Courtesy / Ray Whitehouse
There are reasons why firefighters worked every polling station in San Antonio from the opening of early voting through May 4, and why they will be back for the June 8 runoff. Civic duty isn’t one of them.
Firefighters union President Chris Steele stated the mission clearly in a secretly tape-recorded conversation to union members last year when he shared plans to get “our guy” in the mayor’s office. Incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in case you just moved here, is not the union’s guy. That would be challenger, former union consultant, and now City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6).
San Antonio firefighters enjoy some of the highest salaries and benefits packages in Texas, yet most of them do not actually live in the city, thus avoiding taxes. They are ineligible to vote in City elections. They are, however, working to influence how you vote by misrepresenting the election as a vote for or against first responders.
That’s deliberately deceptive. It’s nothing of the kind.
The average San Antonio firefighters’ annual compensation approaches $100,000 a year in the only major Texas city where firefighters pay zero health care premiums. The firefighters project a working-class image, but they enjoy recession-proof employment and a standard of living that no working class people I know would recognize. They deserve good pay and benefits, but there are limits, a reality they resist at all costs.
Firefighters are working the voting sites to elect a mayor who will use his position and influence to perpetuate the firefighter union’s unsustainably rich benefits package. The police union finally agreed to a generous new contract in 2016 that, pending a deal with the firefighters union, will see members and their dependents start to pay a modest share of health care costs.
Nearly three years later, taxpayers are still waiting. Firefighters broke with the tradition of agreeing to a contract in concert with the police union and, for nearly five years now, have resisted bargaining in good faith with the City. Steele and others are now betting they can elect Brockhouse and thus place an ally on the other side of the bargaining table.
Early voting opens May 28, with polling places open every day except Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through June 4.
Brockhouse, if elected, has pledged to act in the interest of citizens rather than the union, but he has not put forth a detailed proposal for a new contract that would clearly spell out the degree of his support for the City’s bargaining position that has stood the test of three mayors and city councils. That consensus first reached under Mayor Julián Castro sets a limit on public safety spending of 66 percent of the general budget.
Brockhouse was the lone Council member to support the union’s campaign to pass three charter amendments last November, and two of them did. A reasonable person would conclude his sentiments lie with the union and not the taxpayer. He also is promising homeowners tax relief even as he supports the firefighters and the spiraling costs of their benefits package. I see that as a campaign promise that cannot be kept.
It’s been more than five years since a blue ribbon commission formed by Castro that included union representatives issued its comprehensive report that has guided the City in its negotiations. Abandoning that foundational document would be a monumental setback for good governance.
Addressing the issue of runaway health care costs for union members has been a long time coming. Mayor Henry Cisneros and City Council approved a landmark new contract negotiated under City Manager Lou Fox in 1988. Almost immediately, Fox had to acknowledge the costs of the contract far exceeded what Council members had been told before their vote of approval.
Perhaps no one could have predicted today’s spiraling costs of health care back then, but today, San Antonio devotes a higher percentage of its general operating budget to public safety than any other major Texas city, and each year the runaway costs of rich health care benefits for the unions makes the situation worse. The City’s civilian workers received a very different benefits package, creating two distinct classes of public employees.
As the runoff election approaches next month, it’s time to stop prefacing every conversation about the firefighters union with how much we respect first responders and cut right to the heart of the matter. The union leadership’s refusal to reach a fair compromise puts their own greed ahead of the common good. They enjoy one of the highest levels of compensation and lowest cost of living of any metropolitan public safety workers in the state, yet they want more.
Firefighters want a world where they and their family members never reach into their own pockets to pay a monthly insurance premium or visit a doctor’s office or pharmacy and face a copay. That’s not a world open to the rest of us, and it’s not one City taxpayers can afford any longer.
The opportunity cost is real. Uncontrolled public safety spending limits the City’s ability to fund street and sidewalk maintenance, parks, libraries, and social safety net services to the homeless and working poor. Nonprofits, major employers, and philanthropists work to fill that gap, but no amount of private charity can supplant public spending obligations.
The runoff for mayor should not be about Chick-fil-A. It should be about credible allegations of domestic violence leveled against Brockhouse, but many voters seem callously indifferent to issues of character.
The election is unarguably about the City’s future financial stability and the delivery of basic services to taxpayers. Until a new contract with the firefighters union is achieved, San Antonio’s future is increasingly an uncertain one.