A Tale of Two Bonuses at City Hall and CPS Energy

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(From left) CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams and previous City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams and former City Manager Sheryl Sculley

There was a curious silence in the wake of last week’s news that CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams was awarded a $445,000 performance bonus on top of her 3 percent annual raise and a new base salary of $485,850. Her annual compensation of $930,669 dwarfs that paid to other municipal leaders now or beforehand.

I asked 5,000 friends on Facebook to share their views, pro and con, and received a total of seven comments, evenly divided for and against the performance bonus paid to Gold-Williams. Ho-hum.

There is a simple explanation for the non-reaction. Gold-Williams and other highly compensated City, public utility, and County leaders are not the target of the police and fire unions, which went to war against then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley five years ago over new collective bargaining agreements.

Union leaders succeeded in riling up many other citizens over the compensation issue, distracting people from the real issue that San Antonio taxpayers were shouldering some of the highest public safety costs in the nation, with 66 cents of every municipal dollar in the city’s general fund going to police and firefighters.

The mayor’s task force that studied public safety costs in other Texas cities in 2013 and 2014 found that San Antonio was spending more than any other major city.

The police agreed to a new contract in 2016, but the fire union has yet to come to terms. The police reserve the right to receive any compensation increase awarded to firefighters that exceeds that given in the police contract.

That union campaign against Sculley culminated last November in the charter amendment passed by voters that limited future city manager pay. Shortly afterward, Sculley announced her retirement.

Sculley earned $475,000 in her last year on the job and turned down a potential $100,000 performance bonus. Sculley’s successor, Erik Walsh, earns a base salary of $312,000, well below his peers, more in line with what city managers earn in smaller Texas municipalities like Bryan and Corpus Christi.

The unions vilified Sculley and spent significant funds over the years smearing her in television ads and on social media, yet Sculley’s 14-year tenure and performance made her one of the most recognized and successful city managers in the country. Sculley’s financial reforms and management of bond campaigns, the City’s credit ratings, and her organizational practices saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over her years of service, even as City services improved across the board.

Not long after her retirement, an independent consultant hired by the City to measure city manager compensation nationally found that Sculley’s total pay was in line with other big city managers and not excessive for a veteran executive leading a workforce of 9,000 civilians, 3,000 uniformed workers, and managing multibillion-dollar municipal operating and capital budgets.

Gold-Williams isn’t the only executive who has enjoyed less attention to compensation than what Sculley endured. SAWS CEO Robert Puente, who earned around $473,000 in 2018, also declined to accept a $96,500 bonus for his work in 2017. His pay has been the target of some challenges, but nothing particularly organized.

Most taxpayers would not be able to identify George Hernandez, the CEO of Bexar County’s University Health System. He is paid an annual salary of $733,000 and a $100,000 bonus, bringing his total compensation to $833,000. Hernandez’s pay has never drawn any significant protest that I can recall.

Is an annual performance bonus of almost $445,000 and a compensation package approaching $1 million appropriate for Gold-Williams? It depends on your perspective.

If you are CPS Energy trustee comparing her compensation as head of the country’s largest municipal utility, you also are looking at what CEOs at merchant utilities are paid. Private sector compensation packages are even higher.

Critics would say that is an inappropriate comparison. Sculley, for example, could have easily doubled or tripled her annual earnings by going into the private sector. It’s not realistic for taxpayer- and ratepayer-supported enterprises to compete with for-profit enterprises.

Such performance bonuses also are often described as retention bonuses, even when the departure of someone like Gold-Williams or Hernandez to a similar position in another city is deemed highly unlikely.

Finally, there is the matter of optics. All of the top executives cited in this column work in organizations that do not incentivize their workforces with annual performance bonuses, the way a company like USAA does. Should the top person be compensated for his or her performance while others in the same workforce are told excellence is expected as part of their base pay?

It’s also true that San Antonio still suffers from a legacy of low-wage jobs held by people who resent highly paid leaders in public positions. For many years our mayor and City Council members didn’t earn enough to buy lunch for a week. Many people who comment on columns like this one do not necessarily appreciate the return on investment strong executives can deliver over less competent peers. You have to pay top dollar to attract top talent.

In the end, how the public perceives executive compensation depends on the politics. The moral of the story: Don’t mess with the public safety unions.

