Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded
Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded

“You get what you pay for” might be cliché, but such truisms are often deeply rooted in history and experience. That’s why City Manager Sheryl Sculley is worth every penny she is paid, and why so many other high performers in public life also are highly compensated for good reason. They share one thing in common: a great return on investment. That means their competitive pay packages usually end up saving taxpayers millions or tens of millions of dollars that lesser individuals in those jobs would spend thanks to a lack of vision, leadership, or simply playing it safe as risk-averse bureaucrats.

As Sculley’s contract comes up for renewal after a decade of best-in-class job performance, it’s worth lowering the volume on the City of San Antonio versus San Antonio Police Officers Association standoff, and look at some facts. It’s also worth taking a few minutes to place in better context the relationship of high performance to high pay in a competitive marketplace.

By the way, the Rivard Report is soliciting comments from readers who believe Spurs Defensive Player of the Year forward Kawhi Leonard is overpaid after last night’s game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which the Spurs won 99-95 for their 10th straight win and their 23rd straight win at home. Leonard held one of the greatest players of our time, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, to 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Leonard scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, had five assists, blocked two shots and had one steal, as the Rivard Report’s Mike Monroe noted in his game story. Leonard will earn $16.4 million this season. Any Spurs fans got a problem with that?

The police union has conducted and released a report, first reported Thursday on the Rivard Report, that takes aim at Sculley anew. It’s timed to her coming contract review by City Council after her current three-year deal expired at the end of 2015. Union officials assert that likely voters who were interviewed believe, by a margin of 79.5%, that Sculley should not receive a pay raise, that only 33.7% believe she should keep her job, and that 2-1 believe she, not Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council, is running the city.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley shakes the hands of San Antonio Fire Department first responders. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley shakes hands with first responders of the San Antonio Fire Department during a show of solidarity with France after the Paris terror attacks in November, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Given that San Antonio has a city manager form of government, its good to see voters understand the city manager is CEO and the City Council is the board of directors. Until a half year ago, citizens weren’t even willing to pay the mayor or City Council, so that 2-1 result is no big revelation.

The union’s unreleased poll figures belie other market data and measurements of public sentiment we have seen over the last two years as the City and police union have faced off in on-again, off-gain collective bargaining that is now at an undeclared impasse. Both sides await the outcome of a lawsuit the City filed that challenges the evergreen clause in the union contract, so don’t expect a quick resolution. The union’s poll numbers represent a wild, unbelievable swing of the pendulum away from the 70% of respondents who said they favored Sculley and the City’s negotiating position in a citywide survey conducted in late 2014. Polls conducted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also support Sculley and the City Council’s negotiating position.

One day after the poll was released to the Rivard Report, Mayor Ivy Taylor issued a statement in support of Sculley. Her support underscores the union’s mistaken focus on Sculley, a strategy that has not worked and will not work going forward.

“The role of the City Manager is an extensive one as she oversees an annual budget of over $2.5 billion and more than 12,000 employees,” Mayor Taylor stated. “It is my and the City Council’s responsibility to evaluate her performance and decide on the appropriate compensation. The Union should redirect its time and resources back to the bargaining table so that we may move forward with contract negotiations and come to an agreement that benefits our officers and taxpayers.”

The Failed Strategy to Target the City Manager

SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks with reporters after the meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks with reporters after a contract negotiation session in July 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Sculley has paid a high personal price for taking on the unions as health care costs spiraled out of control, rising in some years by 20% when the general budget was growing by 3%. The unions continued to enjoy premium-free coverage for themselves and their dependents, choose physicians in and out of network, opt in for brand pharmaceuticals instead of generics, and so on. The City’s thousands of civilian employees, on the other hand, made do like the rest of us in this world: monthly premiums, co-pays at every visit, battling insurance companies over coverage, and so on.

The problem of out-of-control costs of union health care had to be addressed and the City’s leadership has been unanimous about holding it to 66% of the general budget, still the highest of any major city in Texas. Union officials simply will not accept the need in this economy – which is not the economy of the mid-1980s when then-Mayor Henry Cisneros and City Manager Lou Fox could afford to be far more generous.

