Moral budgeting: How San Antonio, Texas, advances equity through strategic spending

For San Antonio Equity Manager Jonathan Butler, a budget is a “moral document,” allowing cities to strategically improve outcomes for those who are worse off


People demonstrate at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, June 19, 2020, to mark Juneteenth. Anger over ongoing economic inequities has been a major part of recent protests. Image: AP Photo/Jim Mone

As a member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), San Antonio, Texas, is committed to advancing opportunity for each and every one of its citizens. That’s because they, like the 209 other organizations in the GARE network, understand the integral role governments play in creating that equity in the first place.

“The fact of the matter is,” said GARE Director Gordon Goodwin during a recent ICMA webinar, “many of the practices and procedures that we use everyday for efficiency’s sake often contribute to racialized outcomes.” Cash bail policies are a perfect example of this.

While the days of government policies blatantly designed to hinder marginalized communities are now largely gone — think Jim Crow, redlining and racist convenants in property deeds — the damage to these communities has yet to be substantially reversed. Black Americans, for example, are still more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white members of the same community.

And without policies explicitly written to correct this imbalance, Goodwin continued, government practices and procedures will continue to perpetuate inequity. “We need to be explicit in naming race,” he said, “because if we don’t, we’re likely to leave it out of our analysis” all together.

San Antonio Office of Equity

Created in 2015, San Antonio’s Office of Equity strives to ensure that the city’s “policy-making, service delivery and distribution of resources account for the different histories, challenges and needs of the people [they] serve.”

But in order to do this, explained Chief Equity Officer Zan Gibbs during the same ICMA webinar, the city knew they had to think bigger than just one office dedicated to normalizing concepts of racial equity and social justice.

“The City of San Antonio has 13,000 city employees that span 40 different departments, so we knew that we were going to need a network to ensure that equity could be everyone’s job at the City of San Antonio and not just our job,” she said.

While there are multiple ways that the city accomplishes this, including a citywide equity committee comprised of 50 staff members across all departments, how the city approaches its annual budget is particularly impactful.

Budget Equity Tool

The Budget Equity Tool (BET) is both a process and a product, Gibbs explained.

“While the City of San Antonio has had a BET for four years now, we have shifted within the last two years to really change not only the tool itself but how we use the tool and how we train on the tool,” she said.

“The first two years of the tool,” she continued, “it was really a simplified version of an equity tool that looked more at geography and didn’t specifically target racial disparities and structural racism. For the past two years, [however], we have shifted the tool to ask 10 questions that look at racial and economic disparities in San Antonio” and help departments figure out how to “specifically close the gaps that are the widest and the deepest":

  1. In what ways will your overall (entire) budget be realigned for the next fiscal year in targeted ways to advance equity?
  2. What are the recurring funding gaps or limitations in your overall budget that could inhibit your department’s ability to advance racial and economic equity?
  3. Identify potential impacts of your proposed reductions or fee changes (if applicable) on communities of color and low-income communities, and describe what strategies your department recommends to mitigate any potential adverse impacts.
  4. Indicate the racial and/or economic inequities experienced by San Antonio residents that could be addressed via specific allocations in the department’s overall budget and improvement requests.
  5. Within your proposed budget, describe ways in which disaggregated racial and economic data was used to prioritize and develop criteria for resource distribution.
  6. What additional disaggregated demographic data will your department collect, track, and evaluate to assess equity impacts in community moving forward, and inform your future budget decisions?
  7. How will your department use disaggregated racial demographic data to help inform recruitment, retention, and promotion efforts for staff of color, including entry level, part-time, and field staff?
  8. How will your proposed budget build the department’s capacity to engage with, and include, communities of color and low-income communities (for e.g., improved leadership opportunities, advisory committees, boards and commissions, targeted community meetings, stakeholder groups, increased outreach, etc.)? What are the anticipated positive equity outcomes of these allocations?
  9. How will your department allocate funding towards ensuring that public documents, policies, plans, meetings, and hearings are readily accessible to the public, including translation of documents to Spanish and other languages, and ensuring interpretation services are available to the public in all relevant places and programs (such as service desks, service phone lines, openhouses, public meetings, etc.)? What is the anticipated equity impact of this allocation? If tracked as a distinct line item, what dollar amount and percentage of your department’s budget is allocated for translation and interpretation services?
  10. How will community members, including communities of color and low-income communities, be consulted to identify programming and/or service needs, and how is this reflected in the proposed budget?

For FY 2021, Gibbs continued, the BET has also changed from a “during-the-budget-process tool to a before-the-budget-process tool.” Launched in February 2020, the new version of the BET has been with departments for the past four months so that it could “be applied to the thinking of the departments from the very beginning,” not just during the review phase.

While the completed tool is due to the Budget Office at the same time as each department’s budget submission, this is by no means the first time outside eyes will review the various BETs. The Equity Office collaborates with each department “very deeply thoughout the budget planning process, so that when the final draft gets sent up to city leadership, we have co-created and co-authored” each BET.

Review San Antonio’s full Budget Equity Tool for FY 2021:

Budget Equity Tool by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Sarah is based in North Carolina, where she lives with her son and several rambunctious reptiles. Before taking on her current role with Lexipol, she was the staff writer for the tech website DZone and served as an assistant editor with the rural lifestyle publication GRIT Magazine. Get in touch with her at