Rivard: The Police Union’s Fatally Flawed Strategy

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Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded www.publicsafetyfacts.com.

Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded www.publicsafetyfacts.com.

"You get what you pay for" might be cliché, but such truisms are often deeply rooted in history and experience. That's why City Manager Sheryl Sculley is worth every penny she is paid, and why so many other high performers in public life also are highly compensated for good reason. They share one thing in common: a great return on investment. That means their competitive pay packages usually end up saving taxpayers millions or tens of millions of dollars that lesser individuals in those jobs would spend thanks to a lack of vision, leadership, or simply playing it safe as risk-averse bureaucrats.

As Sculley's contract comes up for renewal after a decade of best-in-class job performance, it's worth lowering the volume on the City of San Antonio versus San Antonio Police Officers Association standoff, and look at some facts. It's also worth taking a few minutes to place in better context the relationship of high performance to high pay in a competitive marketplace.

By the way, the Rivard Report is soliciting comments from readers who believe Spurs Defensive Player of the Year forward Kawhi Leonard is overpaid after last night's game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which the Spurs won 99-95 for their 10th straight win and their 23rd straight win at home. Leonard held one of the greatest players of our time, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, to 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Leonard scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, had five assists, blocked two shots and had one steal, as the Rivard Report's Mike Monroe noted in his game story. Leonard will earn $16.4 million this season. Any Spurs fans got a problem with that?

The police union has conducted and released a report, first reported Thursday on the Rivard Report, that takes aim at Sculley anew. It's timed to her coming contract review by City Council after her current three-year deal expired at the end of 2015. Union officials assert that likely voters who were interviewed believe, by a margin of 79.5%, that Sculley should not receive a pay raise, that only 33.7% believe she should keep her job, and that 2-1 believe she, not Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council, is running the city.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley shakes the hands of San Antonio Fire Department first responders. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley shakes hands with first responders of the San Antonio Fire Department during a show of solidarity with France after the Paris terror attacks in November, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Given that San Antonio has a city manager form of government, its good to see voters understand the city manager is CEO and the City Council is the board of directors. Until a half year ago, citizens weren't even willing to pay the mayor or City Council, so that 2-1 result is no big revelation.

The union's unreleased poll figures belie other market data and measurements of public sentiment we have seen over the last two years as the City and police union have faced off in on-again, off-gain collective bargaining that is now at an undeclared impasse. Both sides await the outcome of a lawsuit the City filed that challenges the evergreen clause in the union contract, so don't expect a quick resolution. The union's poll numbers represent a wild, unbelievable swing of the pendulum away from the 70% of respondents who said they favored Sculley and the City's negotiating position in a citywide survey conducted in late 2014. Polls conducted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also support Sculley and the City Council's negotiating position.

One day after the poll was released to the Rivard Report, Mayor Ivy Taylor issued a statement in support of Sculley. Her support underscores the union's mistaken focus on Sculley, a strategy that has not worked and will not work going forward.

“The role of the City Manager is an extensive one as she oversees an annual budget of over $2.5 billion and more than 12,000 employees," Mayor Taylor stated. "It is my and the City Council’s responsibility to evaluate her performance and decide on the appropriate compensation. The Union should redirect its time and resources back to the bargaining table so that we may move forward with contract negotiations and come to an agreement that benefits our officers and taxpayers."

The Failed Strategy to Target the City Manager

SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks with reporters after the meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.

SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks with reporters after a contract negotiation session in July 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Sculley has paid a high personal price for taking on the unions as health care costs spiraled out of control, rising in some years by 20% when the general budget was growing by 3%. The unions continued to enjoy premium-free coverage for themselves and their dependents, choose physicians in and out of network, opt in for brand pharmaceuticals instead of generics, and so on. The City's thousands of civilian employees, on the other hand, made do like the rest of us in this world: monthly premiums, co-pays at every visit, battling insurance companies over coverage, and so on.

The problem of out-of-control costs of union health care had to be addressed and the City's leadership has been unanimous about holding it to 66% of the general budget, still the highest of any major city in Texas. Union officials simply will not accept the need in this economy – which is not the economy of the mid-1980s when then-Mayor Henry Cisneros and City Manager Lou Fox could afford to be far more generous.

