Mario Bravo unseated an entrenched incumbent City Councilperson to become the new District 1 representative. He has a history that includes working fishing boats out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Now, he is dedicated to improving San Antonio for all.
Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique, and the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here.
All right, welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Councilman Mario Bravo. Mario is District 1 Council Person for the city of San Antonio, recently elected. District 1 is basically everything you see on a map in the middle of San Antonio, from Southtown all the way up to about 410, a little bit on other sides, but between 281 and I-10. He ran on the issues of public safety, healthy community, and economic redevelopment. He unseated an entrenched incumbent, who, if he had won, would maybe have been the longest-serving council person in San Antonio history, is that right?
Mario Bravo: I'm not sure, but yes.
Justin: Something along those lines. It would have been a very long run.
Mario: I think that's probably right because we had just recently gone from four years to eight years for term limits.
Justin: Oh, okay. Yes, yes.
Mario: He would have been at about eight and a half years.
Justin: There are two four-year terms now for y'all, right?
Mario: Four two-year terms now.
Justin: Oh, yes, because four two-year terms would make a whole lot more sense. I remember thinking how strange it was the way we did it. Mario has been involved in activism in San Antonio for a long time. We'll talk to him about that. We asked him to come on to talk to us about his most recent election, challenges for the city, and now is a very challenging time, so this is very [unintelligible 00:01:42], I think, and a little bit about who he is. I got to know Mario, when he decided to run for this District 1 seat, I reached out to him and said, "I think it's time for a change. I'd like to get to know you."
Mario is very passionate about our city and his district. Before this, we were talking that when you're passionate about something, it doesn't feel like work and he's really enjoying it. Mario, I sort of start all these with a little bit of getting to know some strange questions. What are your favorite places to eat and drink right now in town? Let's do District 1, District 1 where's your favorite place to have a bite and have a drink right now?
Mario: Oh, there's quite a few, but Liberty Bar's one for sure. I'm a big fan of Curry Boys on North St. Mary's Strip. I like to get the much [unintelligible 00:02:31] tacos from Garcia's.
Justin: I just heard Curry Boys BBQ, right?
Mario: Right. It's barbecue, but it's like barbecue chicken and brisket, but with Curry, and it's amazing.
Justin: No, it was fantastic. It was all very spicy though. Just heed the warning. I haven't been to Liberty Bar in a little while, but I used to be known to go there on occasion. Favorite hidden gems in District 1 of San Antonio, maybe places people didn't know or haven't been within your District.
Mario: Hidden gems.
Justin: You have a lot of stuff in your district, so this should be an easy one.
Mario: Well, I'm just trying to think of what's hidden? I guess not everybody knows about Sanchos and how great their michelada and their Bloody Marys are.
Justin: I was going to go with the Japanese Tea Garden, but we'll stick to the drinking thing. I'm okay with that. Sanchos is good and it's very fairly priced, which I also appreciate, and District 1 has some places that are not fairly priced. What was the surprise hardest part of running a campaign? This wasn't your first, so you have some experience.
Mario: It wasn't my first. It was a little bit surprising to see a lot of, quote-unquote, "people from the left," progressives that piled on against me in the runoff. That was a little bit surprising.
Justin: Why do you think that is?
Mario: Because I think I have strong progressive credentials and a record of working in the community, and so that was surprising to me.
Justin: You think they were just so aligned with Trevino at that point, they didn't care?
Mario: I think that they bought into Trevino's rhetoric over his vote record. That's my best guess, I don't honestly know.
Justin: He spent a long time and I'm sure he had some successes. I had a personal story and politics are local. You need your city councilman one time and if they don't help you out, you think they're not very responsive. That was my experience, so I can't talk to his voting record. I could just talk to my one anecdotal moment. Do you have any odd hobbies?
Mario: I wouldn't say odd hobbies. I like to sail.
Justin: I think that's an odd hobby for San Antonio.
Mario: Yes, a little bit.
Justin: Not a lot of people sail around here.
Mario: When I was growing up here in San Antonio, my neighbor's dad, one of my little brother's best friends, his dad built a 60-foot sailboat in his backyard and it was legendary. I thought about that a lot. Then I taught at a leadership program for middle school kids in DC ones, and every week we'd get a new group of kids, and then we would take them to go see the documentary about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his whole adventure in sailing. It was just a dream. When I finished grad school, I had no money, no job. A friend of mine presented an opportunity to get a sailboat. I was like, "I can't pay you because I have no money and no job." Then I got a job, and we worked out an arrangement for payments. I'd never been on a sailboat before, and I started learning to sail, and I've been learning the hard way.
Justin: Okay, where have you sailed.
Mario: Lake Travis.
Justin: Okay, there's actually a lot of sailboats out there.
Mario: There are.
Justin: Have you ever been on a Raser? Not the scooter.
Justin: That was the funniest Olympic event--
Mario: Is it Raser or Laser?
Justin: Ooh. I don't really know. Laser?
Mario: Yes. The little teeny ones?
Justin: Yes. It was the funniest Olympic event I saw this year.
Mario: Very reactive, slippery little boats. They are lots of fun.
Justin: Everybody was everywhere. There are two people on course, everybody else was lost.
Mario: My boat's very different from that, but they're both fun in different ways.
Justin: I wanted it set to Benny Hill music. I thought that would have been really comical. Just the one where they chase everybody around.
Mario: I can see that.
Justin: Did the 60-foot boat built in somebody's backyard, was it sea-worthy?
Mario: He sails it all over the world. The guy's retired and he sails it all over the world
Justin: Built his own sailboat?
