketball including regional tournaments; “expect to get at least one exhibition pro game in San Antonio with the Oilers or Cowboys, or both”; two days of college football, including the “possible addition of football program at UTSA”; and seven days each year of amateur sports.

But most importantly, we were told, the Dome would house conventions — 16 of them each year. Those conventions would bring us 96,000 new visitors each year, consuming 118,290 hotel room nights. Overall, the planned Alamodome would get us 190,250 out-of-town visitors each year. We could count on it. Right. 


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