San Antonio's economy is a growing one, and if the unions can accept a onetime hit to bring those ridiculous health care costs under control, they should be able to enjoy significant wage growth as the city continues to grow and prosper. But they aren't going to get everything in one year or one contract. They will have to take one step back to start taking two steps forward.

Instead, they fired their lead negotiator, Austin attorney Craig Deats, in April 2014, two weeks after collective bargaining talks opened, and almost ever since the police union strategy has been to focus less on the merits of the contract issues and more on vilifying and seeking the removal of Sculley. With the two-year anniversary of the talks two and half months away, it's time to declare that strategy a failed one. Sculley is not the problem. The cost of health care for the unions is the problem.

SAPOA lead negotiator, Ron DeLord, (right) and the city's lead negotiator,Jeff Londa (left), prepare for discussion. Photo by Scott Ball.

SAPOA lead negotiator Ron DeLord (right) and the City's lead negotiator Jeff Londa (left), both attorneys, prepare for contract negotiations on August 18, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

It's easy to rile up working class families making due on $46,000 a year, the current median income for a family of four in San Antonio, by asking a dinner time poll question about the city manager's $42,000 a month salary (which is actually a tad high by this journalist's math: ($486,640, all benefit and perks included, divided by 12 = $40,533/mo.)

The Rivard Report could conduct its own poll if there is an interested funder out there. (We are now a nonprofit and the contribution would be tax-deductible.) We could ask this question:

Who would you prefer to see as the city's top executive: A city manager who earns $250-300,000 a year and fails to control public spending and win a high bond rating that reduces the cost of City borrowing and interest rates, or a city manager who earns $400-500,000 a year whose fiscal management elevates the City's bond rating to a best-in-nation AAA rating on Wall Street and saves taxpayers millions of dollars?

I bet the Rivard Report put could put up some numbers in the 80th percentile with our poll questions, too.

The Media and Public Salaries

In my article published Thursday, I purposely published the salaries of some of the top medical specialists and senior administrators who work at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. We did so with purpose, rather than only noting what the heads of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System earn, which is where most mainstream reporting starts and ends. I did not do so to embarrass the UTHSCSA leadership. I did so to point out the superficiality of the public servant compensation that you will read in the Express-News and find on local broadcast news outlets. Those UTHSCSA's employees and managers are paid with tax dollars, too. Does a white lab coat and stethoscope absolve a public figure of scrutiny?

Sculley's compensation package wouldn't place her even in the Top 10 of the UTHSCSA staff, where dozens of other faculty members make salaries in the $200-500,000 range. Do we only spotlight public officials who dress as civilians and hold local government positions?

I don't begrudge our city's publicly employed physicians and health care leaders a single penny. They, too, are best-in-class. They can work anywhere in this nation and probably could make more money in other cities with university medical schools. Most of us take pride in their presence here, which elevates San Antonio and how we are seen around the nation. They, like Sculley and others, are among the city's greatest human capital.

This time around, City Council would be wise to share with the public how much money Sculley and her team have saved taxpayers, even if such a report fails to capture so many of the decisions unrelated to the bond rating that also represent improved financial management.

That's why the police union will fail to win in the court of public opinion or at City Hall until they abandon their failed strategy of attacked Sheryl Sculley. The police union campaign to get Sculley fired will not succeed, no matter how long that campaign persists. A far more effective approach for the union would be to negotiate it way through some prudent cuts in health care costs and then focus on the future wage increases most of us will be only too glad to see them earn for all they do to safeguard the city and its people.

Coming Sunday: Tech Bloc, 'The Geography of Jobs', and why Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council should tie 2017 Bond funding to building San Antonio's brainpower ecosystem.


*Top image: Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded www.publicsafetyfacts.com.


Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.