Mario: Yes. Mine is not sea-worthy like that. My boat's older than me. You can buy old boats cheap and then you've spent a lot of time and money keeping them up.
Justin: Hardberger has a really impressive sailing history too, I think.
Mario: I've heard, I'd love to go sailing with him. I bet I could learn a lot from him.
Justin: There's a videographer who does court reporting here named Terry Lindemann. You can't see it, but he gave me a Big Bend photo he took as an office warming gift. He was hired by one of the Maloney's and Hardberger at different times to be part of their competition sailing teams. He didn't have his own boat, but he's just done it enough that he got sucked up to do that.
Mario: They could hire me to wash their boat, probably. I don't think they would hire me to--
Justin: I think they go out and race in the Pacific and real big races. Favorite fiesta event?
Mario: Favorite fiesta event? I like just going out among the people and just wandering, and checking out the different foods that you can get, and being able to get the [unintelligible 00:07:45]. There's not a lot of times and not a lot of good places. If somebody knows a good place to get [unintelligible 00:07:49], I would love to hear about it.
Justin: It sounds like you like NIOSA is what it sounds like.
Justin: That sounds like lots of people and lots of food. You said that one of the things you did after graduating high school was work on an Alaskan fishing boat, I think, if I heard that correctly, right?
Justin: Scariest moment?
Mario: Scariest moment?
Justin: Because it's one of the deadliest jobs in America.
Mario: All the terrible accidents that you hear, a lot of times they're crabbing boats where somebody takes a boat that's too small for the kind of weather and the kind of sea conditions you're going to experience, and too small of a crew, and they work too long of hours and then big accidents happen or you have the boat overloaded with seafood and weight and then you hit a big storm. Our boat was 240 feet long. It was six stories tall, double steel holes, every door sealed down like on a submarine with the wheel. We felt like it was what the Titanic wanted to be. However, when we hit rough weather coming back, I started to realize, "You know what? If mother nature is going to take you out, mother nature is going to take care out."
Justin: Sure, and in the North Sea, the waves are shorter. They're higher and shorter. I'm sure the physics teacher could tell me this again, but up there as you get closer, the waves get tighter.
Mario: I did not know that, but I experienced that. At one moment, you're on the back of the boat and it's like being on top of a mountain and you can see forever, and the next thing you know, it looks like there's a mountain descending on you.
Justin: What were y'all fishing for?
Mario: We were fishing for pollack when I was out there. It's a basic white fish, like the fish filet sandwiches from Long John Silver's, or McDonald's, or fish sticks, a lot of the fish sticks you know are pollack.
Justin: I think it's the certified environmentally friendly alternative to cod, is how it was described to me at a restaurant one time.
Mario: Possibly. What struck me when I was out there is that I didn't realize the extent to which we were going to be overfishing when I got the job. Then I get out there and what struck me is everybody in the industry was talking about the industry as though they weren't a part of it. All the things that were wrong and all the things people needed to do. We went to Russia. You sign a contract for a certain number of fishing trips and they don't tell you when you sign up, but they make you sign a contract for more fishing trips than you can possibly fit in a US fishing season, then you find out, "Oh, I'm going to Russia."
Justin: Is that right?
Mario: Yes. We go to Russia and there were no fish in Russia. We were catching baby fish, and I thought, "Why are we doing this? If we catch all the baby fish this year, first of all, you can't do anything with them."
Justin: You were keeping them.
Mario: Yes. Then we're not going to have big fish next year. That's all there was.
Justin: How many days were you at sea?
Mario: I think maybe 40 days.
Justin: Long enough to know.
Mario: It was worth the adventure, not the money.
Justin: 40 days, you were like Noah, I think, right? 40 days, 40 nights?
Mario: I'm not sure.
Justin: My mom worked in a cannery on Kodiak Island. She always tells the stories about how the fish were frozen when they were brought and one of her jobs was-- I don't know either. Everybody had a job. One cut their head off, one did this thing. She said you would leave and your fingers would be frozen just solid because that's all you've been doing.
Mario: Oh, my knuckles got really swollen because it was a 16-hour shift, and every four hours you get a 15-minute break. I guess your hands would get cold. You'd take a break and then you'd come back and your hands weren't warmed up again, and all of a sudden, everything's frozen.
Justin: Was it with nets? Is that how you catch a pollack?
Mario: Yes. We were dragging huge nets. We could bring in up to 75 tons per net and we had machinery that would do everything that people working with your mother did, by hand. You would put them in these slots on a conveyor belt.
Justin: They were cleaned on the boat.
Mario: We did it all. It was a factory trawler, factory dragger, so we'd drag nets and process the fish. There were machines that would saw cut the heads off, slice the belly open, whisk out the guts, filet them, descale them. Then you just take these clean filets and you're layering them into a basket. It's on a scale. Once you get to 17 pounds, they go into a little box and they get flash frozen. You can freeze, I think, 1 ton of fish or 2 tons of fish in 15 minutes.
Justin: Did you eat a lot of pollack while you were out there?
Mario: No, we ate really well on that boat. Really, really well.
Justin: I guess you catch other things that aren't part of the season.
Mario: No, you're not allowed to.
Justin: You just throw them back.
Mario: Yes, because you don't want to get busted.
Justin: What if they're dead? Still, throw them back?
Mario: You got to get rid of it all, yes, because you can't be accidentally targeting the wrong fish, I guess, and you don't want to get fined or lose your boat.
