Sheryl Sculley’s legacy, which I hope is a lasting one, is the renewal of professionalism at City Hall.

The way she ran things and the energy, intelligence, and honesty with which City Hall was run after she became City manager made us a different city. She made us one of the best-run cities in the United States. She swept away our shortcomings and replaced them with a textbook case study on how things should be done.

She grew our strengths and eliminated our weaknesses.

When I became mayor, there were three City councilmen who had been convicted of crimes. It was not a pretty picture. When Sheryl came here, I wanted her to be an agent of change. I wanted to make this a tight, well-run city that people had faith and confidence in. She did every bit of that and more.

She had the ability to get the most out of our City budget and made sure every dollar was accounted for and well spent. I know that many people thought she made too much money. But what many people didn’t realize is the millions of dollars that she was responsible for bringing into San Antonio.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In her first year of work here, she came in to my office and announced she had found $30 million – not in the budget – that we could now use for needed City expenditures. She had been going through City financial records and found $30 million from several old bonds that were allocated and never spent. Some of these funds were 25 years old and had simply been forgotten – kind of like putting money underneath your mattress and then forgetting it was there.

The newly discovered money was spent, among other things, on new firefighting equipment and protective clothing, which prevented many injuries and saved more than one life. When she was through, no city in the country had better equipment and protective clothing than our firefighters. At the time, Sheryl was making around $300,000 a year, which incrementally rose to her present $500,000 after 13 years. A good salary, but she had already more than made up the combined 13-year salary in her first year here.

Then there was the River Walk extension and the Broadway corridor. The original two miles of the River Walk were built in 1940 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while Maury Maverick Sr. was mayor. Those two miles helped make San Antonio internationally famous, and brought millions of dollars into the city. However, very little had been done with the River Walk from 1940 until 2005, or about 65 years – it was just sitting there with a small extension as a part of HemisFair ’68. Now the Riverwalk is 13 miles long and brings in billions of dollars to our city.

Broadway, which had become neglected and mostly deserted through the years, has been totally transformed, with one high-rise after another, all pouring money into City coffers as well as private pockets. It is truly unrecognizable from the street it was when Sheryl came here. There is more than one author to this incredible success story, such as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who played a critical role on the Mission Reach – but no one played a more important role than Sheryl Sculley.

Joggers pass by large apartment complexes that have been built on Broadway in recent years.
Joggers during Siclovía pass by large apartment complexes that have been built along Broadway in recent years. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Could it have been done by someone else? Possibly. But it wasn’t. So credit her for putting a few billion dollars into our joint pockets. Notice how many streets are being fixed and new buildings going up. Suffice it to say that if Sheryl lived to be a 100 years old and made $500,000 each year, the balance in San Antonio’s favor would be several billion dollars. Truth is, she has been a money machine for the benefit of San Antonio citizens.

Her securing the AAA bond rating has never been given as much attention as it should. Some people realize in a hazy way that means we pay less interest. That is true, but there’s more to it. Having a AAA rating in a city this size and getting that from where she started – a city that was not always well run, had no money, and had lots of infrastructure problems – was a huge step, and with it came a lot of prestige. San Antonio became known as the best run city in the nation with more than 200,000 inhabitants. The professionalism of that made our city grow in stature and opportunity throughout the country.

Setting all that aside and looking at the financial side of our rating only: If we lose our ratings, we’ll be paying 5 to 10 percent more for all of our big projects than we are presently paying. Why? Because we’ll be paying higher interest rates than we did with the AAA rating. This is more than a few dollars; citywide, it will mean millions of dollars that our City will have to make up with higher taxes or fewer projects.

It wasn’t just that we made some money out of our AAA rating, though we did. It moved us up in the rankings of cities in the United States. At the same time, Sheryl was being recognized by the International City/County Management Association as the most successful city manager in the U.S. Everywhere she turned, things were either helping us in our reputation or making money for us – and not everyone can do that. To try and transform that into an organized, disciplined workforce was a task. She accomplished it successfully. And we made money because of her work.

She made us the city we are today. Not that we weren’t a good city before, but she made us a leader of cities.

With her impending departure, I see us in a precarious situation. Because she transformed City Hall and brought in staff from all over the U.S., the City will likely experience some brain drain when she leaves. I doubt all the people working for the City now will be working here this time next year. They came here because – to use the sports analogy – you go where there’s a great team. That’s why Alabama has such a great football team. Many top players want to go there simply because they want to be on that team. It’s going to be hard to make that happen for a while. I don’t think you can replace Sheryl in that sense. You can hire someone as a successor, but a successor is not a replacement.

With the strictures recently put on future city managers’ pay and tenure, it’s very much like cutting your throat to watch yourself bleed. I see the future as perilous for San Antonio in terms of keeping the standards that we have. San Antonio isn’t going anywhere, of course. We’re an old city with lots of up and downs in our past. We will go on. But if we are not careful, we could easily slide into mediocrity, while other cities thrust past, looking at us in the rearview mirror.

Phil Hardberger

Phil Hardberger is the former Mayor of the City of San Antonio. He now works as an attorney at the Dykema law firm.