New City Manager to Inherit Public Safety Funding Challenge

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San Antonio City Hall

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The war between public safety unions and City Hall dates to 2013.

The application period for the position of San Antonio city manager closes Thursday, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg has laid out an ambitious selection timeline for City Council to select a successor to retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley by the end of January.

City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) likely will oppose that timeline, as much as he detests Sculley. I write that without any special knowledge of the first-term representative’s thinking. It’s a simple assumption: Doesn’t he oppose virtually all of Nirenberg’s initiatives and positions?

Judging by the recent commentary Brockhouse contributed to the Rivard Report, which includes his responses to readers who posted comments, the fire union’s preferred candidate for mayor is getting ready to challenge Nirenberg in the May city election. Again, a simple assumption: Isn’t Brockhouse tired of being a vote of one, with only infrequent company joining him in opposition? So why not roll the dice and give an emboldened fire union its own candidate?

A Brockhouse mayoral bid is a long-shot proposition. His would be a campaign targeting the incumbent, rather than one built on a vision and a plan. Yet we are living a populist, anti-government moment, and Brockhouse’s message that we are a city of haves and have-nots will resonate, even if it’s not true. Caveat emptor, voters. Protest votes can have unintended consequences.

A new city manager or a new mayor will not change the reality that San Antonio faced five years ago in 2013 and still faces now. That was the year Sculley convinced Mayor Julián Castro that public safety benefits and pension costs were becoming a worsening drag on City finances, accounting for an ever-growing percentage of the city’s general budget.

A blue-ribbon commission that compared the police and fire union’s collective bargaining agreement with other cities in Texas and beyond issued its report in 2014 that showed San Antonio was spending more of its budget — nearly two-thirds of every dollar — than any other major U.S. city on public safety, worsened by the spiraling costs of union health care and retirement benefits. Citizens learned that police and firefighters do not pay for any of their health care and enjoy a legal slush fund to cover the costs of divorces and other personal problems.

Castro and the City Council unanimously approved a policy setting a 66 percent ceiling on future public safety costs in the general budget. Ever since, the fire union has refused to come to the bargaining table to work on a new labor agreement. Their representatives sat in on the early sessions between City negotiators and the police union, but they never came to the table for direct talks on replacing the labor pact that expired in 2014. San Antonio firefighters union President Chris Steele continues to ignore invitations to bargain.

Perhaps he is waiting for Brockhouse to become mayor.

San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele

The current mayor and Council, of course, could break that pledge to hold down union costs and hand the firefighters a rich new contract, even better than the one given to the police union under Mayor Ivy Taylor. That would be the trigger for the next downgrading of San Antonio’s bond rating.

The next city manager will inherit a reality first recognized by Sculley, and while the passage of Proposition B might save a few hundred thousand dollars on the compensation paid to her successor, the real risk is the tens of millions of dollars a bad contract will cost taxpayers.

People turn off when the conversation turns to municipal finance, but taxpayers should understand this: a missing or poorly maintained sidewalk on your street is going to stay that way because your tax dollars are underwriting rich union benefits.

The next time you fork over $20 for a prescription co-pay or $50 for a visit to a physician, remind yourself: The firefighters believe they should not have to pay for any of their health care. Taxpayers, union leaders insist, should foot the whole bill.

That, in sum, is what the five-year war between City Hall and the unions is all about. One side’s greed, and the other side saying we can no longer afford to give a blank check to the unions.

The new city manager faces a huge challenge: How to deliver City Council and citizens a new agreement with the fire union that is both fair and affordable. The alternative is to let an unelected arbiter rule on a new contract and thus put the city’s ability to deliver other essential services at greater risk.

Just remember: The city manager told us so. Happy New Year.

12 thoughts on “New City Manager to Inherit Public Safety Funding Challenge

  1. Nearly 20 years ago, then City Manager Briseno told me that the greatest problem SA faced was controlling the future cost of the escalating union demands; he explained that no politician had the will to confront the issue. Fifteen years later, Sculley reiterated that SA could not afford the union demands and took on the unpopular fight against overwhelming odds; agree with her approach or not, she was bold and relentless, often fighting for the taxpayers on the playing field alone. The voters rewarded her efforts by deciding it was better to save a couple of hundred-thousand annually and rid themselves of a competent city manager while rewarding the greedy union with tens-of-millions in benefits few of us can find in the workplace. Give the voters what they want…raise their taxes so the firefighters are comfortable. When taxpayers finally decide they are tired of escalating taxes, good luck trying to find someone who will again take on the now much empowered union.

    And one more thing: doubtlessly for political purposes, the referendum debate was always characterized as being driven by Chris Steele and the union. It’s time that we now recognize all of the culprits in this masterfully executed campaign to pillage taxpayer coffers: the fire fighters themselves bear much of the responsibility; without their support of Steele, SA would not find itself in this critical situation.

  2. This problem goes back to the Cisneros days. Unfortunately, social services and infrastructure don’t have as well-organized lobbies to get the word out, and the police and fire have figured out how to be much more effective at public voicing.

    Looks like our pay to the police and fire is really high all the way up the ladder.