Justin: I was in Mexico fishing marlin, and long story short, it was terrible, but we finally catch one marlin and they said, "Well, you can't keep it. It's illegal to keep it if it's a viable fish and then a guy hits it in the head with a hammer and says, "It's not viable anymore." I thought, "What in the hell?" I didn't know if y'all had some loopholes like that.
Mario: No, we didn't have anything like that. If they accidentally pulled on a shark or something like that, a big one, they'd try and get it off the boat quickly so they could live if they could.
Justin: Did you catch things like that?
Mario: Yes, we caught the wrong things now and then. It was one of the more modern fishing boats. We had radar or sonar that could tell you what fish were down there, and so we were targeting our schools of fish but also we would track the other boats. We knew which currents your boat fished on which day so that we wouldn't go and follow you in those currents as well.
Justin: There's so much money to go out. You better make it pretty sophisticated, I would assume.
Mario: It was a $40 million boat.
Justin: How many people were on the crew?
Mario: Anywhere from like maybe 100 to 120 at a time.
Justin: Full bunkhouses and everything? You and your brother?
Justin: What was the longest amount of time y'all were out at one time.
Mario: Maybe three weeks at a time, two to three weeks.
Justin: That's a while and y'all went out of.
Mario: Dutch Harbor.
Justin: Which is where all the boats on the show go out of. I could talk to you about fishing because it's real interesting. Easy question. Tell us about District 1. What is it? Who are the people? Who lives there?
Mario: District 1 is unique because District 1 borders every single other city council district, it's the only one that does that. We're like the middle of the pie. It's like I say, people, typically, you cut a papaya into wedges, but if there was a centerpiece, that's District 1. It's unique in that way. It's unique in that it has so much of Downtown. That makes it a little bit different. Then you've got some competing interest with development. There's Downtown development or just density development versus people wanting to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, not wanting more traffic in their neighborhoods. Just wanting to keep things the way they are.
Justin: It's everything Downtown that the normal person thinks is Downtown. It's I-10 all the way to 281.
Mario: Yes, for the most part, it's everything that people consider Downtown.
Justin: Economically, almost every economic class is contained within your district, right?
Mario: That is true as well.
Justin: You have some very nice neighborhoods. You've got some of the really nice condos all the way to some of the older neighborhoods that have been known for having downtrodden economically areas, and some of the areas that have been forgotten and taken advantage of probably.
Mario: Absolutely. I like to tell people, people in low-income neighborhoods, they pay taxes too.
Justin: They vote. If they vote more, we get people that pay attention to them more, which is a good thing. You're in an interesting time, I think, for San Antonio as well because Mayor Castro, he was the decade of Downtown or whatever. He said, "Those chickens are coming home to roost," and you're getting this big Downtown development now, which I think is wonderful for our city. I rode my bike through it today and the days of riding through and seeing a bunch of boarded-up windows, those are over. You're in a really exciting time for Downtown, we'll talk about the rest of your district, but what are some of your personal goals for what you hope happens with our Downtown District?
Mario: I wanted our Downtown to be a place where people go to live. I want it to be a more walkable Downtown. I want it to be a Downtown that has a lot of unique culture, nightlife, unique restaurants. My understanding is if you do that, if you create an experience that is where locals would want to live, and where there's unique local culture, that that actually also increases high-end tourism.
Justin: I guess that was where I was going to go with it. I would guess other cities have experienced this. I would assume it's a balancing act, but y'all to the best of your understanding is if you increase the ability to live there it also increases the environment for our tourism industry, which is what our Downtown has been known for, for so long.
Mario: I believe that I'm the first person in District I, in recent times, anyway, to hire a staff member whose sole job is focused on the Downtown. I have a senior director of Downtown.
Justin: I'm sure you don't know off the top of your head, but we all know the economic impact of our conventions and what happens Downtown is huge for the city. Take away the livability and the walkability portion and bringing residents back Downtown, any goals for our convention crowd and our visitors? Because that props up a lot of our economy Downtown as it stands right now.
Mario: It does. I think we need to protect a lot of the jobs that we have but also diversify our economy as well so that we're not overly reliant on them. I want to do all I can to promote tourism and support the conventions and keep them going here, but it's been tough because of the pandemic. When are we going to be completely out of it? I don't know. What's the new normal? I don't know yet. We need to continue to work on that but also be able to pivot as well for whatever the new normal is.
Justin: Those workers have just taken such a big hit. Those are some of the people that were laid off who did not have nest eggs to rely upon to begin with and not a lot of transferable skills. Ron was on here talking about the Ready to Work program and all that, and he focused a lot about those people that have worked in those industries that were so hard hit by the pandemic. Downtown is also the home of what is going to be a big cyber security hub with UTSA's new development. Is that outside of your district?
Mario: Some of it may be in the district.
Justin: Okay. I don't know exactly where it is.
Mario: They're expanding.
Justin: What's our new think tank tech incubator that we have Downtown right across from the embassy.
Mario: I'm not sure.
Justin: It's like a work think-- tech companies can go in there, they can get advisement on finances, on business planning, on legal. Graham Weston's big behind it.
Mario: Are you talking about Geekdom?
Justin: Yes. One of the things San Antonio's always wanted more of is higher-paying jobs, tech jobs, and be part of the new economy as it moves forward. The cybersecurity thing, what's already happening with Geekdom, is there movement from other tech companies to start coming in and capitalizing on this, or is that what the city's starting to look to do, is to try to how to incentivize those people who can be part of our urban core?
Mario: I don't know the answer to that, but if that's something I can help on, I would love to do it.
