The Roots of the Union Assault on San Antonio’s City Charter

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City staff and Council members lead the Council chambers in standing ovation in praise of outgoing Mayor Julián Castro. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City staff and Council members lead the Council chambers in standing ovation in praise of outgoing Mayor Julián Castro in 2014.

With early voting in the Nov. 6 election set to begin Monday, Oct. 22, it’s worth going back to 2013-14 when thenMayor Julián Castro and City Council summoned the political courage to heed warnings from City Manager Sheryl Sculley about the runaway costs of public safety healthcare and pension benefits.

The reason to vote no and defeat the three City charter amendments muscled on to the ballot by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and its out-of-town paid petition crews is the same reason City Hall finally stood up to the police and fire unions five years ago: Good leaders protect taxpayers, even when it means making tough decisions. That is what happened back then, and that is what is happening now.

Castro was in his third term as mayor by then, but this was not the first time Sculley had tried to persuade a mayor and council to address the growing problem. Rising healthcare and pension costs for the City’s 4,000 uniform employees threatened to push the public safety budget beyond 66 percent of the entire general budget, far more than any other major Texas city was spending. About 85 percent of the City’s highest paid employees are police and firefighters. The City’s 9,000 civilian employees enjoy a benefits package that is far less generous.

The average firefighter in San Antonio todays earns $145,000 in salary and benefits, according to the City, and pays zero for health care for themselves and their dependents. (No other major Texas city gives firefighters’ family members free health care.) For decades, the City has contributed millions of dollars to a union legal fund that is drawn on by firefighters charged with criminal violations like drunk driving or domestic violence. Chris Steele, the controversial president of the firefighters union, famously had his divorce paid for by the fund and then left his former wife on the City’s healthcare rolls.

After its own fight that lasted three years, the police union agreed to start paying a small percentage of dependents’ healthcare costs.

What made 2013 different? It was the first time Sculley won the necessary political support to address the runaway costs as five-year collective bargaining agreements with the two unions were set to expire on Sept. 30, 2014. Castro appointed a Health Care and Retirement Benefits Task Force in October 2013, led by former City Councilman Reed Williams (D8). With nearly a full year to study the issue and negotiate with the unions, the thinking went: new contracts would rein in costs, keep the City’s operating budget balanced, and its AAA credit rating protected.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Click here to read the commission’s final report and recommendations.

Much has transpired in the intervening five years since Castro’s task force was formed, including some of the most expensive political mudslinging in San Antonio history, underwritten by the local police and firefighter unions and their allies in other cities and states.

All along, the City’s objective was simple: contain costs, negotiate equitable new agreements. And all along, the unions’ objectives also were simple: Vilify Sculley and distract citizens from the core issues of the runaway costs. San Antonio’s uniformed police and firefighters had arguably the best deal in Texas when comparing compensation to cost of living, but suddenly Sculley and others were the enemy of the working cop and firefighter if you believed the propaganda.

The chief executives of CPS Energy, UTSA, UT Health San Antonio, and Bexar County’s University Health System have richer compensation packages than the city manager, yet the unions have never made those individuals a target. Only Sculley has been made to endure years of attacks, and as a result, plenty of citizens have bought into union claims.

From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force report.

Courtesy / Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force

This graph exhibits data from a presentation in 2014 of the rank and file of firefighter compensation in Texas.

For years, elected leaders kicked the can down the road and told Sculley to shelf what they knew would be an epic confrontation with union officials who would do anything possible to keep their array of benefits, no matter how fast costs were mounting for taxpayers.

Credit Castro and that City Council with showing the political fortitude to back Sculley and take on the unions. Now, five years later, a different mayor and City Council are in office, and the outcome no longer rests with them or a task force. The matter is now in the hands of citizens, or that subset of citizens who exercise their right and duty to vote.

After 10 unanswered invitations from Sculley and three different mayors, Steele and the firefighters union have still refused to come to the bargaining table to meet and talk. Firefighters, meanwhile, saw more than $500,000 of their wages spent on hiring people to come to San Antonio to convince unwitting citizens to sign petitions supporting union officials and their anti-City Hall campaign.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele speaks during the scheduled press conference.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele speaks during a press conference on September 20.

Firefighters in San Antonio have now foregone four years of wage increases while keeping the benefits from their expired contract in place thanks to a 10-year evergreen clause. Will Steele keep firefighters from getting a wage increase for six more years? It’s possible.

