Councilman Greg Brockhouse undoubtedly scored significant points in many quarters Monday when he promised to take “a meaningful cut in property taxes” to City Council within 90 days. In addition, he said he would call for several other measures, including a homestead exemption, that would reduce City revenues even more.
He may be able to win the mayor’s office with these promises, but would he actually be able to enact them? Three major factors line up against him.
First, he would definitely be beholden to the police and fire unions, despite his strenuous objections to the contrary. If he didn’t continue to be their guy at City Hall — as mayor as he has been as councilman — then there is no justice in the world.
After all, the two unions’ political action committees have spent nearly five times as much on his campaign as Brockhouse has been able to raise and spend himself. If that isn’t buying an office, what is? And as Simon Cameron, a wealthy businessman who served as Lincoln’s secretary of war, famously said: “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”
From the beginning of the year until 10 days before the election’s first round, the District 6 councilman raised a paltry $54,252 and spent $71,922. (The difference was made up by about $19,000 left over from his 2017 City Council campaign account.)
Meanwhile, the police and fire unions spent a combined $268,000 on the election. (Police union President Mike Helle says some of the money was spent for other candidates, but since he is being coy and not telling us how much was for Brockhouse, it is reasonable to assume it was the vast majority.)
In addition, firefighters – a largely personable group – manned many polling places urging voters to vote for Brockhouse. That’s a vastly larger ground effort than Brockhouse could command.
Simply put, Brockhouse would not have a campaign if it weren’t for the police and fire unions. The question is, will he deliver for them?
There is a good chance he would not. Why? This is the second factor. He may not be able to.
San Antonio’s history includes a number of powerful and effective mayors. It also includes quite a few that have been neither. The fact is that our city charter gives the mayor only the power his or her energies and skills command. Read the charter and you’ll find that it gives the mayor almost no actual authority.
The only enumerated power for the mayor in the 122-page document – I’m not making this up – is that the mayor can call a special meeting of the council. But then so can any three council members.
Even the mayor’s authority to appoint council committees and their chairs is a matter of tradition and could be overruled by any six council members.
The first major task facing City Council after the June 8 election is to come up with a budget. That will be very much on council members’ minds as Brockhouse works to give the firefighters’ union what it wants. And what the firefighters want, clearly, is more than the very generous contract the police union obtained two and a half years ago. Otherwise, the firefighters would have accepted a parallel contract as they have since the police union became a powerhouse back in the 1980s.
But the police contract is projected to push the public safety portion of the general fund budget over the 66 percent cap council had voted to seek. Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley sought to recover the balance with a “first in, best contract” policy. The firefighters would have to take less. But Sculley is gone.
So if the firefighters’ union gets more, that means the rest of the budget would get less. Yet the clear majority of the council has supported Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s progressive agenda that includes urban mobility, housing and environmental initiatives – things Brockhouse opposes. The cost details for these initiatives is yet to be worked out, but if the union gets its way, there is no room for substantial investment.
Furthermore, City Council will have to decide what to cut in the current budget – parks, libraries, street repair – to pay for the fire and police contracts. That’s even before funding Brockhouse’s revenue cuts.
Will council members have the confidence to stick to their guns if Brockhouse wins? They should. Not one of the seven members who sought re-election needed a runoff. On average, the incumbents won 61 percent of the vote.
After the June 8 runoffs, at least six and possibly as many as eight council members will be counted as progressives who have little interest in Brockhouse’s tax-cutting, back-to-basics approach. That’s a second factor that could impede his plans.
There is one more important factor weighing against Brockhouse’s proposed tax cuts. It appears the Legislature may be about to pass a law requiring that any increase of city revenues surpassing 3.5 percent – even if the tax rate itself is stationary or lowered – will have to go to a public vote.
That law, which would go into effect Jan. 1, is scary to public officials, especially in the face of escalating public safety costs. There will be considerable pressure not to lower the baseline for city revenues with the Oct. 1 budget, just before the revenue cap goes into effect.
So if Brockhouse wins, the question will be whether an opposition coalition can form that will frustrate him by continuing a progressive agenda on the belief that not to address the challenges of growth could be at least as expensive as addressing them.
My bet is that Brockhouse – at least based on this election alone – could slow the boat down, but not turn it around.