Fact-Checking Nirenberg and Brockhouse: (Spoiler Alert) Neither Is Perfect

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks briefly with Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) before a meeting to decide on a finalist for the City Manager position.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) in January 2019.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg wants you to believe that San Antonio is on track to becoming the “city you deserve.” His main challenger, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), maintains the city is headed down the “wrong path.” So which version reflects reality? It depends on which set of statistics you use – and when.

Here’s a handy guide to understanding the context behind the two primary candidates’ frequent adversarial points on policy issues and state of affairs during recent public debates.

On Crime

Nirenberg’s claim: “I do hope people Google the facts, because you will see in 2018 the crime rate dropped by 18 percent. In 2017 the crime rate dropped by 17 percent,” Nirenberg said during a debate this week. “In fact our crime rate is declining at two times the national average.”

Brockhouse’s claim: San Antonio has the worst crime rate out of the 15th largest cities in the nation.

Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR) reality: They’re both generally right, but Nirenberg has his 2018 figure wrong, and to Brockhouse’s point: It’s hard to compare crime stats across those 15 cities.

Background: In 2015 and 2016, big cities across the U.S. saw a dramatic spike in violent crime, including San Antonio, according to FBI statistics.

Violent crime rates in the United States are on a downward trajectory.

Courtesy / FBI

Violent crime rates in the United States are on a downward trajectory after increases in 2015 and 2016.

SAPD implemented a Violent Crime Task Force in 2017 to decrease the rate of most of those crimes, including homicide, certain types of manslaughter, rape, and aggravated assault. Property crime increased, too. The FBI statistics, provided from SAPD’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), show a decrease in violent and property crimes each year since 2016 and the crime rate, per 100,000 residents, is the lowest it has been in at least three decades. The violent and property crime rate in San Antonio went down 17 percent in 2017 and 16 percent in 2018, according to media and SAPD reports.

The national average for property and violent crimes in 2017 dropped 3.6 percent and 1 percent, respectively, and 7.2 percent and 4.3 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the first six months of 2017 in preliminary national stats. So Nirenberg got the general idea correct but slipped on the 2018 percentage.

And San Antonio does have the highest crime rate among the nation’s 15 largest cities, according to UCR reports released last year. But those cities have different definitions for which crimes count as violent and property crimes – which can lead to comparing apples to oranges. As a result, SAPD Police Chief William McManus and the FBI caution against use the reports to reliably compare or rank cities.

On Police Vacancies

Brockhouse’s claim: The number of vacant police officer positions has hovered at about “180,” he said. Filling the gap with cadets doesn’t work because “a cadet’s not out on the street for a year. … There’s this math that goes into it that always leaves us short.”

Nirenberg’s claim: “Over the last two years, we have introduced new cadet classes to bring what was a vacancy problem down to three at the end of spring with this new police officer cadet class.”

TL;DR reality: Neither is completely true … but Nirenberg is much closer.

Background: The City of San Antonio sets a fiscal year budget that allows for a certain amount of police officers, but the City rarely actually has that many police officers on duty in a year. Generally, that number stays pretty constant but has been increased each year since 2015. In FY 2017, the City had 2,407 authorized positions, in 2018 the City had 2,445, and in 2019 there are 2,447. The City is making progress toward filling vacant positions.

In October 2017, there were 2,269 filled positions and 178 of those were fresh out of the academy, according to data provided by the City. So that’s 138 positions less than authorized. Cadets train for 36 weeks and then spend 16 weeks with another officer before going out on their own patrol. Following Brockhouse’s argument that cadets shouldn’t count towards the total, the City had 316 less officers than what the budget authorized in 2017, 211 less in 2018, and 196 less in 2019.

Several officers leave the department each year – through retirement and other means – so SAPD and the City try to anticipate that with having cadets in the pipeline. A City Council priority for the fiscal year 2019 budget was to fill vacancies.

Regarding Nirenberg’s claim, the City is planning to train and hire significantly more cadets than in years past, but it won’t reach three vacancies by the end of spring – more like the end of fall. According to a summary report outlining SAPD’s hiring plans prepared for the Rivard Report by Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez, “we anticipate to be fully staffed by September 2019,” when two more classes conclude.

“There is always the appropriate number of officers per shift on the streets at all times,” Villagómez said. “Any gaps in staffing are filled with a pool of officers who opt in to voluntary overtime.”

Cadets in training or paired with a more experienced officer aren’t performing the same duties as their experienced counterparts, but the City cannot have more cadets in the pipeline than what is allowed for in the budget.

“While cadets currently in the academy are not making arrests, those are positions that are being filled and cannot be considered vacant,” she said.