Justin: Is Graham Weston still part of the Geekdom stuff?
Mario: I believe so.
Justin: Does your district end at I-10 right there where UTSA is?
Justin: Another thing that's going on downtown is the San Pedro Creek. That huge development, I just recently went for the first time. I'd never really been down there. Any updates on what's going on with that or the development along the San Pedro Creek?
Mario: Have you heard of the link?
Mario: The link is going to be a project that's going to be connecting that to the River Walk area. My understanding is that Commissioners Court just approved $41 million to go towards that project Downtown.
Justin: What is the link going to be?
Mario: It's going to be a connection between San Pedro Creek and River Walk areas downtown.
Justin: Like a train or like a walkway or river?
Mario: Yes. Walking bike pass, beautification.
Justin: Because you go down there still and there's a lot of older apartments and older buildings, and I just assume there's going to be some big development move through all of that because the city and the county put-- I don't even know who. Was it the county that put, it was like $1 billion into that San Pedro Creek?
Mario: The county did a lot. I don't know what the city did.
Justin: Yes. Then it ends right at the Five Points area, which is right for development as well, which is part of your district.
Justin: What are some of the eye-opening moments of being a city councilperson? I think I speak for anybody that listens that we know maybe who our city council is, we're not 100% sure what all they do. We know they're who we call if something's going on, but what really is most of your day-to-day or week-to-week activity?
Mario: Well, I've only been in maybe two and a half months and a lot of it has been leading up to how are we going to spend a $3.1 billion budget. Looking at how we can allot whatever we have the ability to adjust in there. I'm working on some budget amendments right now. One thing that has really stood out to me is the opportunity to do more on homelessness. A lot of people might look at people who are living on the streets and say, "Why don't they get a job?" and "Why should we spend my tax dollars on those people?"
The truth is that the compassionate thing to do is also the best financial investment as well when it comes to supporting a lot of people who have severe mental health issues and they're living on the street, they're never going to be able to take care of themselves. They're never going to be able to hold a job. They're never going to be able to house themselves. If we can help them with permanent supportive housing with wraparound services, with mental health services, that actually can free up a lot of our emergency services workload, because there's so many calls for those individuals, 2911.
There's so many points of contact where police officers pick them up and then they take them to a hospital and then the doctors look at them and they say, "Well, there's nothing medically wrong with this individual," and so they have to take them somewhere else. It's tying up a lot of our public safety resources that could be going towards other things, and we could save a lot there.
Justin: I think you would be maybe the most sought after speaker in the world if you could end that problem because it's a problem that so people have tried to figure out, but it seems as though we as a culture and we as a city are taking a different approach to it now than the old approach of just being penal in nature to how we treat homelessness. Now we're realizing people have some issues that maybe need to be dealt with and we should treat them like humans. How do you even go about addressing that problem? Is your first step discussing with Metro Health? Is it with discussing with the police? How have you tried to educate yourself to make sure that we have an approach that treats these people with the dignity that they deserve?
Mario: I've sat down and talked with a lot of people. A lot of people with the department of human services at the city who works on this issue. People with the different nonprofits, like SAMMinistries, Corazon Ministries, Haven for Hope, South Alamo Regional Alliance for Homelessness, Yanawana Herbolarios, so a lot of the people who have outreach workers, who go and meet with people who are living on the streets and try and build relationships with them and get them into services. Talking to the police chief, talking to the county sheriff, talking to the people who live in the neighborhoods, where there are a lot of people who are homeless right now. Just learning everything I can.
What I've learned is that one it's going to take all of us working together to solve this. The other thing is we have an opportunity in the 2022 bond. Now that we changed the language in the city charter, previously, we couldn't build any kind of affordable housing or public housing, and we've changed that language now. This is our opportunity. The mayor's wanting to go big on affordable housing and I think there's an opportunity to also as part of that affordable housing, going big on permanent support of housing for people who can't house themselves.
That's great, but that's the 2022 bond. It'll probably take us a year to buy the land and then it'll probably take us a year to put out an RFP and get a design made and then take another year to put out an RFP and decide who's going to actually build the housing and then another year or two to build it. We could be looking at 2026, 2027 before that's done. We need to be finding investments in the meantime to get people off the streets and into a safe living environment where they have the support that they need. Some of that can come from the city's budget, which I'm going to be pushing for, but some of that could be coming from the federal ARPA funds as well.
Justin: When you say supportive housing, because I'm little, I'm speaking outside of my pay grade a little bit, but to some extent, these housing is a big portion of it, but so is the support like mental health or drug and alcohol, or just the reintroduction into workforce or whatever. When you say supportive housing, is that what you mean, a housing situation that also provides social services?
Justin: Would that be something as of now, obviously it's early on in the thought process, but like a city support service or somebody we would-- I guess really my question is, are there examples you've seen in other cities that you thought have been successful that we would be well done to bring them here?
Mario: I think so. Homelessness is not unique to San Antonio in any way at all. We're doing a shorter-term version of that right now. If you heard about, on my first day in city council we voted to approve a $2.9 million contract, and that was to lease Days Inn Hotel for one year and to contract with SAMMinistries to provide those wraparound services.
Justin: The one right there at Houston, right?
Mario: I don't know the exact location.
Justin: Yes, I think it is.
Mario: That is designed for individuals who maybe they're living on the street right now and they're on a list to get housing and maybe their number is up in two months, three months from now.
Mario: We can put them in there to get them off the streets so that they're less likely to experience any crises and help them be in a more stable situation until they can get into that longer-term housing.
Justin: Are people in the Days Inn now?
