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

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has proven to be one of San Antonio’s smartest investments over the last decade, but Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council should make this year’s $75,000 bonus her last one.

CPS Energy Chairman Ed Kelley and the CPS board should do the same and make the $290,000 bonus paid to CEO Paula Gold-Williams last August her last one.

And SAWS Chairman Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. and the SAWS board should make the $99,285.71 bonus approved last August for CEO Robert Puente his last one.

Public servants serve the public. Service to taxpayers and ratepayers, not a bonus, should be their incentive. Public servants, even the top ones, never earn what they could earn in the private sector. That’s usually fine because the best public servants have a calling to their professions.

That said, our city’s many low-pay advocates should get over it. Good leaders deserve good pay. If we want top leaders in our city and if we have aspirations for San Antonio to become a city of choice for companies creating smart jobs, we better hire and retain strong public sector leaders into the top positions. That means paying top dollar.

Bonuses, however, have proven to be an unwanted annual distraction, a compensation method imported from the private sector that works poorly in the public sector, especially in instances where only the top executive gets a bonus. Everyone else? Tough luck.

San Antonio’s top public leaders should be paid nationally competitive salaries that negate the need for bonuses. Nirenberg and City Council should order up and review national data, as they are doing, to make sure our top executives are paid in line with their peers. After that process is completed and shared with the public, contracts should be adjusted  or renegotiated to pay the executives a competitive salary and benefits package. If that means paying Sculley, whose compensation happens to be in the news right now, $525,000 a year instead of $450,000, then do it without apology.

Holding her or any other public sector executive accountable is another matter. Nirenberg should do what past mayors failed to do: put in place a professional process for setting goals and evaluating performance.

That gives the mayor and council the opportunity every contract cycle to base salary increases on performance. If an executive underperforms, a salary increase can be reduced or eliminated. If matters are even worse, make a change in leadership. Eliminate the annual bonus argument.

Populist opposition to good pay for top executives misses the point. Certainly, highly compensated, poorly performing executives deserve all the negative attention they get in the media. But coverage of high performing top executives often fails to measure the value they bring to their organizations. When that “organization” happens to be municipal government or a public utility, the smart, even visionary decisions good leaders make can save taxpayers tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars over time.

Wouldn’t you invest a few hundred thousands of dollars to turn that into millions?

The return on investment in human capital is not always easy to quantify. If you live in San Antonio, you have the highest bond rating of any major city in the United States, which means you pay the lowest interest rates on public debt of taxpayers anywhere. It means investors see the City of San Antonio, CPS Energy, and SAWS as strong and safe  investments. They buy our bonds.

We use the revenue from those bond sales to build a better city, to broaden our energy portfolio through investments in more sustainable systems, to diversify our water supply, and to build safer wastewater infrastructure. That, in turn, is how we attract jobs and build a bigger tax base, which makes servicing the debt on those bonds even easier for the city and its taxpayers. San Antonio taxpayers not only pay low-interest rates on municipal debt, metro area residents and businesses have some of the least expensive and most reliable supply of energy and clean water in the nation.

All of this adds up to higher quality of life in San Antonio, and keeping the city more affordable than others. None of that happens by accident. It happens because of vision and strong leadership demonstrated over sustained periods of time.

City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) has been especially vocal in opposition to Sculley and her recently approved bonus. Last week he noted that the bonus exceeds the annual income of a family of four in San Antonio. So what? We do not want the head of the average family of four serving as the chief executive officer of the city. We want the strongest, most experienced leader in municipal government we can find and afford. And one challenge for leaders like Sculley is to pursue economic development and urban management strategies that raise the annual income of that average family of four.

San Antonio has that person. Pay Sculley what she is worth, and stop comparing her compensation to the average man or woman. She is accountable for a multibillion enterprise. There is nothing average about her.

Here’s the good news for Sculley, Gold-Williams, and Puente, and any other public official in San Antonio who has a compensation package that include bonuses. If you are paid a fair and equitable base salary, you will only see your salaries in the news once a year. All that news coverage of bonus deliberations will go away.

If we want to have an important discussion about paying our public officials in San Antonio, I would suggest this: Let’s amend the City Charter and pay San Antonio’s mayor and council members nationally calibrated salaries like those paid in other leading cities. Council members here earn less than the lowest paid, first-year school teacher. The mayor earns less than any local nonprofit head.

Grow up, San Antonio. The way to build leading edge cities is to find the best possible leaders and let them lead. Pay them what they deserve. The payoff is immeasurable.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.