On Brockhouse’s Financial Relationship with Public Safety Unions

Nirenberg’s Claim: “The unions put $500k in Brockhouse’s pocket so he would be in theirs,” he wrote in a recent Facebook advertisement.

TL;DR reality: Various public safety unions paid Brockhouse nearly $500,000 between 2014 and 2016, according to state filings from their respective political action committees, for work he performed as a marketing and political consultant.

Background:  Brockhouse has said not all of that money went directly into his pocket; most was spent on the expenses incurred in running the business.

“I have marketing and advertising fees, I put billboards up, I build websites for their public outreach,” Brockhouse said during a live mayoral debate on Texas Public Radio. “[A small business owner] would understand that you have income in and expenses out.”

Brockhouse worked for the firefighters union’s anti-streetcar coalition in 2014, an effort that led to a charter amendment requiring a public vote on street- or light-rail projects. He worked against the Council pay charter amendment and a San Antonio Water System rate hike related to the Vista Ridge water pipeline. Brockhouse also worked for the police union during its contentious labor contract negotiations with the City. The police got a deal in 2016, but the firefighters have gone more than four years without a pay increase. Fire union and City negotiations began in February.

The firefighters union has endorsed Brockhouse and its PAC is spending money on his behalf.

The union president said, in a leaked recording, that Brockhouse was “our guy” for the mayor’s seat. Some worry that if Brockhouse is elected mayor, he might help usher in a labor contract that’s good for the firefighters but not necessarily in the city’s best interest.

“I’m the only person [the public safety unions] trust in City Hall,” Brockhouse said. “My commitment to the citizens of San Antonio is: They will be first in the conversation.”

On Job Creation

Brockhouse’s claim: San Antonio had the “slowest job creation year in 2018,” only creating 11,000 jobs.

Nirenberg’s claim: San Antonio added 40,000 jobs in key sectors and “anyone that wants a job in San Antonio can get one.”

TL;DR reality: They’re both right … ish.

Background: Brockhouse is citing an early 2019 media report that says 2018 was the worst year for job growth in the San Antonio area since the 2008 recession – and it was, according to the data provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas at the time.

To get to more than 40,000, Nirenberg is adding up the 11,000 from 2018 cited by that article with 33,000 that the Dallas Fed estimated for 2017.

However, those numbers have since been updated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas told the Rivard Report.

In the San Antonio-New Braunfels area, the Bureau reports that 35,000 nonfarm jobs were created from January 2017 to January 2019. In 2018, there were 21,000 jobs added – much slower growth than in 2014 (38,600 jobs added), but better than 2017’s (13,500).

The jobless rate in San Antonio has remained below the state and federal levels for at least 10 years and took a dive from 3.9 percent in February 2017 to 3.2 percent in October that year, where it has been hovering around ever since. In February 2019 it was 3.4 percent. The Fed reports slight upticks in job creation in 2019 so far, but there’s a problem statewide with employees not being able to find workers.

San Antonio is at “statistical full employment,” as Nirenberg likes to point out, which means that while not everyone has a job, the jobless rate is the lowest it can be without causing inflation.

As far as everyone who wants a job in San Antonio can get one – that’s an anecdotal (not literal) statement that basically means there are enough jobs for the population that does not have them. The trick is lining up the skill-level of potential employees to the jobs employers need done.

On Property Tax Vote Records

Brockhouse’s claim: He tried to lower the City’s property tax rate. Nirenberg voted against a half-cent property tax decrease twice.

TL;DR reality: True.

Background: Before City Council voted to approve the 2018 and 2019 budgets, Brockhouse and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) made motions to reduce the tax rate. The decreases were proposed on the dais and rejected with 9-2 votes.

Most of the Council agreed that the average benefit to homeowners, $8.45 per year, was not worth the estimated $5 million cost to the City’s budget to provide services.

As a Council member representing District 8, Nirenberg voted alongside a unanimous of Council in 2014 to decrease the property tax rate in 2015.

The City has not increased its property tax rates for 26 years, but they have been reduced seven times over the past two decades. Still, as property values increase, homeowners’ tax bills continue to increase at alarming rates in many areas of the City. Both Nirenberg and Brockhouse recently supported a study of the Bexar Appraisal District’s appraisal and protest processes put forward by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). They have both also said that the most impactful tax reform will come at the State level.

On the Infamous Chick-fil-A Vote

Brockhouse: Chick-fil-A makes “more money in six days than other restaurants make in seven.”

TL;DR reality: True.

Background: Though it has fewer stores, according to the 2018 QSR Magazine Report, Chick-fil-A franchises make more per restaurant than other chains. The average store made more than $4.09 million in 2017. An average McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Subway combined made an average $4.03 million.

