City staff and Council members lead the Council chambers in standing ovation in praise of outgoing Mayor Julián Castro. Photo by Scott Ball.
City staff and Council members lead the Council chambers in standing ovation in praise of outgoing Mayor Julián Castro in 2014. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With early voting in the Nov. 6 election set to begin Monday, Oct. 22, it’s worth going back to 2013-14 when thenMayor Julián Castro and City Council summoned the political courage to heed warnings from City Manager Sheryl Sculley about the runaway costs of public safety healthcare and pension benefits.

The reason to vote no and defeat the three City charter amendments muscled on to the ballot by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and its out-of-town paid petition crews is the same reason City Hall finally stood up to the police and fire unions five years ago: Good leaders protect taxpayers, even when it means making tough decisions. That is what happened back then, and that is what is happening now.

Castro was in his third term as mayor by then, but this was not the first time Sculley had tried to persuade a mayor and council to address the growing problem. Rising healthcare and pension costs for the City’s 4,000 uniform employees threatened to push the public safety budget beyond 66 percent of the entire general budget, far more than any other major Texas city was spending. About 85 percent of the City’s highest paid employees are police and firefighters. The City’s 9,000 civilian employees enjoy a benefits package that is far less generous.

The average firefighter in San Antonio todays earns $145,000 in salary and benefits, according to the City, and pays zero for health care for themselves and their dependents. (No other major Texas city gives firefighters’ family members free health care.) For decades, the City has contributed millions of dollars to a union legal fund that is drawn on by firefighters charged with criminal violations like drunk driving or domestic violence. Chris Steele, the controversial president of the firefighters union, famously had his divorce paid for by the fund and then left his former wife on the City’s healthcare rolls.

After its own fight that lasted three years, the police union agreed to start paying a small percentage of dependents’ healthcare costs.

What made 2013 different? It was the first time Sculley won the necessary political support to address the runaway costs as five-year collective bargaining agreements with the two unions were set to expire on Sept. 30, 2014. Castro appointed a Health Care and Retirement Benefits Task Force in October 2013, led by former City Councilman Reed Williams (D8). With nearly a full year to study the issue and negotiate with the unions, the thinking went: new contracts would rein in costs, keep the City’s operating budget balanced, and its AAA credit rating protected.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Click here to read the commission’s final report and recommendations.

Much has transpired in the intervening five years since Castro’s task force was formed, including some of the most expensive political mudslinging in San Antonio history, underwritten by the local police and firefighter unions and their allies in other cities and states.

All along, the City’s objective was simple: contain costs, negotiate equitable new agreements. And all along, the unions’ objectives also were simple: Vilify Sculley and distract citizens from the core issues of the runaway costs. San Antonio’s uniformed police and firefighters had arguably the best deal in Texas when comparing compensation to cost of living, but suddenly Sculley and others were the enemy of the working cop and firefighter if you believed the propaganda.

The chief executives of CPS Energy, UTSA, UT Health San Antonio, and Bexar County’s University Health System have richer compensation packages than the city manager, yet the unions have never made those individuals a target. Only Sculley has been made to endure years of attacks, and as a result, plenty of citizens have bought into union claims.

From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force report.
This graph exhibits data from a presentation in 2014 of the rank and file of firefighter compensation in Texas. Credit: Courtesy / Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force

For years, elected leaders kicked the can down the road and told Sculley to shelf what they knew would be an epic confrontation with union officials who would do anything possible to keep their array of benefits, no matter how fast costs were mounting for taxpayers.

Credit Castro and that City Council with showing the political fortitude to back Sculley and take on the unions. Now, five years later, a different mayor and City Council are in office, and the outcome no longer rests with them or a task force. The matter is now in the hands of citizens, or that subset of citizens who exercise their right and duty to vote.

After 10 unanswered invitations from Sculley and three different mayors, Steele and the firefighters union have still refused to come to the bargaining table to meet and talk. Firefighters, meanwhile, saw more than $500,000 of their wages spent on hiring people to come to San Antonio to convince unwitting citizens to sign petitions supporting union officials and their anti-City Hall campaign.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele speaks during the scheduled press conference.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele speaks during a press conference on September 20. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Firefighters in San Antonio have now foregone four years of wage increases while keeping the benefits from their expired contract in place thanks to a 10-year evergreen clause. Will Steele keep firefighters from getting a wage increase for six more years? It’s possible.

A far more appealing outcome is for voters to defeat the three ballot amendments and send Steele a message. Maybe then the rank and file will insist he pursue a new contract. Perhaps new leadership will emerge. Either way, every citizen owes a debt of gratitude to Sculley and her staff, and Castro and City Council for the actions they took in 2013 and 2014.

Robert Rivard

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