A far more appealing outcome is for voters to defeat the three ballot amendments and send Steele a message. Maybe then the rank and file will insist he pursue a new contract. Perhaps new leadership will emerge. Either way, every citizen owes a debt of gratitude to Sculley and her staff, and Castro and City Council for the actions they took in 2013 and 2014.

41 thoughts on “The Roots of the Union Assault on San Antonio’s City Charter

  1. While saying the firefighters have made villifying Ms Sculley the primary issue to distract the public, you return the favor by making Mr Steele the enemy and avoiding the real issues. As a bonus you feel free to imply the fire department is full of drunks and criminals using tax payer money to cover their offenses. Like so many you grasp at extremes and anomalies to make a point with no regard for the innocent and hard working. Maybe take the time to report the primary use of the legal fund is to prepare wills to take care of families? Or you could temper your arguments about the “runaway” costs of benefits by mentioning the repeated contracts where firefighters turned down raises to keep healthcare coverage instead. By the way, the healthcare is cheaper than the raises because it does not compound. As you discuss all the times the firefighters did not go to the negotiating table, you could mention the city was actively suing to negate a contract provision signed by Ms Sculley herself? Bring up the money spent on a failed attempt to remove a clause that serves to benefit the city and protect the firefighters? It’s not an evergreen provision. It covers a finite period and freezes the benefits and working conditions as they exist on the last day of the contract. The pension is not part of the negotiation with the city but actually part of state law. However, it happens to be an extremely conservatively managed fund for police and fire that helps protect the city from the unfunded liabilities which have plagued many other major cities. If you are interested in reporting facts, please include them all.

    • As a public school teacher who pays hundreds of dollars a month for healthcare for his family and earns half of what the average firefighter earns, your argument falls on deaf ears. Stop being selfish and pay your share to take care of your family, or simply choose not to pay.

      • I didn’t realize teachers put their life on the line while teaching our children. I didn’t realize teachers’ life span was shorter than first responders’ lives because of the working conditions and stress that first responders deal with everyday they go to work.

        As for the article in general it was a great peace of advertising bought and paid for by the San Antonio chamber of commerce. The same chamber who’s members make millions of dollars off sweet heart contracts the city manager gives them.

        The reason the police and fire unions don’t focus on overpaid ceos from CPS Energy and SAWS is the simple fact that they negotiate with the police and fire unions period.

        Next tine you write an article make sure you get statements from both side. No wonder the media is called fake news.

        • Wow. It takes a real kind of loser to take a hot steaming crap on a teacher. Teachers are first responders in school violence and active shooter situations. They deserve WAY more credit for the crap they have to take from disrespectful kids, parents and the pressures of meeting state requirements, etc. Whoever, whatever you are “Concerned citizen” your foresight is very short.

      • You don’t have to teach in public schools. If you meet the qualifications, you can also teach in private sectors. Teaching, even in a public school sector entire population that is involved in education, training, and library occupations (19) doesn’t tally up to the health risks and threats of injury and death that to firefighters and personnel (30). [per the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries 2016]. And comparing the two really has no bearing on the argument at hand. I homeschooled my kid until I could afford for him to go to a private school, but I wouldn’t be fairly knowledgeable in properly fighting a fire.

        Still Voting Yes.

    • I need COSA Firefighter’s to respond to 911 calls: when my tax dollars go to 66% of budget – that is TOO MUCH. MY tax dollars ( paying Public Safety servants ) need to benefit all COSA servants, as such, ya’ll need to pay appropriate Health Care expenses.
      Now, I am going to READ this article.

  2. Yes, the City chose to begin this struggle over “saving costs.” Neither Castro or Sculley mention that the average firefighter lives to the average age of 57 due to exposure to the toxic smoke, asbestos and other dangerous elements while fighting fires.
    The real reason that the Chamber of Commerce, the Hospitality bosses and other reactionary forces oppose this referendum is it challenges who controls our community!
    I for one support the San Antonio firefighters!

  3. I am a retired firefighter and I pay over $800 a month for my two dependents. I don’t know what the hell makes you think it’s free. Vote yes.

  4. Dear Concerned citizen,:
    Teachers deserve more respect. You are clearly ignorant in your assumption. Think before you speak. Without our teachers, firefighters and police would not be able to reap the benefits that they are in fact reaping, as productive members of our community, thanks to the education, provided to them by our heroic teachers.