Police Union Targets City Manager Contract and Pay in Poll

City Makes New Offer, But Union Officials Stay Away

City, Police Union Stall Over Evergreen Clause

City, Police Union Gap Narrows to $4 Million

21 thoughts on “Rivard: The Police Union’s Fatally Flawed Strategy

    • The lead negotiator, Georgetown strategy Ron Delord, is paid by CLEAT, the state law enforcement organization, and his fees are not disclosed. The San Antonio Police Officers Association and/or its members do pay dues to CLEAT.

  1. Seeing as how politics is very local, our police and fire unions are in a relatively comfortable spot in blue-hued San Antonio- for now. But for them to play such hardball in the heart of blood-red Texas is not the smartest game.

    I vote Democrat but the police and fire union’s unwillingness to pay for healthcare, just like all other city employees or even us average Joes in the private sector, has got me feeling OK if the Legislature and Governor Abbot ever decided to do what they did in Wisconsin. I had never given what happened in Wisconsin much thought, but more and more it’s making sense (CANNOT believe I’m thinking this!?!!). In my opinion, San Antonio’s police and fire unions are seriously poisoning the community’s goodwill towards the concept of public unions.

    From what I understand, San Antonio police and fire are relatively underpaid but have Cadillac insurance and benefits. My advice to the unions: focus your negotiations on take-home pay and forget about all the exorbitant benefits. Taxpayers will not begrudge dollars spent on paying a competitive salary, but when we hear about Cadillac health and equipment/uniform allowances and lawyer insurance and all of these other perqs that no regular Joe gets, it just makes us ill.

    And before anyone mentions Sheryl Sculley’s compensation and benefits, Ill just say that there’s a huge difference between what taxpayers perceive to be reasonable treatment when it comes to the CEO of a multi-billion dollar operation and regular Joe cops. I’m a regular working guy and I understand that my boss gets things that I don’t because that person leads the organization. That person is one-of-a-kind and if everyone received that same treatment the organization would be financially ruined.

    I say pay our cops and firemen a solidly competitive hourly wage that San Antonio can be proud of, but nothing else outside what the average city employee would otherwise get.

    One of these days the Texas Leg is going to mount a full-scale attack on public collective bargaining and a whole bunch of blue-hued people like me are going to sit on the sidelines and not really care.

  2. I have lived in two other cities that weren’t managed as well as San Antonio since Sculley was hired to replace Lou Fox. Neither of those cities stand on firm financial footing and in fact one of the cities (Chicago) is technically bankrupt. The other (Portland, Oregon) is struggling to keep with infrastructure maintenance.

    We are fortunate to have hired a competent, fiscally responsible, forward looking city manager. Our city bonds are highly rated the city is attracting new business and citizens, and we are a highly valued tourist destination.

    The insurance climate in the United States today has changed dramatically in the last 10 years and costs for insurance are getting higher. Employers in all walks of commerce and employment are ,and have ,passed along some of the costs of individual-employee health plans. San Antonio in order to remain fiscally responsible needs to do the same.

  3. Not that I disagree with the key point of the article, but I am curious whether there are objective measures to support the following, which is presented as fact:

    “As Sculley’s contract comes up for renewal after a decade of best-in-class job performance”

    Are cross-city evaluations available?

    Also, the analogy to Kahwi Leonard isn’t particularly apt. As far as I know, he isn’t a public servant. His pay – as an employee of a private company – isn’t really germane. (But for the record, hell no, he isn’t overpaid!)


    • Rob, among other recognitions, Sheryl Sculley was named City Manager of the Year by the International City/County Manager’s Association several years ago, and she is the only city manager in a city of more than one million people to earn and hold (for at least six years now) a AAA bond ratings by all three major agencies. The Spurs are not a public entity, but their business model, like most professional franchises, depends on significant taxpayer subsidies. Bexar County contributed $85 million to the AT&T Arena upgrades completed last year. Without such funding, the Spurs would be far less profitable and could not pay the nationally competitive salaries necessary to build a championship level team. –RR

  4. I don’t disagree that Sheryl Sculley does a good job. However, I would prefer to see specific accomplishments that translate into dollars and cents versus what awards she has garnered. Awards are generally given for political purposes or by an organization that wants to help an individual negotiate his/her next job or pay raise. Stating the city has a good bond rating can be attributed to many things. If it is to be attributed to her, what did she do for the city to attain the rating. Kiwi Leonard has a set of skills and physical abilities that few people possess. Hence his compensation. Managers are a dime a dozen. The comparison is apples and oranges. Ms. Sculley does have great experience as a city manager and she should be compensated for that experience. The issue of executive compensation is controversial. Maybe just showing up to oversee the managers who create and implement a budget of $2.5 billion is worth $40K a month. I do know that being ultimately responsible for 18,000 “city” employees is worth that amount and probably more!

