San Antonio Last: November Ballot Initiatives an Existential Threat

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San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele and union members deliver petitions to City Hall.

Now that the runoff elections and an anemic voter turnout are history, it's time to turn our attention to the November ballot and the most important election in contemporary San Antonio history. This is not about the mood of the nation and how voters feel about the Trump administration or the Republican-controlled Congress.

This is not about the closely watched Congressional, statewide, or local races in Texas. All of those contests offer a remarkably newsy midterm ballot and merit a robust voter turnout, but I am looking closer to home.

The looming challenge for San Antonio and its residents will be found in three ballot initiatives that are the work of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association leadership, all intended to disrupt responsible city government as we know it.

And for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, yet to complete his first year in office, and a City Council with six of 10 members newly elected last year, the political challenge mounted by the firefighters union is proving to be a serious distraction from other city business, one that will tally a high cost in time, energy, and money.

"Everybody is united on this," Nirenberg told me Friday, speaking of business community support. "For the next six months I will be almost solely focused, with exceptions, until this challenge is dead. We will get our other work done, but I will knock on every door, talk to every neighborhood association, and meet with every civic group I can. Voters must realize everything they want to see happen in the city is at risk if these initiatives pass. We cannot underestimate the threat."

The firefighter union leaders say they are merely seeking reforms to the San Antonio City Charter, but the truth is they are wreaking havoc out of anger that they can't get what they want at the collective bargaining table, where they have refused to take a seat for more than four years. Union leaders are especially incensed by the City's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 10-year evergreen clause that has long been part of the union contract.

That contract leaves in place all terms of an expired contract when the two sides cannot agree on a new deal. Since firefighter union officials refuse to come to the bargaining table, that clause has protected their membership's rich array of benefits.

It costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to provide health care benefits for each firefighter, more than three times what it costs to provide health care for the City's civilian workers. That's why San Antonio spends 66 cents of every dollar in its treasury on public safety, a difficult standard to maintain and one that limits what the City can spend on many other initiatives it simply cannot afford.

Refusing to bargain, however, has hurt the working men and women in the city's fire stations. They have not had a pay increase in four years. It's hard to imagine hardened City negotiators agreeing to a retroactive raise equal to what has been left on the table.  Prolonging the standoff serves no purpose.

"What the union leaders do not realize is that the changes they propose will destroy all they have gained as firefighters in collective bargaining," Nirenberg said in our Friday conversation. "Their knife cuts both ways."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union to join contract negotiations in March.

The union leaders have every right to vigorously oppose the City's lawsuit through the courts, and in fact, to date, they have held the upper hand as both City officials and union leaders watch the Texas Supreme Court and wait to learn whether it will hear the City's appeal of a lower court ruling in the union's favor.

In the meantime, union leaders have struck a match and are trying to set afire City Hall. They are seeking attention at all costs, even if their tactics cause lasting damage.

Fire union President Chris Steele recently told the Rivard Report's Iris Dimmick that the union's so-called San Antonio First campaign is all about giving voters a stronger voice, “letting the people decide.”

Decide what? Whether every significant City Council decision should be subjected to an expensive, months-long citywide referendum? Whether the city manager, who presides as chief executive officer over a multibillion enterprise and more than 13,000 employees, deserves to be paid competitively?

Barring legal challenge, voters will decide if the City Charter should include language that limits the salary and tenure of future city managers; forces binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract with a union-approved arbitrator; and makes it easier for citizens to force public votes on proposed ordinances and financial decisions. The latter could lead to voters signing petitions every time elected leaders make a tough decision such as, say, a utility rate increase.

"The risk to everyone who cares about San Antonio is almost unthinkable," Nirenberg said. "If you couple local control issues with the Texas Legislature and what the firefighters union is doing, you will realize San Antonio is at a critical moment."

A tough campaign is taking shape on the horizon. The union's media blitz undoubtedly will be fueled by outside money. It will vilify City Manager Sheryl Sculley in ways no male city leader ever seems to endure. If the police union's prolonged campaign against Sculley is any indication, the ads will be suffused with ridiculously false claims and repulsive personal attacks.

Nirenberg will turn to local business leaders to fund a more reasoned media campaign designed to educate voters, maximize voter turnout, and appeal to reason. The goal will be to convince a solid majority to vote "no" on the three initiatives.

Nirenberg, meanwhile, has continued a tradition started by Mayor Phil Hardberger more than a decade ago of monthly lunches with local CEOs. The most recent gathering was hosted by USAA CEO Stuart Parker. Nirenberg also is using every one of his many public speaking  appearances to make his case.