  5. As a retired firefighter I gave up pay raises to get decent insurance. The reason a lot of firefighters make more money than base pay is because they work overtime. Why overtime ? because the city doesn’t hire enough firefighters or police officers. I so glad that you are so unbiased. Been in San Antonio long? I’ve been here 71 years and would love to give you a history on city government and unions. I missed in your article about the $500,000.00 plus salary that Sculley makes as the 99th. best run city in the country. I bet we could get the first place city manager for a lot less. The only people making a mint are the outside developers and what a shame they can’t vote.

  6. Very insightful. This all started when Henry Cisneros gave rich contracts to police and fire in exchange for their support for Alamodome. Kick the can continued until Castro was a lame duck, but at least he had the courage to address it (finally).

  7. From what I have read I am voting yes on the Propositions A,B.C. This article only wanted to trash the Fire Union and praise the city. It did nothing to actually convince me to vote against it.

    • Hey, Mark – I’ll give it a shot, hopefully without causing any rancor. To me, the propositions are basically “solutions” in search of a problem, in that they don’t really solve any of the issues people are discussing in the comments.

      Proposition A is all about lowering the threshold for subjecting city ordinances to a public referendum and expanding the types of ordinances subject to a referendum. Currently, the threshold is set at 10% of registered voters (~75,000 people); the proposition lowers it to 20,000 – no matter how large the city gets. Obviously, this means that, as the city grows, a smaller and smaller percentage of residents (like 1% or less) will be able to force votes to repeal or replace city ordinances – ordinances passed by duly elected city council members. If you’re worried about special interests in City Hall, this isn’t a fix – if anything, it makes it easier for those groups to spread misinformation, rile up a TINY percentage of the population, and get their preferred items on the ballot. If City Hall really does pass a bad ordinance, why is a 10% threshold too high? Nobody has ever answered this question.

      Proposition B only deals with FUTURE city managers – It has no effect on Sculley, at least through the end of this contract term. Moreover, nobody has sufficiently explained why Sculley’s salary is “too high.” Simply comparing her salary to those of managers from other cities doesn’t make sense – it’s hard to find another city as big as San Antonio that uses the mayor/manager system of governance, so we’ll inevitably be comparing apples to oranges. I think there needs to be a higher burden of proof if we’re going to tie the Council’s hands as to the tools they can use to recruit future city managers.

      Proposition C, well – this is the one proposition that actually pertains to the firefighters’ union issues. But it, too, is far too broad. It would amend the City Charter to allow the union to force binding arbitration (basically a private trial) of any dispute between it and the city, at any time. Arbitration is way expensive, so invoking it willy-nilly has the potential to cost a ton of money. Moreover, there’s nothing saying the arbitrator (a private citizen) has to be from San Antonio or even Texas, so what’s his investment? It’s also a drastic remedy – instead of acting in mutual cooperation, the union now has an incentive to just run to an arbitrator every time there’s a problem, which will likely cause more conflicts, not less.

      In other words, given that the propositions don’t actually tackle most of the problems people have with the current City-Union divide, and have the potential open up a huge can or worms, I think we should vote no.

      • Hey Bob-all good and valid points. In respectful response:

        Proposition A only allows an item to come to referendum, which only comes around twice a year, and then citizens still have to PASS the item. 10% of voters seems like a small threshold but consider that voter turn-out in this city is low, in the 3-6% range. In addition, with San Antonio’s growth rate what it is (#1 according to US Census Bureau) that 10% could easily crawl over 100,000 signatures-which would be a very difficult threshold to make. Finally, the amount of time to gather the prerequisite signatures is too short-as that 10% increases, it will become more difficult to make the time limit.

        Proposition B fixes the salary of the city manager but doesn’t fix the bonus structure. Why couldn’t we skew the manager’s pay more toward performance? It’s done a lot in the real world. Like politicians, I believe that there is a real danger in incumbency-and that should also apply to public servants. It seems that the only way we have been able to maintain our coveted AAA Bond rating is ever increasing spending, fueled by unnecessary annexation, supporting non traditional roles of city government. Pre-K education, Affordable Housing, and now Paid Sick Leave enforcement. This stems from silo thinking down in city hall-much of it reinforced by the incumbents downtown-public and politicians alike.

        Proposition C Arbitration is normal out in the real world. Take a look at your employment, or vendor contract, or even a user agreement for software you install-it’s all settled in Arbitration. It is always costly to go to court, which the city has willingly done with the fire fighters through several iterations of the judicial system-the last being the Texas Supreme Court which refused to hear the case. Had we Arbitration in the fire fighter contract, the tax payers wouldn’t be out millions of dollars in the city bringing law suits.