    • Ken, some of the accomplishments:

      A balanced city budget every year and an increase of the city’s rainy day savings despite large yearly projected budget shortfalls, completion of the largest bond project in the city’s history on time and under budget, multiple city efficiencies such as reduced city headcount without negatively impacting service to the public, the Weston land deal that will result in a new Frost highrise and rent savings for the city. I could go on….

      • Mel, thanks for those specifics. She definitely has her hands full and I agree she is an asset to the city. She earns her pay just by attending all the meetings and events she has to attend. She has a big job and I can see how the city could be negatively affected by an ineffective city manager.

  5. Robert,

    Funny you mention you get what you pay for. Do you realize San Antonio pays less for Fire, Police and EMS as part of the overall budget then any other major city in Texas? Do you realize there’s also less first responders per capita in San Antonio then the other major Texas cities. San Antonio’s first responders do more with less and they do it well. Why is this you ask? Because until recently we were one of the leading cities in the nation for attracting the best and the brightest. Considering PD can’t even fill an academy class and there’s a severe shortage of officers, I think the effects of Sculley’s war on the first responders is beginning to take its toll on the safety of the city.

    Yes. Health care needs to change and costs need to be controlled. That’s the easy part that the unions are happy to correct. The problem is that Sculley has been working so hard to masterfully gain total leverage at the table that she’s not willing to merely settle for controlling costs. She wants cuts and large ones. Afterall, she does have a title of worlds best city manager to defend. Sadly, this morphed long ago from doing what’s right.

    You mention the city civilian workers. I can say without a doubt they’re horribly paid and worse compensated. The best and brightest in the civilian sector left years ago. If Sculley has her way they’ll do the same in the uniformed sector.

    So let me ask you Robert, how much do you really believe in you get what you pay for?

    • Mike

      In brief: I don’t buy your assertions about how we compensate our uniformed personnel versus other Texas cities. Independent data contradicts what you say. It makes me question your other assertions. To name one, I know many talented, committed people in the City’s civilian workforce. We will have to agree to disagree. Thanks, RR

      • Robert,

        Thank you for the reply. I apologize for the tone of sarcasm in my earlier post. I’m not sure what independent data you’re referring to that contradicts my claims COSA spends less on public safety per the overall budget (NOT the General Fund) or per capita. Can you please share? If it’s data from the City, I’ve poured over their PowerPoint presentations numerous times and they certainly don’t contradict those statements. Sculley and her team chooses their words (and data they release) wisely to only support their arguments.

        I couldn’t find an independent source of information to back up my claim, but it’s laid out on the unions website:


        Unfortunately they didn’t see fit to site their sources, but I would imagine it’s very public and easy to find information that would take a good reporter only minutes to discredit if it’s untrue.

        I do know for a fact Austin has twice the fire stations of San Antonio and Houston has three times as many yet Austin is roughly half our size and Houston is less then twice our size. It’s hard to believe we’d be spending more with those kind of numbers.

        As for the City’s civilian workforce, I apologize for the blanket statement. You’re right, there are some great people who work for the City, however I know many who have left because of the lack of respect and appreciation from the top. Case in point, I heard from many who were upset about Sculley publicly showcasing her 2% raises for the entire civilian workforce yet in classic Sculley fashion taking most of it back in the backend with raised premiums.


        • “Unfortunately they didn’t see fit to site their sources…”

          If they don’t have cites, they don’t have facts. They have fiction.

          • The information they compiled is easily attainable, publicly available data: Total population of a city. Total amount that city spends on public safety. Total amount of overall city budget (NOT the easily manipulated General Fund). Total number of first responders that city actively employs. It’s not rocket science.