Mario: They are. There are, yes, absolutely. There have been for over a month now, I think.
Justin: I think Haven for Hope provides services, but the people seeking services also have part of the bargain there. They've got to do certain things and whether it's get treatment or seek a job, all those types of things. Currently, is the Days Inn and SAMMinistries, is it also similar like, "We are serving people, but we also are asking them to provide some movement on their end as well"?
Mario: A lot of these organizations [unintelligible 00:28:40] or have been moving towards a housing-first policy, so it's, "Let's get somebody to have a roof over their heads and in a more stable situation before we try and get them off of drugs before we get them to commit to anything else that we might need to be working with them on."
Justin: Which seems to make a lot of common sense.
Mario: Haven for Hope, I understand has changed quite a bit. Some of that may have been through COVID where people realized, "We got to do a better job of meeting people where they're at."
Justin: I think that's a good way to put it, meeting people where they are. Your predecessor was very, he was in the news often related to the homelessness issue. Are any of those programs that he was bringing on things you were moving forward with or have y'all taken a different approach to it?
Mario: We're definitely taking a different approach. We are not trying to offer services to people who are unhoused out of the District 1 field office right now. What we're doing is we're trying to direct them to services.
Justin: Got you. Is the city Days Inn, is that limited to people in a certain district or is that--?
Mario: It is not.
Justin: Does SAMMinistries decide who ends up in there?
Mario: They do.
Justin: The city has leased it, but basically contracted with SAMMinistries to handle the day-to-day operation side?
Mario: Right, correct.
Justin: As y'all outlay this new plan of how to tackle this, is there going to be an approach to do it on a small scale first? Or is the idea that, "At some point, we're just going to launch our entire new program"?
Mario: This Days Inn is the pilot project in a way. We're hoping to grow that and I'm hoping to be able to do more of the permanent supportive housing if we can get the funding for it.
Justin: SAMMinistries is a nonprofit?
Justin: All right. Not city affiliated?
Justin: All right. Gavin was on here. He's with Corazon Ministries, and they do a lot of outreach as well, and they do great work. Are they part of this program, or--?
Mario: They're not part of that program. I actually had brunch with Gavin this morning. They're not part of that program, but as a result of COVID, all of these different groups are working a lot closer together now.
Mario: Also, as a result of the winter storm, people just had to figure out what worked and work together. One thing that we have going for us in San Antonio is how well all of these different organizations work together. They are very familiar with each other. They know which niche each of the other organizations fits best. Some people are best for housing families, some people might be best suited for helping people with mental health issues. Some people might be best for people who have drug addiction issues. Maybe some people might be best for just single women or people who have a pet, and they're not willing to part ways with the pet. Not everybody can house a person and the pet, and so they know who's the best fit for which situation. They're happy to redirect somebody to another organization as opposed to theirs.
Justin: I assume, from your standpoint, talking to people like Gavin is just the best way to get caught up on the problem, right?
Mario: It is.
Justin: Those people have been doing it for a long time.
Mario: They have and they understand what it's like, all the work you do at the street level building trust. What I've come to learn is how important those day hubs are. Prior to getting elected at the District 1 Field Office, there was a two-day-a-week hub, where people could come and get services. That's where you can build relationships with individuals because a lot of them are resistant to accepting services. We stopped offering that two-day-a-week hub at the District 1 Field Office, and Gavin opened up a five-day-a-week hub downtown. There, when they're bringing people in five days a week, they're able to do a better job of building relationships with people and being able to try to route them into services. One of my questions for Gavin for brunch was, "Hey, what would it take to go to seven days a week?"
Justin: What type of services at the day hub?
Mario: You can get a shower, you can get clean clothes, or you can wash your clothes. They can help you with routing you to other services, you can get a meal. They can help route you to services, if you can't get a job because you don't have an ID, they can help you get your state ID or your driver's license or your social security card or your birth certificate. They can connect you with maybe getting on a housing list, maybe getting some drug addiction counseling.
Justin: Not just a meal like it used to be.
Mario: You get a lot more than a meal.
Justin: I want to talk a little bit about you were in the news recently, you've had to have lived under a rock for the last two years to not be fully aware of the Black Lives Matter, the social justice movement as it relates to policing, the defund the police and all of those issues. We had our own protests here, which luckily didn't turn like some of the other cities did, but we also are grappling as a large city on how to handle the debate among policing. We had, I think a mentally ill man who was shot by police not that long ago. You were in the paper and I really appreciated your take on things.
There are some discussions of if a mental health call comes in, don't send police at all. There are some people saying that only mental health providers should be sent out and you took the position of we should send mental health professionals along with police who understand those issues. That is a policing issue. I guess my question is, is that discussion on how to handle those issues currently part of the police union negotiations? Or is it really just the city trying to figure out what position they want to take on those issues?
Mario: Right now, I think it's just a conversation we're having at City Council. The idea is that what's been proposed by city staff and what was recommended by a study by The Meadows Foundation is doing a pilot project on a co-responders situation. Where a police officer would go with a mental health professional to a case where we believe that somebody is having a mental health crisis. Some people are saying, "Why don't we send just a mental health professional for a mental health crisis, not the police officer, not a co-responder model?"
That's what they have and have had for maybe 40 years since the CAHOOTS model is no police officer, you just send a mental health professional. They've had that in Eugene, Oregon, for over 40 years. They've had it for a while, I think in Denver now. What we're looking at right now, what's been proposed is the Portland model, which is the co-responder you send both together. The police officer maybe make sure that the situation is safe, and then the mental health professional will try to address the individual who's in crisis. I believe that we should explore being able to run both and make sure that the response fits the situation at hand.