        I agree with you that these propositions aren’t going to tackle most of the problems people have with the current City-Union divide, but I think it’s gotten people interested in what’s really going on in this city-which should get them to the polls for once.

        I know this-I listened to Gordon Hartman and Marty Wender (BIG TIME Developers) advocate for the “No” position at professional luncheons-and they admitted they were behind and losing the public information campaign-the rank-and-file were not convinced-and Gordon appealed for more money! Also-both the Bexar County Democrats and the Bexar County Republican party are telling their members to vote “Yes”.

        That’s a helluva thing-When Democrats AND Republicans can agree on something-to vote “Yes” on these Propositions.

        Say “Yes” San Antonio

        • Benjamin – I appreciate those insights. I guess I’m just weary of making wholesale changes to the city charter, just like I would be extremely wary of proposing more amendments to the Constitution. Obviously, amendments are warranted sometimes, but I don’t know that this is one of those times.

          As to Prop A, I totally get your point. I’m not opposed to allowing more time to gather signatures, and I’m not even strictly opposed to lowering the threshold to a more reasonable percentage. But making it a flat 20,000 is just too low for me. The folks who come to the polls already have enough of a hard time figuring out which local candidates hew more closely to their views – now imagine if every November there are also 10-15 city ordinance referenda on the ballot, each one with its own pro- and con- misinformation campaign and partisan rancor. That just seems like a huge mess.

          As to Prop B – these are really good points, and I agree that performance incentives should be a larger percentage of the City Manager salary. I’ll have to read the language again and think on this one, because I still think it might be too broadly written. Besides, couldn’t the Council decrease the salary and increase the performance-based bonus already?

          As to Prop C – One thing that’s been bothering me that I hadn’t quite put my finger on is the fact that it applies only to the firefighters’ union. If it’s such a good idea, why just them? It would be like if the Second Amendment applied only to Virginians or whatever. If the union wants arbitration, they can certainly bargain for it – I’m not opposed to that at all. But why make it a permanent requirement in the City Charter?

          Again, I’m just wary of making big, permanent changes like this, particularly when there are other (non-Charter ways) of achieving the same result.

          But I sincerely respect the comments – you’ve given me some good things to think about before election day.

        • Hi Benjamin – The Bexar County Democratic Party will be overturning their endorsement next week. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bexar County Republican Party does the same.

        • Yes, great points Bob T.

          Also consider in Prop A that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a successful city-wide campaign. So once someone pays $40,000 to get it on the ballot, they have to influence the public to vote on it. It will definitely take a person or group with money and resources to push their will on the public.

          Fire union doesn’t mind because they spend millions over the years on political elections. Imagine the voter fatigue of an already under-voting population when we have more on the ballot or even more elections. Plus we’re paying for these charter elections – each at $600k.

          Prop C – I really can’t understand why they left out all other collective bargaining groups.

  8. I am not in favor of the three amendments, but I think both sides bear some of the blame for the friction between the City and the fire union. The lawsuit accomplished nothing but causing both sides to dig in instead of hammering things out at the table. I believe the City also refused to turn over information concerning the cost of healthcare to the fire union so they could get accurate costs for their negotiating position. You mention how good the compensation package for fire and police is, but don’t salaries usually go up when the supply of workers doesn’t match the demand? Even with the good compensation package and pension, the police department is currently short over 200 sworn personnel. SAPD is competing with every other large city for an ever shrinking number of quality candidates. Fewer and fewer people want the job. Don’t the school districts raise teacher pay when they have difficulty finding applicants? Are fire and police jobs the only jobs not subject to the laws of supply and demand? Will anyone from the press go back at the end of the next fiscal year and ask if the police department is caught up in staffing? I only ask because it sure doesn’t seem like any of the other staffing claims ever get checked.

  9. Dallas City Manager Salary: $375K
    Austin: $309K
    Phoenix: $315K
    SA: $475K +75K bonus

    1) Yes, Chris Steele is a flawed leader.
    2) Sheryl Sculley is a flawed leader.
    3) The firefighters and cops on SA’s streets deserve better, as do the taxpayers. The divisions and fighting are not serving anyone who actually matters in this negotiation.
    4) The “rank and file ” are not all muscular, drunken, domestic violence perpetrators, but actually live average lives as family women and men. But they also ingest toxins in fires — four serial arson fires set just this past weekend, risk their lives on 110-degree freeways at rush hour to block traffic and extricate people from vehicles, and provide public health services to thousands of city residents who suffer from serious chronic diseases in greater numbers than in many of the nations’ metropolitan areas (in case anyone believes that 80% EMS calls means a tiptoe through the tulips — have you ever lifted a morbidly obese comatose patient in the midst of a massive heart attack off of a small bathroom floor without any equipment but your crew and a distressed family member? Revived a drowning child? Been bitten by a stranger in psychosis secondary to alcohol withdrawal?)