Several former mayors have agreed to join the campaign, and prominent developer and philanthropist Gordon Hartman has agreed to serve as campaign treasurer. Political consultant Kelton Morgan, who has managed all of Nirenberg's successful campaigns since he was first elected as the District 8 councilman in 2013, will manage the campaign opposing the firefighters union.

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36 thoughts on “San Antonio Last: November Ballot Initiatives an Existential Threat

  1. Thank you for this piece. I am surely not alone in wanting to scream and stomp my feet when I realize they managed to talk so many people into signing their petition! Surely, a lot of those people meant well, but did not clearly understand the issues.

    • In California it happens all the time. You just tell the people that in signing they are necessarily supporting the measure, but hope to have the people decide.

  2. I’m voting for the initiative to permit voters to oppose ordinance changes like utility rate increases. The Mayor has had ample opportunity to change my mind by taking an aggressive stance for honesty and clarity as a Councilman, the Mayor, and as a SAWS Board member. Instead, he chooses to act in a complicit fashion to SAWS’ misleading information to the public.

    The other two petitions are pointless, single-item vendetta issues from the Firefighters’ union.

    For the record, Mr. Mayor, what were the actual rate increases you voted on in December? Not the obscure SAWS “bill-effect” for one consumption level, but the actual rate increases contained in the ordinance?

    Let me help you out with transparency: you and SAWS said water delivery rates were going up 3.2% in your public statements. They went up 9.7%. But don’t take my word for it, read the ordinance. https://sanantonio.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=5617614&GUID=A37D1DF4-7AF2-45AB-9A02-5334629025F3

    Compare the actual ordinance to Mr. Puente’s presentation, on page 20. On December 7th, Mr. Puente is still saying it’s only 3.2%: https://sanantonio.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=5683942&GUID=44668B15-70E3-4B3C-AAD7-0A08D7DDFBA6

    By 2020, SAWS – and the Council – will have raised rates nearly 150% since 2015 for the average usage level, if SAWS estimates are accurate. Water in Block 6 (~12,000 gallons per month) will cost $0.8556/100 gallons, up from $0.3442 (old Block 2). Meanwhile – higher use water in Block 7 (~20,000) will have gone up less than 10% (1.0266 up from 0.9469). Remember – SAWS vigorously touted the “conservation-oriented structure” where high-use customers would pay more – except they didn’t. Right now, today, the rates on water at the 20,000 gallon consumption level are lower than they were in 2015 – SAWS lowered summertime rates on Block 4 water in the 2015 re-structure. Look it up: $0.9469 in 2015, $0.7801 today – and that is after all the “rate adjustments” since then. Those numbers are public record, in the ordinances approved by the current Mayor and several current Council members.

    At the time, the Rivard Report chimed in and parroted SAWS claims without critical analysis: https://therivardreport.com/proposed-saws-rate-structure-to-promote-conservation/ But if you actually look at the data, if a customer used more than 20,000 gallons, the bill went DOWN under the “conservation-oriented” restructure.

    So yeah, I’m voting for the proposition that lets me roll back these types of ordinances. If I can’t trust the publicly owned-utility to tell the truth, and I can’t count on the media to hold them to task, and I can’t count on my elected officials to do their homework, then I’ll need to do it myself.

  3. One must wonder what the firefighters expect. They have backed candidates who have not won. Their friend on the council has said their latest decision was a move in the wrong direction. Their police officer friends have settled for a future they can live with. Yet they allow leadership that has denied them raises for 4 years and angered many of their former friends in the community. Perhaps I need to listen to their leader. He must be mesmerizing.

  4. I wouldn’t make mind being able to vote on my rate or fee increase for water and light. Govt feels they have a right to our money. So I’ll support fire on this initiatives.

    • Richard, do you feel Valero or HEB has a right to your money? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been paying a lot more for gas lately. Life costs money to continue! Admittedly utility rate increases need to be managed. But voting for these three initiatives, as you say you will do, will end up costing the city — which means you, me, and everyone we know who lives here — a LOT of money and lost civic resources in the long run. The fire fighters’ union has been unwilling to negotiate and has tricked San Antonio voters into supporting their excessive demands. Read the fine print which Rivard has provided here before you “sign on” with your vote.

  5. Thanks, Robert, for putting this issue into focus with clear, accurate information and explanation of the disastrous outcome should any of these measures pass. As you’ve described, if these measures pass, SA’s city government will become a very expensive morass of procedural wastefulness at the expense of tackling the real problems that need addressing in our city.
    Please keep us up-to-date on these ballot issues. And please provide articles on how concerned citizens can help defeat these proposed measures by volunteering for block-walking, phone banks, yard signs, etc.
    Let us know if there is a central organizing unit fighting these measures so we can get involved. Before. It’s. Too. Late.

