San Antonio City Hall
The war between public safety unions and City Hall dates to 2013. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The application period for the position of San Antonio city manager closes Thursday, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg has laid out an ambitious selection timeline for City Council to select a successor to retiring City Manager Sheryl Sculley by the end of January.

City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) likely will oppose that timeline, as much as he detests Sculley. I write that without any special knowledge of the first-term representative’s thinking. It’s a simple assumption: Doesn’t he oppose virtually all of Nirenberg’s initiatives and positions?

Judging by the recent commentary Brockhouse contributed to the Rivard Report, which includes his responses to readers who posted comments, the fire union’s preferred candidate for mayor is getting ready to challenge Nirenberg in the May city election. Again, a simple assumption: Isn’t Brockhouse tired of being a vote of one, with only infrequent company joining him in opposition? So why not roll the dice and give an emboldened fire union its own candidate?

A Brockhouse mayoral bid is a long-shot proposition. His would be a campaign targeting the incumbent, rather than one built on a vision and a plan. Yet we are living a populist, anti-government moment, and Brockhouse’s message that we are a city of haves and have-nots will resonate, even if it’s not true. Caveat emptor, voters. Protest votes can have unintended consequences.

A new city manager or a new mayor will not change the reality that San Antonio faced five years ago in 2013 and still faces now. That was the year Sculley convinced Mayor Julián Castro that public safety benefits and pension costs were becoming a worsening drag on City finances, accounting for an ever-growing percentage of the city’s general budget.

A blue-ribbon commission that compared the police and fire union’s collective bargaining agreement with other cities in Texas and beyond issued its report in 2014 that showed San Antonio was spending more of its budget — nearly two-thirds of every dollar — than any other major U.S. city on public safety, worsened by the spiraling costs of union health care and retirement benefits. Citizens learned that police and firefighters do not pay for any of their health care and enjoy a legal slush fund to cover the costs of divorces and other personal problems.

Castro and the City Council unanimously approved a policy setting a 66 percent ceiling on future public safety costs in the general budget. Ever since, the fire union has refused to come to the bargaining table to work on a new labor agreement. Their representatives sat in on the early sessions between City negotiators and the police union, but they never came to the table for direct talks on replacing the labor pact that expired in 2014. San Antonio firefighters union President Chris Steele continues to ignore invitations to bargain.

Perhaps he is waiting for Brockhouse to become mayor.

San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The current mayor and Council, of course, could break that pledge to hold down union costs and hand the firefighters a rich new contract, even better than the one given to the police union under Mayor Ivy Taylor. That would be the trigger for the next downgrading of San Antonio’s bond rating.

The next city manager will inherit a reality first recognized by Sculley, and while the passage of Proposition B might save a few hundred thousand dollars on the compensation paid to her successor, the real risk is the tens of millions of dollars a bad contract will cost taxpayers.

People turn off when the conversation turns to municipal finance, but taxpayers should understand this: a missing or poorly maintained sidewalk on your street is going to stay that way because your tax dollars are underwriting rich union benefits.

The next time you fork over $20 for a prescription co-pay or $50 for a visit to a physician, remind yourself: The firefighters believe they should not have to pay for any of their health care. Taxpayers, union leaders insist, should foot the whole bill.

That, in sum, is what the five-year war between City Hall and the unions is all about. One side’s greed, and the other side saying we can no longer afford to give a blank check to the unions.

The new city manager faces a huge challenge: How to deliver City Council and citizens a new agreement with the fire union that is both fair and affordable. The alternative is to let an unelected arbiter rule on a new contract and thus put the city’s ability to deliver other essential services at greater risk.

Just remember: The city manager told us so. Happy New Year.

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.