    Rivard is fine writer, but his politics suggest a narrow lens. Perhaps he could benefit from a review of that wonderful Sesame Street tune we all know and love: “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” Why not visit one of his local downtown stations, muscle his way through the door, and talk to some of his neighbors about their perspectives?

    • All great points, Suzanne. But why do we all pay for the firefighters’ whole families’ insurance too?

      We also shouldn’t disregard that these props are completely self-serving, while trying to be disguised as for the citizens. They are short-sighted and they will hurt us all financially.

  10. Where do people get the statistics that the average lifespan of a firefighter and police officer is shorter than everyone else’s?
    “….actuarial studies by CalPers and Oregon public pension system showed little difference in life expectancy. In the latest California study, police officers were actually expected to live a bit longer than other state employees. In Oregon, the combined life expectancy for police and fire was only slightly less than average.”
    https://www.politifact.com/rhode-island/statements/2011/aug/14/robert-barber/retired-police-captain-says-law-enforcement-office/

  11. Thank you for your opinion, Robert. I’m agin it, at least two of the three amendments, not the least of which Chris Steele and his union are attempting an end run around our duly elected reps with this attempted city charter change. They’re ballsy, I’ll give ’em that, but allowing aspects of a direct democracy is going to gum up our political works. Join COPS / Metro, link up your NA to the surrounding neighborhood or homeowner associations, as necessary, if y’all want to apply more pressure for particular issues to your councilmember / commissioner.

    I want to see Mayor Nirenberg, somehow, emulate Former Mayor Taylor and directly appeal to our honorable and honored firefighters, and lay out the same type of case that our excellent SAPD force accepted.

  12. I keep reading folks talk about how Sculley is bad/flawed and is therefore overpaid. I don’t see anything of the sort. She is paid for the work performed.

    You think SA would be growing leaps and bounds if we kept the same old city manager politics before her advent? Remember city council members getting caught and resigning? No, you clearly don’t.

    All we see are the results of years of hard work.

    Mr. Steele is being dishonest regarding these propositions. Watch them pass and then watch as several efforts by city hall will be challenged or curtailed. If citizens really want to keep city hall accountable, they get a vote every few years.

    Firefighters are not being mistreated or even poorly treated. They are (finally) being given a realistic choice about compensation. SA is not made of money and will not be able to sustain ever growing benefits. If the city loses this battle, watch the police and eventually rank and file employees of city hall ask for more benefits.

    Taxes will only reach so far and these propositions will push SA downhill toward ever more non-discretionary spending.

  13. There is both a lot of truth and a lot of baloney in the previous comments. The truths are
    1. 85% of the City’s highest paid employees are in police and fire positions.
    2. As much as I wish every employer could, neither every employer or the City can afford to pay 100% of health insurance costs for the long term.
    3. It costs $2 per signature to gather petition signatures to vote on any City Council action. Believe me, there are plenty of special interests willing to spend $40,000 to try and overturn any City Council vote they don’t like.
    4. In less than ten years of being City Manager, Sheryl Sculley reduced the number of City employees by 1,000 and added a net 500 police. The former has saved the city millions in salaries and benefits. During that same time period, she achieved triple A bond status, which has saved the city millions in interest expenses
    5. In summary. none of these amendments is good for the city. unless you’re a special interest or a union.

  14. OK, Now, I read the Article and as I have been saying- let evergreen for current FF contract run its’ course. NO yearly wage increases but WE, The Tax Payers will still pay an increasing bill due to Health Care/ FF Benefit expenses.
    What do YOU Fire Fighter’s HAVE TO DO for SANE representation that benefits our community?

  15. It’s time to pay for your insurance and benefits. Firefighters and police get paid very well up front to begin with , those times are are long gone. I too was a union member for 34 years . And well paid upfront but it was time to pay out fair share . And it’s a dangerous job but it’s the same for everyone else you can walk outside and something could happen at moment.

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