  6. This article is does not accurately represent the SanAntonioFirst campaign. Please go to: http://www.sanantoniofirst.com and read the actual petitions. There is nothing contrary to your civic and constitutional rights involved with these petitions. The SanAntonioFirst campaign has the endorsements of LULAC, Tea Party, Independent Texans, SAMBA (San Antonio Making Bureaucracies Accountable), HTA (Homeowner-Taxpayer Association), and many others. These charter amendments will put an end to a corrupt City Hall that disregards the voters wishes, puts San Antonio’s future at risk with massive DEBT, and “behind-closed-doors council meetings and votes” that hurt citizens. We are sure the power brokers and those corrupt politicians that benefit from the current system will line up to go against it, BUT the smart citizens (and they are smart) will read the petition and will decide. The President of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Chris Steele has offered to debate the Mayor anytime, anywhere on the petitions and the TRUTH.

    • Lest you forget, the voters of San Antonio just approved the largest bond initiative in city history. Bonds are debt. The voters just voted to increase our debt…willingly! That was my wish and I’m a voter. Are you telling me my wishes doesn’t matter unless they are aligned with yours?

      • 1. Non of the props would destroy the city. They would change some things(maybe for a little good maybe for a little bad) but not even close to destroy.

        2. The people who get coughed on, spit on, puked on and every other bodily function you can think of…those people should have a health care that is different than the people who sit at the desks.

        Our city needs both but they have different jobs and those jobs should be paid accordingly.

        • You are so right. Arredondo in 1813 did not destroy the city, but it was a hell of place to live 50 years.

        • 1. I want highlight that you just agreed that some of these initiatives are bad.
          2. You knew what you signed up for when you chose to be a firefighter. Now man up and pay your fair share.

      • I didn’t read, in any literature posed on the subject, where the firefighters are against paying for healthcare, nor do I understand that their healthcare is free.

        The only clause of the three that has any bearing on the firefighters is the one concerning binding arbitration. In fact, it states that if the City and the Firefighters cannot reach an agreement, then the proceedings will go to a binding, neutral, third party arbitrator. I’d like to call it the “you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit” clause. As in, if you two children cannot get along, then I’ll fix both of you, parenting strategy.

        Just my .02 anyway, but I’ve read all I can find on this, and I’m pretty dumb.

    • I don’t know about the others, but from what I read the Tea Party endorses only the Voter Access initiative. What is the rationale for putting up for vote the salary of the city manager. We don’t do it for the chiefs. What about if we say the chief of the fire department can earn only 1.5x the salary paid to the lowest paid city worker. What’s fair is fair.

  7. I stand with the fire union. What has the mayor accomplished in his first year? Removed the confederate statue, raised our water rates, voted for the gay crosswalk, and what else? I forgot. He was so happy to present the city manager with her bonus check for doing her job. Imagine receiving a bonus for just doing your job.
    Now the mayor is telling us he will dedicate himself to defeat the initiatives before they even go to the voter by going to lunch with all the executives in town. He needs to worry about getting re-elected. Drop the lawsuit against the fire union if you really want to reach an agreement. Stop wasting our tax dollars on your frivolous lawsuit against the fire union.

  8. The Firefighers Union plans are insane as usual and I won’t vote for their propositions. I cannot vote for Mayor “Transparency” when he refuses to even tell us such minor thing as where is the beloved HemisFair sign or where is the old statue taken from Travis Park? Silly maybe, but it shows the hypocracy from our Mayor. So I guess I will just stay at home on election day. Anyway who needs a Mayor and Council when Scully runs everything.

  9. I think the Fire Union’s initiative is the kind of self-destructive behavior that has damaged the Union movement in the USA over the last several years.
    The example I know a little about is the OCAW’s repeated strikes at the Corn Products Bluebonnet plant in Corpus Christi. The end result was that the plant was closed and dismantled, and all the jobs were lost. When I worked there, as a laborer, I had a few discussions over coffee with a union steward. His best idea was going from 40 hour week to 32 hour week, same weekly wage. It would result in more jobs, he said. I think he didn’t clearly grasp what happens when you increase the production cost of a commodity.

    I’ll vote against it. Get back to the table, everybody.

    • problem is, we can’t easily close up San Antonio and sell off the assets. We can, however, reevaluate the fire department and recognize that today its primary function is to answer EMS calls.

  10. The ballot initiatives are terrible for saving money. San Antonio has below average costs because we elect people to make the most informed decision, which so far they seem to have done. Letting know nothing meddlers get involved will increase everyone’s cost and make outcomes worse. We dont need a race to the bottom. If people don’t like their elected officials decisions, then vote someone else.

    The people pushing these initiatives want everything their way, which is worse than now.

    • Its the elected people who got us into this mess. If they can’t swat away an out-of-control union, what good are they? Will others be better? Not as long as voters continue to elect way-way left of center hacks.

