City Manager, Sheryl Sculley discusses the approved city budget. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley speaks with members of the media following a City Council meeting in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Sheryl Sculley was right. The city manager was right in 2013 when she first convinced Mayor Julián Castro and City Council that San Antonio’s runaway spending on police and fire union wages, health care benefits, and pensions could not be sustained.

Left unchecked, spending on wages and benefits for the City’s uniformed personnel and their dependents would consume 100 percent of the City’s general fund by 2031, according to staff estimates.

With the two unions’ five-year collective bargaining agreements set to expire on Sept. 30, 2014, Sculley pressed for action to break the cycle of agreements that over three decades had made San Antonio police and firefighter compensation the envy of their Texas peers.

Who else, in this day and age, receives free health care for themselves and their dependents, among so many other benefits? Yet Sculley had to work to win support. Elected officials knew that any critical look at the contracts would be met by union leaders claiming that first responders were being undervalued. Who wants to be branded as being unappreciative of the men and women in uniform?

Public safety spending, Sculley pointed out, was consuming about 66 percent of the City’s general fund, and thus limited the money available to address historic disinvestment in inner city neighborhoods, to address homelessness, and to improve public transportation, parks, and libraries.

Sculley, San Antonio’s city manager from 2005 to 2019, was proven right in 2014 when the Mayor’s Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force issued its final report confirming Sculley’s assessment and conclusions. Sculley herself was raised in a union household, but the numbers were the numbers. City Council faced a deciding moment, and at least in the beginning, gave her unanimous support.

The now-retired city manager was proven right again this week when a three-member arbitration panel handed down a new contract for the firefighters union that goes a long way toward controlling the City’s future spending on public safety wages and benefits.

San Antonio will still be a city that overspends on police and fire union benefits and, as a result, underspends on other critical needs, but a general fund meltdown in the years ahead has been averted, and future collective bargaining agreements are likely to be less confrontational and prolonged, and less likely to include personal attack campaigns waged by the unions against Erik Walsh, Sculley’s former deputy and successor.

Looking back, one big mistake was depending on Sculley to carry the campaign to the public. Elected officials left her way out front, making her an easy target. Union leaders vilified Sculley while limiting attacks on Castro and council members. Sculley’s job should have been to make the case for fiscal restraint and resolute bargaining. Elected officials should have walked point from there. Sculley reacted to the intensely personal attacks by hardening her own views toward union leadership. That led to stalemate.

The result for both sides was an expensive and emotionally taxing standoff in the courts and in the court of public opinion. The unions sought unsuccessfully to unseat Mayor Ron Nirenberg last year, and the firefighters succeeded in a City charter amendment that limited future city manager pay and gave them the right to impose arbitration. Voters need to reverse course on the former, while the firefighters absorb the unintended consequences of the latter. They would have fared far better had they come to the bargaining table five years ago.

It’s in everyone’s interest to declare peace.

Everyone in the city knows, or should know, that San Antonio ranks first on the U.S. Census list of top 25 cities with the highest percentage of people living in poverty. The most striking figure is the 30 percent of city residents under the age of 18 who live in poverty. Everyone is going to have to redouble efforts to address this reality. Getting elected officials and the unions to support renewal of Pre-K 4 SA funding in May is one worthy goal all sides can share. Another will come as the November elections approach: Supporting a shift in funding protection of the Edwards Aquifer and building the greenways trails network to permit a one-eighth-cent sales tax being redirected to VIA Metropolitan Transit.

As the city grows and with it the revenues flowing to local government, finding the funds to fight poverty is the best way for elected officials and city staff to make Sculley’s actions seven years ago pay dividends.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.