Some people are concerned about sending a mental health professional without a police officer there for safety reasons. They don't believe that the 911 dispatch, the person taking the calls, would be able to distinguish what situations to call for the co-responder and which situations do not. I look at it, and I think, "Okay, sometimes you call 911 and then they decide, 'Do I send one police officer? Do I send every police officer available? Do I send the SWAT team?'" In the same way, I think maybe we can have a set of criteria where they send just a mental health professional, which would also save money, as well. Or do we send both together?
Justin: The operators could be trained?
Mario: I think so, and that's what I'm going to advocate for, I don't know where we're going to end up. This is a very recent conversation.
Justin: Where does the mental health professional come from? That's not a police department employee, or is the idea they will hire some?
Mario: I don't know the answer to that.
Justin: I don't even know where that would exist within other cities, I don't know, because you never hear of Metro Health having a response team with vehicles and stuff like that.
Mario: What's interesting is I met with Eric, I don't know his last name. He runs STRAC, which is our regional emergency response coordinator. He described a situation where you're driving down the highway, there's a multi-car pileup, there are people bleeding, people need help. What do you do? You call 911. What happens? They send an ambulance. Where do they take them? They take them to the hospital. Okay, there's a mental health crisis. What do you do? Nobody knows. We have to train people on what to do in that situation and so that's a gap that we have in our community right now. I don't think it's unique here, but it's something that we need to work on.
Justin: A lot of those people get brought to UHS because it's a county hospital. Do we know, is UHS trained up on those? Or does UHS then just say, "Oh, go to this mental health provider because we're not the triage for that."
Mario: Right, they'll often send you off to somewhere else.
Justin: It's just a whole bunch of people throwing their hands up in the air of this isn't my issue, or I don't know what to do, it sounds like.
Mario: That's how I understood it, the way Eric described it.
Justin: I think that that's why you end up with some people getting shot sometimes who are having a mental health issue. I think it's just because so few people understand how to resolve those issues, or even just approach those issues, it seems like.
Mario: They may handle it well a lot of the time, but sometimes things go wrong.
Mario: If that officer with a gun is not the right tool for the job, let's find the right tool for the job or develop the right tool for the job.
Justin: There still is the idea that plenty of people don't believe it's real. There's still that stigma that some people have.
Mario: There's that, but also, we can free up law enforcement resources to go address a lot of the other issues that are ailing our community.
Justin: As an aside, do you have to be caught up on all kinds of issues in your job, right?
Justin: San Antonio has also had a very big explosion and violent crime, specifically in the-- maybe not in your district, but in the inner core of San Antonio is my understanding. I'm no expert on this, but statistically, I've read that we're having a problem, and it was really more of a year ago, you were hearing more about it than you're hearing right now. How are we looking right now in terms of our violent crime issues?
Mario: I don't know and it's really interesting. I actually had a conversation with Chief McManus about this before I ran for office years ago. San Antonio Report used to be the Rivard Report and I guess they partnered with Texas Tribune. In Austin, they've got the statewide Texas Tribune Festival and here we started doing a local policy festival at the city level, I don't remember what they call it. There was one on law enforcement issues and I stayed around afterward to ask Chief McManus about. I guess maybe it was right after the 2019 mayoral race, was it be between Brockhouse and Ron Nirenberg?
Justin: This is what Brockhouse ran on a large part.
Mario: Right Well, and they both cited very different statistics on what our crime rates were. I was asking the chief about that and the chief said, "It's really hard to compare crime rates from city to city because a lot of cities report them differently and collect that information differently. Some people underreport on purpose because they want their city to look better."
Justin: I think McManus himself got on the news one time if I'm recalling this, this was probably a year or two ago, and said, "We are having issues. It is only limited to--" I want to say there was a lot of gang violence on the Eastside at that moment, and he was talking about how they're trying to figure out how to get their hands around it. When Susan Reed DA, she created this [unintelligible 00:42:05], gang injunction zones, I think she called them. If you had been arrested for gang-affiliated crime, it was illegal to go in like a four-block radius, which there was all kinds of lawyers saying, "Is this even legal? How can you just do that?" That worked is what I understood it to be and then it seemed to be getting out to control again. I guess in your position, you're not hearing that we're having any violence issues that are out to control right now.
Mario: They haven't been brought to my attention since I've been in office now.
Justin: The pandemic has run our lives for the last two years. The state, the county, everybody's getting a bunch of federal money, is my understanding, right?
Justin: Is the city getting that money? It's just so hard to follow dollars. It sounds like the county is getting a lot of this, and maybe because it's a county hospital, but how is that money being-- not down to the final, but does the state decide who gets what, does the feds decide cities get money?
Mario: We're getting money from the state, we're getting money from the federal government, the city's getting money, the county's getting money, and my understanding is you've got people who are behind on their bills by a significant amount. Some of them are well upwards of $1,000 for CPS Energy bills, I'm not sure where they are behind in SAWS bills. I think maybe there's 100,000 or 120,000 people who are behind on their bills with CPS energy, and my understanding is there's going to be federal dollars there that you can get through the city or through the county to help get caught up on bills.
I don't think that's available yet at this time, I think it may be soon. There's going to be funding and there are going to be programs where you could possibly go to the city or go to the county to get some support for that or maybe for assistance with your rent. Hopefully, very soon we're going to have some more money. We were having assistance for rent payments, but we ran out of funding for mortgage payments for homeowners. I think we're going to be voting next week on accepting maybe another $500,000 of funding for assistance for mortgage payments.
