A proposal that would have had the city of El Paso give dozens of low-income families here monthly cash payments for a year and study how the extra money benefits households was shot down by the City Council on Tuesday. 

City Council was split 4-4 on whether to move forward with the $500,000 low-income assistance program, but Mayor Oscar Leeser cast a tie-breaking “no” vote. City Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Chris Canales, Cassandra Hernandez and Art Fierro voted in favor of the idea. 

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser during a recent City Council meeting.

The proposal’s backers sought to create in El Paso a kind of pilot program for guaranteed income, which is based on the idea that the best way to alleviate poverty is to give out cash monthly to low-income households with no strings attached, and give people the ability to improve their financial situation however they need to. 

Dozens of U.S. cities have established guaranteed income pilot programs to test the idea in recent years: The Harris County Commissioners Court in Houston voted in June to begin giving $500 each month for 18 months to up to 1,500 families living in poverty. Some members of the El Paso City Council last month pitched a similar proposal to give out $500 cash payments to around 80 households across the city for a year. 

Led by Annello and Canales, council members last month voted to have city staff spend a month trying to carve out $500,000 from the city’s general fund or from the pot of federal pandemic-related money that El Paso has received over the last couple of years.

The original plan was to gauge the impacts of the cash payments on each family’s wellbeing, and after a year either end the pilot or seek a larger, longer-term source of funding to continue or expand the monthly payments. 

City staffers said Tuesday that $500,000 is available for a program that helps lower-income El Pasoans with things such as food security or preventing evictions. Rather than adminster the program through the city, staff suggested the city solicit ideas from nonprofits on how to use the money – potentially for direct cash payments, rental assistance or some other form of aid.

However, Nicole Ferrini, the city’s chief climate and sustainability officer, said in order to do that, the city would have to pull money that was planned to go to a still-conceptual “community resilience center.” 

Ferrini said the resilience center was “imagined as a physical facility that could bring together all of the service providers that really took our community through COVID-19,” and where “El Pasoans could go in times of crisis to access services.”

The city had previously set aside $3 million to develop the resilience center, and pulling $500,000 would make it “highly unlikely” that that project could move forward, Ferrini said. 

However, the $500,000 in funds “have been pending the creation of the community resilience center. And we’ve not done that. And so technically, they are still available,” Ferrini told City Council. She also said the resilience center would probably be underfunded even if it received the full $3 million of funding. 

In an exchange with Ferrini, Annello said “it’s a little disingenuous to say that (the cash assistance proposal) is going to defund a program that you don’t have a budget for.”

Motivating the push for a cash assistance pilot in El Paso was a similar program for El Paso County residents during the height of the pandemic. A group of private donors gave more than $1 million to assist about 1,300 residents living in El Paso County, but outside the city, who were struck by the pandemic – either through illness or job loss – but who weren’t able to receive government assistance. 

Local religious advocacy groups were lobbying the city to adopt a similar mutual assistance program, but for people who live within El Paso’s city limits. 

“We have been advocating all year with the City Council to move forward on this proposal. Not because we subscribe to one ideology or another, but because we have seen it work firsthand,” said Eloiso De Avila, a leader with the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which helped with the county’s cash assistance program during the pandemic.

After City Council voted down the idea, De Avila said the discussion between city staffers and council members became muddled and “made what should have been a simple matter complicated.”

“We are disappointed that council may consider that money for a building, bricks and mortar, that they currently do without, instead of helping people right now,” he said. “We will persist in finding innovative ways to care for our neighbors in the future.”

District 1 city Rep. Brian Kennedy who voted no on the proposal Tuesday – and also voted last month against having city staffers seek out funding for a cash assistance program – said he preferred waiting for a new budget cycle to find a way to help low-income El Pasoans. 

Since the guaranteed income idea was first pitched to council last month, Kennedy, Leeser and others have been skeptical about pulling money from elsewhere for the proposal, as well as about the program’s small size – it would only assist around 80 families. And opponents have said there was a lack of clarity over who would be selected to get cash monthly and who wouldn’t. 

“I think that we have a plan in place. And if we want to take a look at this, waiting until we start a budget process … might not be a bad idea,” Kennedy said. “We’re pulling a program that we have in existence and had approved, and we’re pulling money from it. So I would be more comfortable waiting.”

Diego Mendoza-Moyers is a reporter covering energy and the environment. An El Paso native, he has previously covered business for the San Antonio Express-News and Albany Times Union, and reported for the...