32 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Bonuses at City Hall and CPS Energy

  1. You are right, of course. Many of us grumbled privately, mostly because of the size of the bonus that appeared so soon after the news about the CPS pension shortfall and after CPS’s recwnt foot-dragging on climate action. (Rick Casey’s article on how much money inaction on that front is going to cost us was on-target as well.) But neither the CPS nor the SAWS Boards provide the visionary guidance that San Antonio needs. The excessive bonus is part of that picture.

  2. Thank you for this perspective. I also wondered why the announcement of Paula Gold-Williams bonus and pay increase was not addressed by the public. Great comparison between Gold-Williams and Sculley’s salary.

    • I did not receive an invite to complete survey, nor was I aware of this gross overpayment until this article came out. I would never “ho-hum” on this type of financial misuse of funds. Maybe my Facebook is not providing me with such invites or access to true news? Shocking…

  3. Compensation for publicly owned companies becomes an issue many times when privately owned companies need a new leader. CPS fought off a company a few years back, only to have that company continue to increase their offer until our CPS Chair decided for accept it.

  4. A lot of folks don’t comment because it’s so futile to do so.
    CPSE is corrupt.
    Paula Gold Williams is great but the bonus and salary is outrageous….and remains so EVERYWHERE until it fits into an appropriate % with the workers salaries.

    Williams’ bonus & salary at a municipal (it’s not, really) owned utility is outrageous.

    But, who in power is listening?

  5. Tell us this:
    SAPD, SAFD, Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept., salaries, overtime time pay for leadership. Also would like to know are there women in leadership roles? What are their salaries? And last but not least, tell us about the Union salaries and if they have any women in leadership roles.
    Thank you.

  6. What qualifications does Ms. Williams possess to deserve such a large salary and bonus? There is no discussion on qualifications for this job, just political connections.

    • CPSE & SAWS is not run by any Government (local , county, state, or federal) it is a private company with only one board member that is to watch and make recommendations and that is the Mayor or his designee.

  7. Bob, first I was surprised by the limited amount of responses you received via Facebook. Regarding pay and bonuses, I agree that the unions may have influenced the pay of Sculley. So who do you blame for the outrageous compensation provided to Gold-Williams? The answer is clear, city council. As irate as you and others maybe about how Sculley was treated by the unions, you should be equally irate towards city council for the compensation they approve. Vilifying the unions and not city council for their actions, to me, demonstrates bias on your part.

    • Ken, as noted in the column the four CPS Energy trustees (with the mayor weighing in) set the compensation for the CEO, not City Council. Any subsequent approval is all but ceremonial. The trustees are in control. Those are facts, not bias. -RR

      • Bob, thanks for the clarification. I missed the part in the article that stated that her compensation was the result of a decision by CPS Energy trustees. I don’t mean to drag this on, but I’m confused as to how four trustees determine CPS CEO salary whereas city manager is decided by city council. If any part of CPS CEO salary is paid for by city revenues, then shouldn’t the city council have a say? If the unions were able to influence Sculley’s compensation, who do we turn to in order for the pay of CPS CEO to be influenced? Thanks.

  8. Ms. Gold-Williams makes $930,669 a year to run a public-utility company. The CPS Energy board thinks she is doing a good job.

    Compare that to the pay earned by those who care for our city’s most vulnerable citizens: the very young and the very old. A day care worker earns $9.83 an hour, while a Certified Nurse Assistant takes home $12.10 to assist those in nursing homes.

    Why the vast difference? Where are the bonuses for those who do exceptional jobs taking care of our children and our parents?

    Unions are not to blame for this state of affairs. In fact, in our right-to-work state, day care and nursing home workers are prevented from joining unions and thus cannot collective-bargain over pay and work conditions.

  9. I think the number of comments may reflect burn out or disappointment felt by the voters. Our mayor ran on a platform of increased listening to constituents and more transparency. Now one of the first events reported on is his helping approve such a large compensation package. Doesn’t seem like anything has changed.

  10. I do not recall receiving an invite to complete such a survey, nor was I aware of this gross overpayment until this article came out. I would never “ho-hum” on this misuse of funds. Maybe my Facebook is not providing me with such invites or access to true news? Shocking…

  11. The pay gap between the leaders on top and the rest (of employees) not only in city governance but public schools, universities and other state agencies is quite perplexing to me. Rivard’s association of high salaries to high competence is not necessarily true.

