Jamming Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” with supporters is a fitting way for a Helotes mayor to celebrate a victory. Playing the guitar with his band during a recent reelection party, Helotes Mayor Rich Whitehead mixed his love for music with his love for Helotes–a city long known for music and one that he has served since he was first elected as mayor in 2021.
Whitehead, who recently won reelection with 76.6 percent of the vote, agreed to sit down with Helotes News to share his vision for Helotes–a city facing all of the challenges that come from rapid growth in Northwest Bexar County.
Helotes News: I think most residents know you are a captain with the San Antonio Fire Department, but many may not know you have a love for music. Tell us about your musical background, and how your recent reelection party turned into a jam session.
Mayor Whitehead: It’s really a blessing because I grew up playing piano, but never learned how to read music. I just played by ear, and soon I was playing guitar, bass and drums. I joined several bands growing up and even played through college. After college, our band produced some CDs. I still play guitar and piano at church, but every once in a while we throw a jam session. We put together a couple of songs for what we anticipated would be a celebration on election night, and suddenly it did turn out to be quite the celebration. My son Dillon plays the drums and saxophone. His band recently released their first single on Spotify.
Helotes News: Congratulations on your recent reelection as mayor. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing Helotes and what role can city government play in addressing them?
Mayor Whitehead: We obviously solved a lot of problems over the past two years and instituted a tremendous amount of change. And whenever there is change, you have to give it an opportunity to be able to grow and provide the results you’re looking for. That’s where we are as a city. I believe we’ve planted the crops, if you will. We’ve taken out the weeds, taken out the rocks, planted the seed and now we’re growing and ready for harvest. That being said, we do have a few remaining challenges for our city.
The most obvious challenge is the amount of traffic we have going through Helotes. This is not necessarily a direct result of growth in Helotes, but because of growth in Bexar County and the surrounding areas. We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth in unincorporated Bexar County to the north and west of us, and all that traffic comes through Helotes on Bandera Road as well as 1560. All of this development is outside of Helotes, but the traffic from these new developments funnels through our city.
We have three major Texas Department of Transportation or TXDOT projects. The Hausmann Road project is completed. We have Bandera Road that is right in the middle of everything and of course 1560 will be coming in the next year or two. That will be a multi-year project-–running from Culebra Road all the way to Bandera Road. So our biggest challenge is how to manage the traffic and the influx of people in the surrounding areas. Part of that really goes into our police department and emergency services. When you have increased traffic, you have traffic accidents. We have police, fire, and EMS service on scene for the accidents, and our police are then pulled away from patrolling our neighborhoods. Because we want to maintain safety in our communities, expanding our police department has been a priority. Adding additional police ensures we set the standard of what we expect for people who live here in Helotes as well as anybody who visits Helotes. It’s a standard that I have set for myself and for my friends and family too. It’s how we’re leading by example in our community.
Helotes News: What are some of the common misperceptions that citizens may have about city government?
Mayor Whitehead: One major misconception involves the Bandera Road construction project. It’s actually a TXDOT project and not a city project. I get a lot of phone calls and emails about it. It’s difficult. I feel the same pain as I drive through that traffic everyday. These plans were made years ago. The financing was arranged years ago. It was put out for bid years ago, and then it was selected for construction to finally start on Bandera last year. So now our reality is dealing with the construction. When all is said and done, the traffic flow will be much better and that will make things more tolerable for the amount of traffic coming through Helotes.
Another common misunderstanding involves the size of our ETJ or Extraterritorial Jurisdiction. Previous administrations annexed Bandera Road out toward 211, Shaenfield Road, and Braun Road from 1560 almost to 1604. This annexation took the roads, but none of the properties. Because these properties are not in Helotes, the city doesn’t get any property tax dollars from these areas. All of the developments in these areas are not in the city limits–it’s in unincorporated Bexar County. It is possible for these subdivisions to file and request to be annexed into the city. For example, we don’t have control over the apartments that are going up by the Triana development. We don’t have any jurisdiction over Triana or San Antonio Ranch or any of the areas of development further out toward 211. So even if they have a Helotes address, they’re not in the city limits. Our control in the ETJ is limited to the tree and sign ordinances.
Helotes News: Let’s move on to city-sponsored events. Are there any events you would consider scaling back or canceling? Are there any events you would consider bringing back or new events you would add?