San Antonio’s economy is a growing one, and if the unions can accept a onetime hit to bring those ridiculous health care costs under control, they should be able to enjoy significant wage growth as the city continues to grow and prosper. But they aren’t going to get everything in one year or one contract. They will have to take one step back to start taking two steps forward.

Instead, they fired their lead negotiator, Austin attorney Craig Deats, in April 2014, two weeks after collective bargaining talks opened, and almost ever since the police union strategy has been to focus less on the merits of the contract issues and more on vilifying and seeking the removal of Sculley. With the two-year anniversary of the talks two and half months away, it’s time to declare that strategy a failed one. Sculley is not the problem. The cost of health care for the unions is the problem.

SAPOA lead negotiator, Ron DeLord, (right) and the city's lead negotiator,Jeff Londa (left), prepare for discussion. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAPOA lead negotiator Ron DeLord (right) and the City’s lead negotiator Jeff Londa (left), both attorneys, prepare for contract negotiations on August 18, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s easy to rile up working class families making due on $46,000 a year, the current median income for a family of four in San Antonio, by asking a dinner time poll question about the city manager’s $42,000 a month salary (which is actually a tad high by this journalist’s math: ($486,640, all benefit and perks included, divided by 12 = $40,533/mo.)

The Rivard Report could conduct its own poll if there is an interested funder out there. (We are now a nonprofit and the contribution would be tax-deductible.) We could ask this question:

Who would you prefer to see as the city’s top executive: A city manager who earns $250-300,000 a year and fails to control public spending and win a high bond rating that reduces the cost of City borrowing and interest rates, or a city manager who earns $400-500,000 a year whose fiscal management elevates the City’s bond rating to a best-in-nation AAA rating on Wall Street and saves taxpayers millions of dollars?

I bet the Rivard Report put could put up some numbers in the 80th percentile with our poll questions, too.

The Media and Public Salaries

In my article published Thursday, I purposely published the salaries of some of the top medical specialists and senior administrators who work at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. We did so with purpose, rather than only noting what the heads of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System earn, which is where most mainstream reporting starts and ends. I did not do so to embarrass the UTHSCSA leadership. I did so to point out the superficiality of the public servant compensation that you will read in the Express-News and find on local broadcast news outlets. Those UTHSCSA’s employees and managers are paid with tax dollars, too. Does a white lab coat and stethoscope absolve a public figure of scrutiny?

Sculley’s compensation package wouldn’t place her even in the Top 10 of the UTHSCSA staff, where dozens of other faculty members make salaries in the $200-500,000 range. Do we only spotlight public officials who dress as civilians and hold local government positions?

I don’t begrudge our city’s publicly employed physicians and health care leaders a single penny. They, too, are best-in-class. They can work anywhere in this nation and probably could make more money in other cities with university medical schools. Most of us take pride in their presence here, which elevates San Antonio and how we are seen around the nation. They, like Sculley and others, are among the city’s greatest human capital.

This time around, City Council would be wise to share with the public how much money Sculley and her team have saved taxpayers, even if such a report fails to capture so many of the decisions unrelated to the bond rating that also represent improved financial management.

That’s why the police union will fail to win in the court of public opinion or at City Hall until they abandon their failed strategy of attacked Sheryl Sculley. The police union campaign to get Sculley fired will not succeed, no matter how long that campaign persists. A far more effective approach for the union would be to negotiate it way through some prudent cuts in health care costs and then focus on the future wage increases most of us will be only too glad to see them earn for all they do to safeguard the city and its people.

Coming Sunday: Tech Bloc, ‘The Geography of Jobs’, and why Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council should tie 2017 Bond funding to building San Antonio’s brainpower ecosystem.

*Top image: Screenshot from the SAPOA-funded


Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.

Police Union Targets City Manager Contract and Pay in Poll

City Makes New Offer, But Union Officials Stay Away

City, Police Union Stall Over Evergreen Clause

City, Police Union Gap Narrows to $4 Million

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.