City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Robert Rivard

One of the easiest headlines to write is about a high-ranking pubic official and his or her rising compensation. It’s far less sensational to headline a story about the real value to taxpayers of a high-performing public official. Too bad.

If we think about our city leaders the same way we think about the top performers for the San Antonio Spurs, it might help citizens understand that good compensation packages are a wise investment. If you want a winner, a player with All-Star status and MVP numbers, you have to pay a fair price.

What you pay will be repaid many, many times over.

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

So when City Council approved a two-year contract extension for City Manager Sheryl Sculley on Thursday, the news for me is not that her salary, the highest of city managers in Texas, will climb in the next two years from $355,000 – unchanged for the past four years – to $375,000 in 2014 and to $400,000 in 2015.

That’s a 12.7% increase over a six-year period, or about 2.1% a year over the six years – actually less given the net present value of money and the fact the city manager volunteered to forego an increase for four years.

The City’s Triple AAA bond rating earned under Sculley’s tenure saves the city and taxpayers millions of dollars in interest payments on debt as we repay the money used to make capital improvements in our city.

So, if you think $400,000 plus a potential 15% performance bonus is too much money, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t you want City Council to invest less than $500,000 to save millions of dollars that the city would pay with less competent management in charge?

Savings on debt hardly tells the full story of good leadership. Sculley is, in effect, the CEO of a $2 billion enterprise that has a far greater impact on the lives of citizens than a comparable local corporation of the same size. Yet a private sector CEO would earn a multiple of three or four times her salary.

Sculley is ultimately responsible for public safety, the budget, capital investments and spending, the quality of neighborhoods, the center city, and the complex network of city infrastructure. And she manages a network of thousands of people. The quality of leadership below her depends on her abilities to recruit and retain talented individuals who can perform at the same level she performs.

How important, for example, is a national-caliber police chief to San Antonio? I’d say vitally important. Sculley recruited and has retained Chief William McManus. He surely has had opportunities to move to the same position in a larger city. Put another way, McManus probably wouldn’t be here if Sculley wasn’t here, so the city manager’s leadership and her performance ripples through the ranks in ways that never get explored in most media reports or a single City Council meeting.

Any independent professional assessment of Sculley’s performance in any of the above-mentioned categories would result in her own AAA rating.

Here’s something else to think about: the City’s future pension and health care obligations are a ticking time bomb, a coming crisis that can only be satisfactorily resolved by winning significant concessions from the police and fire unions. Only Sculley will have the standing, in concert with Mayor Castro and his backing, to tackle this enormous political challenge. Should Sculley succeed in this endeavor, the future net savings to taxpayers will be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

That’s why the real headline ought to be one about City Council assuring the continued stability and high performance of city government by extending Sculley’s contract for two more years.

Mayor Phil Hardberger did a lot of things right in his term-limited four years in office, but nothing, in retrospect, will prove of greater value to San Antonio’s citizens than his wooing of Sculley from Phoenix to San Antonio in 2005. Mayor Julián Castro, whose flight delay caused him to be absent for the Thursday morning vote, has been equally wise to forge a strong working relationship with Sculley and assure her continued tenure.

I’ll take some hits as an establishment cheerleader for this posting, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather be the target of naysayers and live in a city with Sculley as city manager than find myself in a San Antonio paying the high price of having a city manager that isn’t an All-Star.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.