Justin: Isn't some of the money stimulus money as well, not just rental assistance and things like that?
Mario: I don't know. We're going to do a deep dive on that. This Thursday, we vote on the city's $3.1 billion proposed budget, and as soon as that's over, then we're going to start looking at all of this ARPA funding.
Justin: The budget, this is a big deal right now.
Mario: It is.
Justin: Any highlights of the budget we should know about?
Mario: Highlights of the budget?
Justin: Nonstandard highlights?
Mario: Nonstandard highlights? I can really speak more to some of the things I'm going to be proposing, which is I want studies, different studies to make sure that the way we're managing our government is to best support our community and the way we're investing tax dollars is responsibly done. I'm interested in things like we may be proposing up to $250 million in affordable housing projects on the next bond. I'd like to see a study. Before we spend any more money on affordable housing from that 2022 bond, I'd like to see a study done that shows how effective have our recent investments in affordable housing been at the local level. Are we getting the intended effect from those investments? I'd like to see that to make sure that if we're going to spend $250 million of the taxpayers' money that that's invested effectively and we get the intended impact.
Justin: Since you just got elected, was the budget process already moving all the way towards almost done by the time you took office?
Mario: I think it's always that way, but it's especially challenging as a new council member because you come in and you basically have about two and a half months before you have to vote on that, but you don't have any staff necessarily. If you're [unintelligible 00:46:25] and you inherit your sister's stuff, that's a different story, but if you're starting from scratch, you got to go out there and interview people and hire them. We're just finally hiring our last person right now as we're getting ready to go into this vote.
Justin: So much of our budget's public, I mean, it's the vast majority's public safety.
Mario: Well, that's a huge portion of the general fund for sure, but a lot of it's already locked in and it might be something related to the airport. There might be other stuff, but we've got property taxes, we've got sales tax, we've got revenues from CPS Energy that are coming in, but a lot of it's-- I've always said, even before I got here that all the pieces of the pie have already been and distributed, and then the council gets to come in and fight over the crumbs.
Justin: Have y'all had any discussions about this new bill that was passed that only affects like seven cities in Texas, and if you reduce your police budget, you lose all this state money?
Mario: I haven't been a part of any of those discussions.
Justin: Well, so we're not reducing our police budget it sounds like.
Mario: I don't think so. I think the first budget proposal was proposing another 12 safe officers and my response was, "You know what?" I know a lot of people love their safe officers, "I haven't heard anybody ask for more safe officers."
Justin: Those are like the non-emergency neighborhood people you call, right?
Mario: Correct, and a lot of people love their safe officers and then there are some people who are like, "Who's my safe officer? I haven't seen that person in forever. What are they doing?"
Justin: I wouldn't know who mine was. I would get on next door and ask if anyone knew.
Mario: What I have heard is from all the residents who live around the North St. Mary's Strip from all the business owners on the North St. Mary's Strip, I'm hearing a lot of, they would like to see more foot patrol out there in the evenings. There's a lot of activity on North St. Mary's Strip and people would like to just see more of just a police officer presence on foot, on bicycle.
Justin: It's probably four years ago, but a buddy of mine got robbed at gunpoint on a Friday night. He was walking to his car down one of the side streets and somebody came up and asked for his wallet. They did catch them, and they had robbed like six people that night, and they were just people that had come up to rob drunks walking back to their Ubers or whatever.
Mario: Were they even from here?
Justin: I don't know. Yes, but my buddy got his wallet back, but it was a pretty wild story because I think I've heard that St. Mary's had a run where it was a little rough, but before I even lived here, it's a bunch of kids now. It's a really young crowd down there now.
Mario: I think in the late nineties maybe, there was a restaurant there, Carlos O'Brien's. My dad built the restaurant, my uncle managed it, and somebody was murdered on the front steps. Somebody tried to steal a woman's purse, and her boyfriend or her husband tried to stop the individual, and somebody pulled out a gun and shot the guy. It made all the news, and that's when the business died on the North St. Mary's Strip
Justin: Taco Land guy. That's a little bit off, but apparently, they broke in, said, "Give me your register," and he said, "No," and they're like, "We're going to kill you." He's like, "You're going to have to kill me," and they shot him dead. I don't know if you've ever read the story. You need to read the stories about the guy who owned Taco Land. They said he was just the party, but he'd go around and they'd be like, "Oh, I'm done with my drink." "Well, there's drink in there," and he would drink it. They said he was just hilarious, and there's like a thing commemorating him there now. What is it? Velvet Taco or whatever. What's it called?
Mario: I'm not sure.
Justin: The old Taco Land.
Mario: I don't know.
Justin: Across from the Pearl. Some Dallas chain taco joint took it over.
Mario: Is it like TNC now? TNT, Tacos and Tequila.
Justin: That was on Broadway. If you just went the other way towards the strip, literally across, straight from La Gloria. You just need to go see the Oaktree, it's one of the coolest Oak trees you'll ever see, but it used to be Taco Land and then it reopened as Taco Land and now it's a taco chain. What are some of your short-term and long-term goals? Let's start short-term first. I expect you'll be an office for four two-year terms, which seems really smart for our city, but eight years. If, let's assume you'll be there eight years, what are some of your short-term goals, and what are your long-term goals?
Mario: Short-term goals are doing a lot more when it comes to sustainability, doing a lot more when it comes to making our city more resilient. We can't count on the state to be able to keep our power on during extreme weather events. They've proven that to us. They have refused to initiate any meaningful reforms since that last storm. How can we invest in energy efficiency at the local level so that we reduce our reliance on energy per capita?
