By San Antonio Express-News
The city’s firefighter union is playing with fire.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association push to dramatically alter the city’s charter could very well kill their golden goose. The proposed charter changes would be catastrophic for the city’s ability to recruit quality workers or for elected officials to govern effectively and efficiently, let alone pay for those health benefits and raises firefighters covet.
As Express-News reporter Josh Baugh has outlined, the proposal would make a number of sweeping changes that would undermine the city in a variety of ways.
It would cap the city manager’s salary to 10 times that of the city’s lowest-paid employee. It would also place an eight-year term limit on the city manager. It would allow voters to overrule council decisions on spending, taxes and utility rates. It would require binding arbitration when the city hits an impasse in negotiations with public safety unions.
There are many problems with these proposals.
Capping the city manager’s salary and limiting the position to eight years would hurt San Antonio’s ability to attract the best and brightest for the job. The market should dictate salary, not some arbitrary regulation.
If someone is doing an excellent job as city manager — say a certain highly paid executive is saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year thanks to a Triple-A bond rating and efficient staffing — why would it be in the public’s interest to end that person’s term after eight years?
And if someone isn’t performing, the City Council can fire that person as city manager. This reflects the broader problem with the proposed charter change. It undermines elected officials. Besides, if the public doesn’t like decisions City Council and the mayor are making when it comes to spending, taxes and other fiscal priorities, they can vote those people out of office.
It will take 20,000 signatures to trigger a charter amendment election, which would be in November. That’s a relatively low bar, and anyone concerned about this proposal should be organizing an opposition campaign. Looking at you, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Tech Bloc and others.
The fire union has flexed its political muscle before. The group was instrumental in killing the controversial downtown streetcar project in 2014, collecting signatures that would have brought the project to a vote. But that was an unpopular project. This threat would take a hammer to city government over a prolonged contract dispute and vitriolic animosity toward City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
It’s a well-run city, one with a Triple-A bond rating, that pays for the salaries of firefighters. Let’s not forget 80 percent of the city of San Antonio’s highest paid employees are firefighters and police officers.
It’s a well-run city that rewards public safety with raises and health benefits that substantively don’t exist in the private sector.
Let’s not forget the 2016 agreement between the city and the San Antonio Police Officers Association included a 3 percent lump sum bonus, a guaranteed wage increase of 14 percent over four years and minor, but necessary, cost shifts on health care. Officers choose between two plans: One with premiums for dependents; and one without premiums, but a higher deductible.
This type of agreement was a win for the police officer’s union, and is expected to save the city close to $90 million over five years. But it’s not good enough for the fire union, which has refused to negotiate a new contract, and would rather take a wrecking ball to city government.
If the fire union is successful, the irony is it would create a city incapable of delivering the deal it covets.
This threat is ridiculous — why it has to be taken seriously.