Mayor Whitehead: I don’t think there is anything we want to scale back in the future. We want to expand and develop. For example, our 4th of July used to be at city hall and it was a nice little event, but had grown to about a thousand people. Our campus is not built to handle that amount of people. There were safety concerns, traffic issues and parking problems. When I was elected two years ago, we made an agreement with the Helotes Festival Association to move our July 4th celebration to the Helotes Festival Grounds. We do pay them for the use of the property, but when you take a look at all of the costs associated with the event, it actually was less expensive. Each year the event has grown giving the entire community the opportunity to participate in the festivities. We look forward to continuing this new Helotes tradition.
Other city events include the Old Town Christmas Parade which has been setting participation records every year. Helotes Market Days showcases around 200 vendors and draws thousands of people to Helotes on the first Saturday of every month. We did modify our movie night program over the past two years due to dwindling participation. Last year we sponsored one movie night for families along with a community band concert.
We plan to continue our support of the Helotes Area Community Band as it is a popular event with a number of people in our community. On May 26 the Helotes Area Community Band will perform at the City of Helotes Fire Department with Fort Sam’s own 323rd Army Band. These larger musical events are popular and well attended.
Helotes News: Last Fall voters in the city of Helotes voted for Prop A–a ballot initiative adding a quarter of a percent to the Helotes sales tax. How does the city plan to use these additional funds?
Mayor Whitehead: Prop A was approved by a healthy margin. We need more police officers in Helotes, and the passage of Prop A will provide the funding for these officers. The City of Helotes has expanded, not due to a significant increase in population, but due to the annexation of more roadways. As a result, we have significantly increased the miles of roadways our police must cover. This includes traffic accidents. Because our police are tied up with traffic accidents and have to patrol all the way out to 211, they are pulled away from our communities. In my opinion, that opened the door to small, petty theft, including a rash of car break-ins which is unfortunately an area-wide problem in Bexar County and statewide as well. So the idea of Prop A was proposed because we need more police officers to be in our communities while we also need them to continue servicing the traffic and car accidents that happen. Thankfully Helotes voters agreed that paying an additional quarter on every $100 spent in sales tax was a wise investment in public safety. Our tax rate now matches that of surrounding communities in Bexar County. The quarter percent gives us the long-term funding to hire up to 8 police officers, a couple of public works officers and one code compliance officer.
Helotes News: City budgets are financed primarily by sales tax and property tax. Please explain how cities budget based on these two sources of revenue.
Mayor Whitehead: While a city’s sales tax rate doesn’t change unless by vote, the amount of money a city receives from sales tax does fluctuate. For example, historically we never received over $650,000 worth of sales tax in any given month. Starting the month I was elected in May of 2021, we hit $700,000 then it fluctuated over the following months with the highest reaching $1.6 million. When construction hit in November, we started seeing an immediate impact on sales for some of our local businesses. We’ve taken about a 20 percent hit, but we anticipated some downturn. We have to actively manage what’s going on as people change their shopping trends.
Property tax is the other component of a city budget. One portion is debt & interest, and the other is maintenance & operations. As we pay down our debt as a city, we have to decrease our property tax rate. I’m happy to say one of the great accomplishments over the past two years has been working with the Helotes Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) to refocus how they do business. Instead of taking taxpayer money and expanding businesses up Bandera Road towards 211, they’re focused on filling our current lease inventory. The HEDC also decided to reroute some of their money back to Helotes to pay off debt. This puts the city on a path to be debt free in 12 years–allowing the city to focus on other projects or decrease the debt & interest portion of our property tax. Either way, we plan to have a lower property tax each year going forward for the next 12 years which I believe is leading by example. I hope other taxing authorities are watching and see that you can survive without being borrowed to the max. I hope the State of Texas considers that by adjusting funding to incentivize cities to operate properly as opposed to neck deep in debt.
Helotes News: There has been a lot of local media coverage on the challenges in Helotes’ Beverly Hills neighborhood based on traffic cutting through their subdivision. Could you comment on the current status of this issue as it is an evolving situation?
Mayor Whitehead: Yes, it’s a really unfortunate situation. There are several new communities in the Davis Ranch development. Located off Galm Road, an already overloaded area for traffic, the new subdivision wraps around and now connects to Beverly Hills, a 60-year-old Helotes neighborhood. With a little over 100 homes, Beverly Hills used to be a dead-end with one means of entrance and exit. A community at the back end of Beverly Hills that is in unincorporated Bexar County allowed the road to tie into Davis Ranch. Suddenly, we had a wide open gate for traffic to come through Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills residents enjoy taking walks on the roads. There are no sidewalks or curbs, and so with the massive increase in traffic we had safety issues, including near-misses of pedestrians by cars running through stop signs and speeding.