Justin: Would CPS ever have the ability to step outside of ERCOT though? We're always a little beholden?
Mario: The state has the opportunity if they wanted to, to become a part of the national grid, but CPS Energy doesn't have that option.
Justin: Sustainability, resiliency.
Mario: Resiliency, investing in permanent supportive housing is something that I want to do right away. Something I'm really excited about is also when it comes to reducing our energy consumption is SAWS has this water loop, an underground water loop that people can tie into and you can use that loop to cool or heat your building, so they can heat the water in the winter, they can cool the water during the summer. It's very efficient because on a 100-degree day, it might be 80 degrees out at night. Instead of trying to cool the building when it's 100 degrees outside, instead, you're waiting until nighttime, you're cooling the water when it's only 80 degrees outside, storing that cold water underground, and then using it during the hottest part of the day to cool that building. It's the first water loop in the city and in the country.
Justin: Where is it?
Mario: It's Downtown, but it's been underutilized and they're updating it. I think there's a lot of opportunities for us to do that, but they have the ability just to do it Downtown. If there are other growth centers, if there are other large building developments, they can do standalone units as well. It can save the building owner money and it can reduce our energy consumption, so I'm excited.
Justin: That's been around for 50 years. You could have your home where they would bury water deep into the ground. Really, it just shortens the amount of work that your electricity has to do, so less to cool, less to heat.
Mario: You're thinking of a ground source heat pump.
Justin: The water deep in the ground.
Mario: This is similar, but you don't have to go deep because you're actually going to be cooling or heating that water versus using the Earth's core temperature kind of a deal.
Justin: Sure. I didn't know they had that.
Mario: I'm excited about some developments over there and being able to promote that. Long-term, I'd like to see us diversifying our economy. I'd like to make sure that we're doing big things with affordable housing and generational poverty, and just making sure that as we pivot coming out of the pandemic and are rebounding, that we're making sure that we're not leaving people behind as we have in the past.
Justin: What about yourself as it relates to the district. Anything specifically you want to do with the district? Do you want to get to know some neighborhoods better, ride your bike with me through the district, which I've asked you three times now? There are some goals you should personally have as well.
Mario: I do, yes, it's true. That's maybe my long-term goal, but hopefully short-term goal is I want to make us a really bike-friendly city. Bike-friendly to the point where it puts us on the map nationally, maybe internationally.
Justin: We have parts that are great. I'm telling you, I leave and my friends are like, "Is it safe?" I'm like, "Not for the first two miles, and then I'm good." I hit almost park and I've got nice bike lanes. Then in Monte Vista nice bike lanes. Around the arsenal, those are the best bike lanes. It's only like two blocks, but it's like each way and a pedestrian path.
Mario: We have a few projects coming that have that. My big challenge right now with city staff is that they've tripled the budget for bikes or bike lanes. It's going into developing the master plan, and they're going to spend two years working on it. I'm like, "What can we deliver today? I want to see more protected bike lanes now and so I'd like to see more investment in that."
Justin: There should be somewhere that people who ride could just submit because there's this weird spot that it's a bike lane or sidewalk, it's easy, and then there's a sidewalk that goes to the road, and then it ends. The other side, no sidewalk, there's nothing else, it just ends.
Mario: I think they want to spend $2.7 million on this bike master plan. I'm saying, "Look, go build $2.7 million of protected bike lanes. Maybe you only get it 80% correct. Maybe 20% of the bike lanes are not in the ideal location, but do some back-of-the-envelope calculations." I'd be happier with that. I think the cycling community would be happier with that.
Justin: We have a lot of roads that can handle them. I live off Jackson Keller, and it's a giant road, and people don't know if it's two lanes each way, or if it's one, but there's plenty of room for a bike lane. It's just all over the board.
Mario: Do we need fresh striping here?
Justin: There's no striping on my section. Actually, drive Jackson Keller. There are lots of chunks that you don't know if you're in a one-lane or a two-lane and then it opens back up. Right in front of all our schools. Mario, thank you for coming on here. As you grow as a councilperson, I'm going to drag you back to talk to me again. It was very hard to get you on the first time, but you're a man in demand. I appreciate you doing this. Any next big things for the county. We got the budget this week and then what are sort of the next big milestones for the county? Is there a year-end thing, or is this the budget the year-end?
Mario: The city or the county?
Justin: City, I'm sorry.
Mario: This Thursday, September 16th, we vote on the city's budget and the tax rate, the property tax rate. Finalize all of that. Then we go into looking at federal relief funds, how are we going to distribute those? As soon as we're done with that, we're going to be going into looking at the 2022 bond. We're going to be seating our different committee members for those different committees.
Justin: It's a big bond.
Mario: Right now it's proposed at $1.2 billion. The last one was $850 million.
Justin: That's a lot of money. If people want to learn more about you, what's your website? Is it the campaign they go to or go to your city council website?
Mario: I think city council, you can if you just Google me.
Justin: Research it.
Mario: San Antonio City Council District 1.
Justin: Then you can reach out through your district website. You'll have probably multiple people whose job is to talk to constituents.
Mario: We've got a bunch of them. We're hiring the last one this week, so it will be fully staffed up.
Justin: Well, we wish you the best. You're my law firm's city councilperson and my home city councilperson, so I look forward to getting to know you more.
Mario: Great. Glad to be here, and I'll make it easier to get on next time.
Justin: All right. Thank you.