Mayor Ivy Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte might have attended the same Monday luncheon, but they made separate stage appearances, a reflection, perhaps, of how strained their relationship has become as both have gone on the offensive in the runoff to decide who will be the city's mayor.
Monday's luncheon event at the Pearl Stable was organized by the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM), which promotes business and community integration for Mexican businessmen and women working and living in the United States. The group was founded in San Antonio and now has active chapters in many U.S. cities and states. Monday's event was the fifth in the Red McCombs Bilateral Lunch Series.
Early voting in the City runoff election for mayor and the District 7 City Council seat started Monday and lasts through June 9, with the final vote coming Saturday, June 13.
VIA Board Chair and Texas Workforce Commissioner Hope Andrade facilitated brief, individual conversations with each candidate. Andrade posed the same question to each candidate as they appeared separately on stage with her, first Taylor and then Van de Putte.
Andrade asked each candidate how they would promote business development in San Antonio, especially bilateral relations with Mexico. Taylor expressed appreciation for the AEM and Free Trade Alliance-San Antonio and the work each organization does to promote San Antonio as an international trade hub.
Taylor said it also is important for San Antonio's business community, community organizations, public agencies and schools and universities to work together to improve workforce development.
“Despite our proximity to Mexico, we don’t have all the qualified citizens needed to fill positions,” Taylor responded. She added this would remain a top priority if she were to win a full term as mayor. “We must have an environment that is conducive to conducting business.”
Van de Putte later agreed that workforce development is important; she also said San Antonio needs to capitalize on its existing assets.
Keeping property taxes in check, maximizing the potential at Port San Antonio and leveraging the city's proximity to the Eagle Ford Shale Play are other ways to increase economic development, Van de Putte said.
“We should maximize the Free Trade Alliance, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, our local chambers of commerce and even the World Affairs Council of San Antonio to further these expansions,” she said.
Each candidate then fielded questions from the audience. A couple asked how the City’s collective bargaining talks with the police and firefighters unions will affect city’s finances.
One audience member asked about the 10-year evergreen clause in the union contracts that serves as an automatic renewal of the contract’s provisions. Such clauses typically extend benefits only for a brief time period, and the City has filed a lawsuit seeking to have the clause declared unconstitutional and an impediment to good faith bargaining. The police union, in turn, has charged the City with bargaining in bad faith.
Taylor said the City accepts the value of an evergreen clause, but objects to the unusual length of the current provision.
“It’s a non-motivating factor,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the genesis of the City's position as the last five-year contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014 was to control runaway health care costs that threatened the general fund budget's stability and, ultimately, the City's covered credit rating. San Antonio remains the only U.S. city with a population of one million people or more with the highest possible rating.
“We do recognize the great job they do, that they put their lives on the line,” Taylor said of police and firefighters. “We want to provide the best that we can afford,” which Taylor said can be best achieved with police and firefighters contributing toward their health care premiums for the first time. Currently, police and fire do not pay any monthly premiums, which has caused per capita health care cost to skyrocket to more than double what the City pays to inure its civilian workers.
Taylor also said she was disappointed that the firefighters’ union is “letting this be decided in the public arena” with their endorsement of Van de Putte for mayor.
“I pledged I would not accept an endorsement from either union,” she said. “My allegiance is to the taxpayers,”
Taylor said if she were to win on June 13, the next day she would call the leadership of both unions and invite them to join the City at the negotiating table.
“We have to work on these costs so that we don’t face the possibility of something like a property tax increase,” she added.
Taylor explained economic development, investment and education all have parts to play; the more people have access to quality education, the more opportunities they would have to obtain a high-paying job, which leads to reinvestment in the community.
“Our former police chief, William McManus, had a saying that I like: ‘Crime deters economic development, but economic development deters crime,’” she added.
Addressing the oft-heated negotiations, Van de Putte said the City should keep striving to recruiting, training and retaining the most skilled public safety first responders. She agreed with the City's mandate that public safety spending be held at 67% of the general fund budget.
“There’s room underneath that to work out a deal. I know we can craft a package that can do this and keep the City fiscally sound,” she added.
Van de Putte said that, no matter the outcome of the collective bargaining talks, the level of public safety should not be compromised.
“My first priority as mayor would be keep our citizens safe,” she added.
Answering other questions from the luncheon attendees, Van de Putte said the city deserves a different kind of leadership when it comes to issues such as transportation, technology and economic development.
She cited the City's contentious and ultimately failed negotiations with Uber and Lyft.
“It’s embarrassing the way that was handled at City Hall,” Van de Putte said. She added this and San Antonio not being selected for Google Fiber anytime soon “sends a message” to potential new businesses that the City is not quite yet ready to overcome certain obstacles.
“We need to be a city that doesn't just tolerates technology, but embraces it,” she said.
Van de Putte said with the rise of gentrification issues such as the Mission Trails debate, people from all sectors of the community should come together and focus on what is mutually beneficial to help the City as a whole.
“I don’t believe in dividing us into winners and losers,” Van de Putte said. “We do need to balance our economic development incentives but also make sure we don’t crowd out our neighbors – those who add to the cultural richness of San Antonio.”
The Clean Air, Clean Water, Healthy City forum at Trinity University’s Chapman Center Auditorium Monday evening will host back-to-back Q&A sessions with each candidate and host Peter Bella, executive director of Texans for Responsible Energy Development and former Natural Resources Director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments. Van de Putte is on at 6 p.m., Taylor at 7 p.m.
On Wednesday, June 3, the candidates will meet for what is expected to be the last time before Election Day on June 13 at WOAI News Radio (1200 AM) for a forum at 9 a.m. that will broadcast live with host Jim Forsyth.
*Featured/top image: Leticia Van de Putte (left) and Mayor Ivy Taylor (right) at a mayoral forum held at the UTSA Downtown Campus on Thursday, May 28, 2015. Photos by Lea Thompson.