There is also a financial component because the road was not designed for that level of traffic. The City of Helotes used traffic counters to monitor the changing traffic levels. Originally the neighborhood experienced 600 cars per day. With the new road connected, it saw over 1,000 cars per day and was soon seeing over 2,000 cars per day. To address this situation, Helotes City Council passed a no-through traffic ordinance. As a result, the traffic cutting through from outside neighborhoods is subject to being ticketed. We’re working with the Bexar County Commissioners Court, and their public works department to develop another road from Davis Ranch through Bricewood and the new Sage Brooke development off 1560. The new road would have curbs, sidewalks and the appropriate lighting. In fact, the section connecting to 1560 is already developed, paved and striped. Its five-lane entrance is in a position where a traffic light could be added in the future. So while it’s not a perfect solution, we are trying to manage the situation and I believe this alternate option for motorists trying to reach 1560 will serve the needs of Helotes and Bexar County.
Helotes News: I’ve heard you say, “we can’t stop growth, but we can manage it.” There are changes coming on Scenic Loop across from Old Town Helotes on Bandera Road. Please provide a brief description on development plans and what citizens can expect in the coming months.
Mayor Whitehead: The QT or Quick Trip gas station is being built on the corner of Bandera Road and Scenic Loop. I guess we’ll call that the northside of Bandera Road and the eastside of Scenic Loop. They are a great organization with a wonderful track record of being good to their employees. During the permitting process with the City of Helotes, they voluntarily eliminated signage on the Scenic Loop side and instead of leaving the metal tower for their gas pumps, they will be surrounded in brick. They have done a lot to be a good partner in the community and certainly have a positive following as far as their customers go.
That piece of property has been zoned for a gas station for 40 years, and there are a fair number of people who are sad to see the QT. Some have suggested it should become a parkland; however, the city cannot take someone’s private property and turn it into a park. It’s their private property and their right to sell the property for use as it was zoned for.
Across the corner, we have a planned unit development or PUD which was approved by the city council. Originally a developer planned on using the 30 acres for a big box type retail area. They asked the city during development discussions if it could be developed into single-family homes with some commercial mom- and pop-type stores. Our city council approved the variance believing it was a better mix for this corner. There will still be final approvals moving forward, but once completed it will be 200 single family homes for rent with one landlord. The property will be managed on-site with 50,000 square feet of commercial development facing Bandera. We’re hoping for a mid-level eating restaurant like for a date night, and a small community grocery store. The developer will determine which tenants lease the space; however, the city ordinance under the PUD development limits the developer to a limited list of businesses.
Helotes News: How can citizens contact you if they have questions or concerns?
Mayor Whitehead: That’s a great question. I do have a busy schedule with 60 hours a week at the fire department, but I’m at city hall for about 30 hours a week combined with a small insurance business and a family. But that being said, I will always make time for citizens, employees or business owners. Contact our city secretary via email or phone and she can help you schedule a meeting. We can meet at my office or go out for a cup of coffee or even grab lunch. I am happy to talk to all of our citizens about any issue they may have.
Helotes News: What makes Helotes unique? Despite all the growth in Northwest Bexar County, how has Helotes maintained its small town feel?
Mayor Whitehead: When you consider what makes up our fiber, I consider the fabric of our culture here. It’s a neat mix of live music, barbecue, churches and beer. That may be an odd pairing, but we like live music as evidenced by 80 years of Floore’s Country Store being here. We obviously like beer because we probably have the largest per capita of beer joints, but we also have a tremendous amount of churches in our community. And that’s evidenced by the way we interact with each other. We have a highly diverse community with many different races and countries of origin. We interact well with each other because we have a high degree of respect for one another.
We recognize that as Americans we have a great amount of freedom, but I think that freedom doesn’t give you the right to just do anything. I think that is lost across most of America. Freedom comes with a great responsibility and we haven’t forgotten that in Helotes. I think that is a product of our faith and our upbringing. When we respect each other and we build on that with community events–whether it’s with neighbors or at church or during a city sponsored event. That’s when we build relationships and engage with each other. We experience life together as opposed to just existing together. And I think that’s what makes Helotes–Helotes.