  11. I am afraid. Your article is obviously slanted . If you want to be objective you should report both sides of an issue.

  12. The Mayor, City Council, and the agencies through their authoritarian rule have brought this on themselves. Where to begin?

    How about something simple, like Tobacco 21. Okay, tobacco use poses risks, but imposing government supervision and paternity at the cost of individual liberty and responsibility replaces one evil with another. Then, of course, there were the objections which were wholly ignored, not to mention to mention the evils prohibition may spawn.

    Joe-above addressed the SAWS rates issue, but there are other rates as well. Consider the rate increase SARA wants. Now, SARA is a bureaucracy and like all organisms it wants to grow. So, it comes up with some project it says we must have and argues it has not received a rate increase in a few years. Is the project necessary? I don’t know, but I do know SARA has effectively received a regular rate increase as the appraiser routinely increases appraised values without regard to actual market values. Land on Broadway north of the Pearl was recently increased upwards of 60%. So as the saying goes, SARA, cry me a river. The Council will undoubtedly approve an increase.
    The fire department is also an organism intent on growing and the Council routinely gives the Chief whatever he wants, even approving as user fees income generating taxes which are properly the province of the voters. To satisfy progressive impulses, the Council whimsically renames streets, as was done with Durango and Old Highway 90.

    The Confederate memorial was about as innocuous and respectful as you could imagine. (Disclosure: a third generation American from California I have no relatives who fought on either side). If you asked San Antonians, I bet a sizable number did not know there was a memorial, where it was, or even when the Civil War was fought. But the mayor said it had to go. So he had it spirited off in the dead of night and will not reveal where it is.
    Then, of course, there was the cabal that sat in secrecy and proclaimed the City would not submit a bid for the Republican convention. Whatever window dressing they put on it, the decision was made before they met, comments by County Commissioner Calvert and former Mayor Hardeberger make that clear.
    The list goes on, but for this voter the Mayor and Council have not earned my trust.
    What about the fire fighters? It is high time we treat the fire department as it is, not what it was. Today, more than 80% of calls to the fire department are for EMS. (For reasons which should be explored, a fire truck accompanies each call). Fire fighters spend most of their time cooking chili and complaining about pay and benefits.

    The union’s logo harkens back to the day when Mrs. O’Leary was lighting lanterns in the shed, an image Chief Hood perpetuates every chance he gets. He once said he place a fire station on each block if he could, and undoubtedly he would. His department is another organism which he seeks to grow at whatever cost the public and be made to bear.

    So, we have an authoritarian regime and a union, each of which cares more for its agenda than the citizenry. We can trust neither. That said, the first two proposed amendments are nonsensical. As for Voter Access, I see the risks: there will be a lot of propositions and voters can be swayed by emotional appeals. Will that be different or worse than what we have?

  13. Let me know the next time a civilian breaths toxic fumes I to their body or gets spit in the eye by someone with Hep-C. It happened to me as a firefighter here in SA and I still had to pay $300 out of pocket. Firefighters deal with the sickest people in San Antonio. We should be covered medically. We have been willing to give up quite a bit for that and have brought many options to Sheryl but she continues to refuse.

  14. Let me know the next time a civilian breathes toxic fumes into their body or gets spit in the eye by someone with Hep-C. It happened to me as a firefighter here in SA and I still had to pay $300 out of pocket. Firefighters deal with the sickest people in San Antonio. We should be covered medically. We have been willing to give up quite a bit for that and have brought many options to Sheryl but she continues to refuse.

  15. The city has spent almost 2 million fighting the firefighters over an evergreen clause in their contract. Then they turn around and put one in the police contract. The city manager has one in her contract. So which do they believe??? Are they suing pd and the city manager next over their evergreen clauses??? You cant have both Ron N. If the state rules they are unconstitutional then every city contract you have that has an evergreen is null and void. Be careful what you wish for.
    Also the city just reported they had a surplus of 13 million. So they are currently paying the firefighters benefits and running the city and still have a 13 million dollar surplus??? Would be 15 but they wasted 2 million on a lawsuit that according to council members has a 5% chance of winning. Great odds I think. Play the long shot. Its not your money its the citizens. So much for firefighters bankrupting the city.
    Finally Ron N wants peoples votes. He begged for them to get elected mayor. Now the citizens of this city want to continue to have their voices heard through votes and he doesnt want that?
    Why hasnt the rivard report reported on this??? Seems Rob and Ron are in this together.

  16. This article is extremely misleading and does not reveal all of the facts. I encourage you to do all of the research on this and make the decision you think is best. My husband is a firefighter and he is exposed to tons of chemical and toxins daily. Firefighters have the highest rate of cancer development in a life time compared to any other career and yet the mayor thinks this should be the families burden.

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