  12. Sculley was a much more publicly “visible” manager than Gold-Williams. From garbage collection fees to fire and police union negotiations she caught our attention. That made her a moving target. Too bad she chose to retire.

  13. How does a “successful” city manager get skunked by the voters if they had valued her performance? Voters had the last say on the matter.
    Given the city’s socioeconomic conditions which progressively got worse over her tenure, maybe it’s time to redefine “success”, such that it is not narrowly expressed in business or operational terms, but in human development terms.
    This is a topic the former city manager never discussed, which the voters recognized.

    • The voting public is ignorant of the role of the city manager and the huge benefits Sculley brought the city. They saw a big salary and said “that’s too much” while not understanding why she should have earned her salary and bonuses.

      CPS as a private company giving such a large bonus to the CEO while not extending any bonuses to the workforce is sketchy. That salary and bonus comes from the monopolistic role of the until company and the overcharge the customers have to bear.

      • CPS is not a private company, that’s the whole issue.

        Our fire and police don’t receive performance bonuses for saving lives (like showing up when your child drowns and bringing them back to life so you can enjoy your next Christmas together).
        Instead we blame them for the City’s problems? What are our priorities as a community?

    • As shown in city, state and national elections since 2015, a substantial number of voters choose to vote with their middle fingers rather than their brains.

  14. Big bonuses would not be an issue if the lives of hard working tax paying citizens would also benefit someway or somehow. But all the citizens see is more cost and more incremental higher taxation.

  15. Mr. Rivard – Just Incase you do not remember, I am a social media agnostic, but as a contributing member I would have hoped you would have had all communication methods covered for you surveys. I do not trust social media and that is s good thing!

    I will send you a series e-mails I have sent President & CEO Williams-Gold that should be required reading by CPS ENERGY Trustees and the CoSA mayor, but I doubt that even Ms. Williams-Gold read any of the them.

  16. Two things you might want to clarify in your article- first, the police department doesn’t reserve the right to any pay and benefits the fire union negotiates. There is a clause in the police CBA that refers to any wage increases over 14% over the life of the fire contract. I emailed Ms. Dimmick the same comment when she wrote a similar article. Unless there is a provision in the police CBA, which is found on the city website, allowing renegotiation of the police health benefits, the police will continue with the same benefit they negotiated. I emailed her the specific article covering the 14% salary figure. Second, I know we have had the discussion before about the general fund and the total City budget. Your article claims 66% of every municipal dollar goes to the police and fire. In FY 20109 the total city budget was $2.8 billion and the public safety budget was $794 million. The general fund was $1.26 billion. That means public safety is about 63%, not 66% and that is just of the general fund, not the total budget. Also, several years ago the City decided to count Park Police and Airport Police as part of the public safety budget instead of the Parks and Recreation and Airport budgets. This had the effect of increasing the amount of public safety spending without a single extra dollar being spent. Can you get any research on the per capita amount of the San Antonio general fund and compare it other large Texas cities? In other words, the amount of the general fund per resident of the city? I seem to remember the figure being mentioned in one of the fire union slides during negotiations but I can’t remember the numbers.

  17. I wish the media (including you) would stop describing these publicly funded executives as “highly compensated”. It confuses the issue. Yes they are highly paid compared to most people (so is everyone else making six figures), but most of us know that’s not a good comparison.

  18. Great article. Very well stated. passes all test for logic!

    Another point, if I may. How much communication has CPS had with the public about wanting us consumers to consume less? Next time I go to Mc D’s, maybe they’ll ask me to buy fewer fries….

    How about CPS stop telling me use less energy and spend some money on real (proven) cheap energy instead of renewables that NEVER return the investment! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for solar, etc, but not if means less energy! supply and demand is a pretty easy concept to graps – just ask Mc D’s how many burgers they have sold!

  19. Neither Ms. Gold-Williams, nor any other CPS executive, deserve a dollar of bonuses until all coal-powered plants serving San Antonio are shut down. They’re getting paid to increase our bills, pollute our air, and exacerbate climate change.

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