Today I write of a hero, a public servant who was fired after 33 years of honest labor for doing the right thing. I had a role in his firing, so I’m happy to report that his income took a nice jump after his firing and, his wife told me at the time, he was able to play more golf.
If you arrived in San Antonio in the last two decades, or even if you have been here longer, you probably don’t know about Carl White. He died last week at the age of 90. His obituary noted succinctly that he worked for 33 years at the City of San Antonio, rising to the post of director of finance.
White was highly regarded in his field. He served as president of the Municipal Finance Officers Association, a national group with 8,000 members, and taught classes at San Antonio College and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.
White believed with all his soul that the finances of the city were an open book. One time I learned that the San Antonio Police Department had a secret section called the intelligence unit. I arranged an interview with the chief to learn about it. When I showed up at his office, the head of the unit was with him.
What do you want to know, the chief asked. I told him that to start I would like to know the unit’s budget and the size of its staff.
“That’s classified,” he said. I responded respectfully that I believed if I went to Carl White’s office I could get the numbers. The chief made a call to see if I was right. A few minutes later his phone rang. He answered it, listened a moment, and said something along the lines of “$750,000 and a staff of 12.” (This was a long time ago.)
A year or so later City Council passed the infamous 1988 contract with the police union. It was full of new and inventive goodies, ranging from triple-and-a-half overtime on certain holidays to a provision that four officers who had formed a rock band for the fun of it would be paid full time to bring musical anti-drug messages to school assemblies.
The contract cost millions more than City Council and the public were told. The most expensive item was a provision that would provide officers in their retirement with the same gold-plated health insurance for them and their families that they received while on the force. And they would have no premiums.
The contract called for a fund to be built up to pay for the retirement benefit. The city would pay in $67 a month per officer (and later per firefighter under a me-too contract), and the officers would pay $50 a month. The officers could easily afford it since the contract provided not only a raise but also a brand new “uniform allowance” of $50 a month.
Where did those numbers come from? Who knows? Immediately after approving the contract by a 10-1 vote, City Council voted to pay for an actuarial study to determine how much money needed to be put into the fund to make it sound.
It was like taking delivery of a Ferrari, then asking how much you owe.
I chose an exotic car because this was an exotic benefit — essentially free health care in retirement for employees who could retire in their 40s after 20 years of service. No other municipal employees in Texas had such a deal.
A few months later I ran into Carl White in the bowels of the City Hall Annex. We chatted briefly and I asked him if the actuarial study had come in. He said he had just received it and asked if I would like a copy. We walked to his office and he gave me a copy of the thick report.
It was detailed and dire. It found that the endowment was grossly underfunded. Instead of putting in $117 a month per employee, the city needed to be putting in nearly three times as much, more than $300 a month. Another way of putting it: The price tag for police and firefighters was $10 million a year more than the contract called for.
This was a big story and it was planned for Sunday’s front page of the old San Antonio Light. The art department produced a graph featuring a firefighter holding a hose with the water streaming up into the air, then dropping precipitously to the ground. The arc described the fund with money in the early years piling up as money was going in but few employees had retired. Then, as retirees multiplied the fund plummeted.
Near deadline, however, I discovered an error that made the graphic inaccurate. The numbers were very bad, but not as bad as the isolated error on which the graphic was based. City Manager Lou Fox was out of town and unreachable, so I had been dealing with Assistant City Manager Alex Briseño, who would later succeed Fox. I called him back to confirm the error. He did and expressed appreciation that I had found it. We pulled the graphic and I made sure the error didn’t impact the rest of the story.
Fox returned that Sunday and was so angry at the story that on Monday morning he called White into his office and fired him. He then told reporters that White was fired because he shouldn’t have released a report that had an error that would cause public panic. It was a specious argument, as numbers associated with the error were not in my article, which was the only public report on the study.
White’s firing turned out not to be a bad deal for him. To avoid litigation, the city gave him a generous retirement package. On another front, in making a presentation to City Council, a representative of the firm that conducted the actuarial report described White’s release of it as “unethical.” White sued the company and won a nice settlement.
His reputation survived. He became vice president of M.E. Allison & Co., a prominent financial services firm whose clients include municipalities. His income likely was more than it was at the city.
And he had more time for golf.
San Antonio’s taxpayers did not fare so well. Over the course of successive union contracts the retirement health benefits have been cut a bit in terms of such things as dependent’s hospital copays. But the major adjustments have been the increases in taxpayer contributions. The annual payment more than doubled from $4.2 million a year in the original contract to $10.2 million in the next contract in 1994. In 1999 it was pumped up to $13.5 million a year.
This year’s budget pegs the city’s contribution at a whopping $46.9 million. Because of a 2007 legislative initiative by the city, however, police and firefighters are now contributing to the fund.