City Council voted 6-4 to approve a contract with a concessionaire company to operate in the San Antonio International Airport with the condition that it replace Chick-fil-A as one of the dining options. Brockhouse voted with the minority. Nirenberg supported the removal. The motion to remove the fast food chain, launched by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), was based on the company’s reputation for supporting anti-LGBTQIA groups.

Nirenberg said his vote was not based on the company’s religious or political beliefs, rather he just wants to put restaurants in the airport that are open on Sundays and local. The concessionaire company agreed to find a replacement restaurant that would fulfill the projected revenue agreement with the City.

On the Equity Budget

Nirenberg’s claim: Brockhouse is the only Council member that was opposed to applying an “equity lens” to the City’s 2018 budget.

TL;DR reality: Correct, but Brockhouse was opposed to how the lens was applied, not the entire concept.

Background: The first application of the “equity lens” to the City’s budget came in the fiscal year 2018 budget. It was divvying up extra street repair dollars to the districts that have a higher percentage of below-average or failing street conditions. Districts 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 received the baseline amount for street repair but none of the extra cash based on this formula.

Brockhouse, who represents District 6, called foul. For 2019, the City modified its formula. Additional resources were allocated citywide to streets inside Loop 410 that have average or below-average grades in some of the oldest neighborhoods. It also made exceptions for Council districts 8 and 9, which don’t have territory inside 410, so those areas can receive funding for its worst streets.

On the Republican National Convention

Nirenberg’s claim: San Antonio taxpayers would have been “on the hook” for a estimated $70 million payment to the RNC.

TL;DR reality: Maybe true.

Brockhouse’s claim: San Antonio missed out on a “$220 million” economic development opportunity.

TL;DR reality: Maybe true.

Background: San Antonio hasn’t bid on a national political convention in 20 years, but the possibility of hosting the 2020 RNC was thrust into the spotlight when President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale, who used to live in San Antonio, sent a series of tweets attacking Nirenberg and then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley for passing up the opportunity to bid for it. Several other cities also passed.

RNC officials said it could draw an estimated 40,000 people to San Antonio and generate $200 million in economic impact but would require a commitment of $65 million payment to the RNC. The City would be on the hook if supporters and fundraisers didn’t come up with the dough.

The costs of hosting any political convention of that scale, Nirenberg said, were too unknown – including traffic, police, protests, and infrastructure – and may outweigh the benefits.

Brockhouse said it was purely a political decision, pointing to the city’s ability to host the nearly 100,000 people that visited the City during the 2018 NCAA Final Four weekend.

6 thoughts on “Fact-Checking Nirenberg and Brockhouse: (Spoiler Alert) Neither Is Perfect

  1. Both candidates highlighted here are not what San Antonio needs. Good to finally see the Rivard do real journalism, not just incumbent cheerleading.

  2. It’s clear that Brockhouse “SAYS” and Mayor Nirenberg uses FACTS.
    It’s also interesting that Brockhouse “SAYS” he support SAPD but “SAYS” that SAPD cadets basically aren’t real police officers? I do hope the cadets see the insult in that.

    • What insult could the cadets see in his statement? Cadets aren’t real police officers. If they were, then they would be called “officers” and not “cadets.” They are cadets until they complete the training academy and pass the state licensing exam. Not all of the cadets pass the academy and become officers, about 20-30% will fail to become officers. The chart shows 2251 sworn officers out of an authorized strength of 2445. That means the department is currently short almost 200 sworn officers. The city will cover the vacancies with overtime and then later we will read the stories about the excessive amounts of overtime police officers earn. Here are questions that never seems to be asked: how many officers are assigned to patrol shifts, how many officers are authorized for patrol shifts, and how does this number compare to previous years?

  3. Blockhouse is correct on the vacant police positions. Your article has it wrong. There is a concept known as “street patrol vacancies” or “boots on patrol vacancies”. Cadets and probationary officers cannot patrol on their own, therefore even though the position or slot maybe “filled” the patrol or shift is not. It must be covered with overtime, or extended shifts. The real question is when is it considered “filled”. When someone occupies the position, or when there is an officer out on patrol.

  4. With respect to “job growth”, be sure to establish whether the numbers reflect actual “city” stats vs. the usual “metro” or regional profile, i.e. our economic zone, S.A.-New Braunfels. As I use this type of research, I’m always complaining about this statistical distortion to regional economists, statisticians, and academics. You have to dig deeper to find actual city data.
    When politicians say “San Antonio” they are not necessarily talking about the city of San Antonio, they are referring to our metro area. The city’s adopted long-range plan envisions a metroplex, having greater density, while subsidizing this growth of a million residents by 2045. Locals are not valued as much as younger, better skilled, deeper pockets of new citizens; they will continue to be displaced.

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