The Real Headline: The Long-Term Value of a High Performance City Manager

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City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Robert RivardOne of the easiest headlines to write is about a high-ranking pubic official and his or her rising compensation. It’s far less sensational to headline a story about the real value to taxpayers of a high-performing public official. Too bad.

If we think about our city leaders the same way we think about the top performers for the San Antonio Spurs, it might help citizens understand that good compensation packages are a wise investment. If you want a winner, a player with All-Star status and MVP numbers, you have to pay a fair price.

What you pay will be repaid many, many times over.

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

So when City Council approved a two-year contract extension for City Manager Sheryl Sculley on Thursday, the news for me is not that her salary, the highest of city managers in Texas, will climb in the next two years from $355,000 – unchanged for the past four years – to $375,000 in 2014 and to $400,000 in 2015.

That’s a 12.7% increase over a six-year period, or about 2.1% a year over the six years – actually less given the net present value of money and the fact the city manager volunteered to forego an increase for four years.

The City’s Triple AAA bond rating earned under Sculley’s tenure saves the city and taxpayers millions of dollars in interest payments on debt as we repay the money used to make capital improvements in our city.

So, if you think $400,000 plus a potential 15% performance bonus is too much money, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t you want City Council to invest less than $500,000 to save millions of dollars that the city would pay with less competent management in charge?

Savings on debt hardly tells the full story of good leadership. Sculley is, in effect, the CEO of a $2 billion enterprise that has a far greater impact on the lives of citizens than a comparable local corporation of the same size. Yet a private sector CEO would earn a multiple of three or four times her salary.

Sculley is ultimately responsible for public safety, the budget, capital investments and spending, the quality of neighborhoods, the center city, and the complex network of city infrastructure. And she manages a network of thousands of people. The quality of leadership below her depends on her abilities to recruit and retain talented individuals who can perform at the same level she performs.

How important, for example, is a national-caliber police chief to San Antonio? I’d say vitally important. Sculley recruited and has retained Chief William McManus. He surely has had opportunities to move to the same position in a larger city. Put another way, McManus probably wouldn’t be here if Sculley wasn’t here, so the city manager’s leadership and her performance ripples through the ranks in ways that never get explored in most media reports or a single City Council meeting.

Any independent professional assessment of Sculley’s performance in any of the above-mentioned categories would result in her own AAA rating.

Here’s something else to think about: the City’s future pension and health care obligations are a ticking time bomb, a coming crisis that can only be satisfactorily resolved by winning significant concessions from the police and fire unions. Only Sculley will have the standing, in concert with Mayor Castro and his backing, to tackle this enormous political challenge. Should Sculley succeed in this endeavor, the future net savings to taxpayers will be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

That’s why the real headline ought to be one about City Council assuring the continued stability and high performance of city government by extending Sculley’s contract for two more years.

Mayor Phil Hardberger did a lot of things right in his term-limited four years in office, but nothing, in retrospect, will prove of greater value to San Antonio’s citizens than his wooing of Sculley from Phoenix to San Antonio in 2005. Mayor Julián Castro, whose flight delay caused him to be absent for the Thursday morning vote, has been equally wise to forge a strong working relationship with Sculley and assure her continued tenure.

I’ll take some hits as an establishment cheerleader for this posting, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather be the target of naysayers and live in a city with Sculley as city manager than find myself in a San Antonio paying the high price of having a city manager that isn’t an All-Star.


Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


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5 thoughts on “The Real Headline: The Long-Term Value of a High Performance City Manager

  1. I don’t see anything wrong with fair compensation. But the naysayer “local” in me says that her husband’s job with the city is a complete waste of time if not money. From what I’ve heard he often walks around in casual clothing talking to people, which just looks bad. I don’t happen to think the threat of leaving the city over money is a very good one, one would hope it’s worth staying because you enjoy the job. If the job is so bad and money is the only thing holding you in place then that’s kind of a problem.

  2. I have had occasion to work with the City Manager through the Deputy City Manager, Erik Walsh, and the Animal Care Services Directors Kathy Davis and Gary Hendel. I attribute the progress that San Antonio has made in becoming a no-kill city to Sheryl Sculley. It is through her leadership and persistence that ACS has improved from 10% live release in 2006 to 77% live release in 2013. Four times as many dogs and cats were adopted, rescued or returned to their owners in 2013 than 2006 (22,085 vs. 4,684).
    In 2011, Ms. Sculley asked Joe Angelo of the Office of Management and Budget to revise the Animal Care Strategic Plan. Joe and his team put concrete numeric goals in the plan and identified specific actions and plans to get to a live release of 70% by 2015. Ms. Sculley liked Joe’s plan so well that she put him in charge of ACS. Joe made the ACS team accountable to achieve the goals and turned them loose. They overachieved the goals in 2012 to the point that 70% live release is no longer the goal–the goal is now true no-kill of 90% live release (or better). Ms. Sculley hired Kathy Davis, an experienced animal care director from Dallas and Los Angeles–and with a stint with the no-kill Heigl Foundation. Kathy has continued the momentum to make San Antonio a no-kill city for dogs and cats.
    Ms. Sculley has made animal care a priority in the City’s budget each year, including the building of the Paul Jolly Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center at Brackenridge Park. This no-kill facility is projected to do 3,000 adoptions per year. In another brilliant move, instead of building additional kennel space at the Highway 151 ACS shelter, she entered into a partnership with the Animal Defense League to build the additional kennel space at their no-kill facility. Guaranteed no-kill for another 3,000 dogs and cats per year.
    I know that animal care is just a small slice of the City’s activities; but, to me, it indicates Ms. Sculley’s commitment and ability to lead her team to think and act creatively. She has made me a big fan. I totally agree that the City Manager’s salary is a very modest investment for the return that San Antonio has gotten from it and will hopefully continue to get for many more years.

  3. She’s a fine lady. I have met her and I have worked with her and she is the best city manager we have ever had. She deserves the money but it should stop there.

  4. She is Great, and she represents our city very well. That salary is nothing compared to many out there who do far less.

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