  3. defines “slush fund” as “a sum of money used for illicit or corrupt purposes, as for buying influence.” Are you saying the police association has been using the legal fund for illegal purposes? If so, the City should immediately launch an investigation. If you used that word intentionally because of its negative connotation, the you are doing your readers a disservice. I understand your support of the City position, and the costs of health care definitely need to be addressed as they were in the police contract, but I think you should be making your point with facts instead of inflammatory words. Would you consider the discretionary fund each council person can access a slush fund? I think you would state your position better by asking some questions of the City, such as: how have health care costs been affected by the police contract? How much money is the City saving on fire salaries, since there have been no raises for several years, versus the cost of the current firefighter health care? Some other questions that might also need to be addressed: why have police hiring standards been reduced if the department is not having difficulty finding candidates? How much money is the City saving on pension costs, given the almost 200 sworn vacancies on the department? What percentage of the public safety budget is attributed to the terms of the CBA, and how has that percentage changed over the years? Finally, your statement that the police and fire did not pay for any of their health care under the previous contract is false. The contract is available on the internet, including the deductible amounts and maximum out of pocket amounts for both individuals and families. If you meant there were no premiums under the old contract, and you feel the deductibles and maximums were too low, then say that. I understand this is your commentary, but I think it should still be factual if possible. If things are as serious as you believe, then you shouldn’t need to make them sound worse than they are.

    • Yes, they are worse than they seem. If the public really understood the gravy train firefighters are riding, they’d be outraged. Maybe it’s a good thing the firefighters got granted this victory with the propositions because it will now FINALLY bring to light the financial reality of the situation. And give me a break re: slush fund. Don’t get hung up on semantics. The real issue is exactly as Mr. Rivard has stated.

      • I’d truly be interested in learning about the “gravy train” I’m on. I haven’t noticed it. I work more hours than most people I know. I go places most people don’t want to go. I do/see things nobody wants to. And a lot of it happens when most people are comfortable in their homes and beds. Through all of it I risk exposure to countless diseases, dangers of traffic or fires, hazardous materials, oh and interrupted sleep patterns that contribute to many other conditions. PTSD is a true risk. With all of that, most of us love our jobs, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many of the exposures can make it home to our families. It s difficult to explain many of the things we see and do because they are things that shouldn’t be necessary – that is, no one should experience some of this stuff. We volunteer to do this job. I feel it’s fair to expect to be able to care for our families and have insurance to take care of the risks we come across.
        Please, though, show me the gravy train. I say that seriously with no sarcasm or malice. I truly don’t know about this train.

        • A vocation comes with inherent risks; fire fighter , police,first line medical attendant, military uniform…. Pension and Health care benefits over your/their lifetime is what will bring financial pain to any municipality- and I/We fund those benefits through our taxes. Lest we forget those urban cities from 70-80’s that were financially insolvent due to granted pension and health benefits ( to whom? Police/Fire/Municipal) .

  4. There are factual errors in your article that don’t match with your normal caliber of reporting. The firefighters currently don’t pay monthly premiums on health insurance but do pay co-pays for Dr visits and prescriptions, along with deductibles, out of pocket, etc. I know none of my health insurance has felt free. You also fail to mention the numerous raises that were traded for maintaining health benefits. Consider pay increases compound over time, how much has been saved through those never-happened raises? Also consider, the city is self-insured. The city pays only for health care used. The firefighters are generally in good health which means they don’t use insurance as a much as other populations.
    There are points to be made on both sides of the issue and your publication would grow in stature if coverage was fact based and complete instead of openly biased.
    I appreciate a lot of news I read here but there is room for improvement.

    • You forget to mention the fact that firefighters don’t pay premiums for themselves or their families. That’s huge. I’m paying about $1,000/month to cover myself and my family. So spare me the $20 co-pay for doctor visits. I’ve seen your plan. It’s ridiculous. Nobody has benefits like that. Just check other cities in Texas or across the US.
      If you’re concerned about raises… Well, then talk to the union president. As your representative, he hung a skeleton with Sculley’s face in his office but neglected to negotiate a reasonable contract for you and your fellow firefighters. Any arbitrator who looks at your benefits and compares them to TX and the US will laugh at you fools.

  5. “Citizens learned that police and firefighters do not pay for any of their health care and enjoy a legal slush fund to cover the costs of divorces and other personal problems.” Who caused this to be the case? I can’t believe the police and firefighters’ union dictated this arrangement. It’s is not their fault the city did a poor job in negotiating contracts. If it is true that the city has been aware of this for over a decade, I blame a lack of changes on poor leadership, not on the union. Tell the readers the entire story on how the situation got to where it is today. If Sculley was unable to convince the mayors and city council members to effect change, was she worth the money she was being paid?

    • So if a bully threatens to beat me up if I don’t hand over my money, I’m at fault for not fighting back hard enough? And the bully is absolved because Lord of the Flies and such?

  6. Great article. Coming from someone who was born and raised in Chicago, when it comes to Unions…. be careful what you wish for. With the passing of Proposition B and Sculley’s retirement, the city is opening itself up to mismanagement and, more importantly, restrictions with cash flow. San Antonio was just named the 7th largest city in the U.S., now it’s time we start acting like it. We need to start thinking like a large city and attract people with a vision, leave the small town politics behind us.
    Unions were created to help the workers in a time when companies abused workers and their working environment. Since then, goverment agencies have been created to address such issues. Unions serve no purpose today but to milk the cities of more money and more benefits. Fire fighters and police officers play a very important role in our city, there’s no denying that. But when is ENOUGH, ENOUGH? They’ve done our city a disservice by crippling the City Manager position, this is union bullying at its best.

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