            If I had a couple hours, I’m sure I could find this data and compile it in a similar fashion as they did but I’m fairly certain I’d get the same response from JBM.

            All I’m trying to do is educate the media and its consumers that youre only getting half of the truth because If you saw the whole picture you’ll realize the sky is far from falling. She’s manufactured a crisis using data and numbers she controls and manipulates to only support her version of the story so she’ll have complete leverage at the table through anger and outrage from the public.

            Yes. It’ll probably work and she’ll probably save a few million dollars and everyone will hail her as a hero, but at what cost. She’s without a doubt decimated the morale of the our first responders and probably set us back decades in being the go-to city in the nation to work for. After the last couple of years, what person with any intelligence or caliber would be crazy enough to start a lifelong career in this town?!

            As I said earlier. You get what you pay for. Sadly, if anyone unbiased bothered to compile the above numbers, I’m fairly certain you’ll see San Antonio was already getting a bargain.

          • Mike,
            Have you ever thought maybe we think we can still be A go-to city without being THE go to city in terms of pay. That might sound silly, but the highest pay/benefits doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have the best PD/FD in the nation.

    • Mike,

      Upon searching, I’m unable to find data (including on the SAPOA site) to support your assertion that “San Antonio pays less for Fire, Police and EMS as part of the overall budget then any other major city in Texas.”

      In contrast, the COSA DotGov online resident asserts the following:

      “In 2014, the City of San Antonio hired a consultant to compare total cash compensation for SAPD officers relative to other large Texas cities. The survey, which was presented to the Mayor and City Council, found that the average 20-year SAPD officer received $124,668 annually in total compensation (including base wages, special pay and benefits), which was second only to police officers for the City of Austin. SAPD officers receive greater total compensation than officers in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Corpus Christi and El Paso.”

      Moreover, COSA’s “FY 2014 Adopted Budget Document for Cities” cites San Antonio’s 66.5% percentage of total General Fund budget allocated for Police/Fire/EMS as the highest of any major Texas city. Austin came in at 62.2%, Dallas at 58.1%, and Houston at 56.5%.

      While COSA is obviously not a neutral source in the ongoing contract battle, if the aforementioned DotGov and COSA budget info were inaccurate, SAPOA would prominently and repeatedly cite supporting credible contradictory data.

      Please cite such data if you have it.

      In the absence of it, and for reasons already described in the Rivard Report and elsewhere, I’m inclined to support City Manager Sculley’s comparatively high compensation package.

      Greg Pape

      • Greg, I’m dumbfounded with SAPOA’s strategy and have no idea why they spend their resources on attack ads instead of hiring experts to pick apart the City’s numbers.

        Please see my above reply to Robert to back up my claims. Unfortunately, it’s from the publicsafetyfacts DOT com website which is horrible because they don’t cite their sources.

        However, to address your statement about the City’s data, yes as part of the General Fund, public safety is more then the other cities. This is the only statement Sculley wants you to know because she can control and manipulate this number.

        The General Fund is arbitrary in what is considered part of the General Fund from city to city. Any given City has great leeway in what counts as income and expenditures on their General Fund balance sheet. The only true measure of a City’s spending on public safety is when you compare it to the overall budget of the City or even per capita. These numbers or percentages cannot be manipulated.

        As for the City’s claim San Antonio’s first responders are the highest paid in Texas, she can only get this figure when she adds overtime to their total compensation. Any good accountant will tell you adding overtime in a comparison study is fundamentally wrong as its a discretionary and therefore not mandatory figure that management controls. A manager should never count someone’s OT as part of their regular pay because OT can and does vary greatly from year to year. Frankly, it’s an insult to the first responders she short staffs them to save money, requires them to work OT to make up for it and then screams to the media they’re all overpaid. Does your boss do this?

  6. You know what Robert, you’re right. She’s an amazing city manager. She’s got everyone fighting, taking sides and paying huge attention to a tiny sliver of the city budget (which amounts to less then 1%) that she and her council buddies were able to pass a huge tax increase for a highly questionable and unbelievably overpriced water pipe without anyone the wiser. That takes true talent.

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