In San Antonio, our leaders, both business and political, have a habit of focusing on making the deal. They want to accomplish big things. The longer-term costs and implications of what it takes to do the deal don’t merit much concern.
So it was with the Alamodome. Henry Cisneros, seeking to make the “deal” to deliver the support and votes needed to approve the Alamodome in early 1989, wanted a contract that would keep the San Antonio Police Department and their union happy. The contract negotiations were managed with no real analysis of the long-term costs of retirement, and in particular, retiree health care costs. As Express-News columnist Rick Casey recounted in 1999, even the City’s own budget analyst was excluded from the final bargaining session. Then, after the city council had approved the new contract with a 10-1 vote, they agreed to actually do a study of the long-term cost of the agreement.
When the study’s grim reality of what Cisneros and the city council had dealt San Antonio became clear, the city staff sought to keep it secret. Then finance director Carl White leaked a copy to Casey, and was fired for trying to inform the public.
By 1999, a new city manager and council had managed to make up some of the lost ground—and city tax dollars. A new police and firefighter contract offered the promise that retiree health care costs would be fully funded, based on increased contributions by both the City and police and firefighters.
Now here we are in 2014. City manager Sheryl Sculley has offered up the assessment that the growing costs of police and firefighter health care could lead to public safety consuming 100 percent of the general fund by 2040 or as soon as 2024, just 10 years from now.
The deal done in 1988 to sell the Alamodome, crafted with no serious analysis or council debate, ostensibly “fixed” in 1999, is now an enormous threat to the City’s fiscal well-being. That a 25-year-old political deal to sell a stadium is still a fiscal issue raises a whole host of questions about how City leadership makes policy decisions. With no real fiscal analysis, the public never understood the implications of accommodating the police union. And the “fix” in 1999 looks much less permanent than it appeared at the time. But there is a far larger issue about what has happened over the last 10 or 12 years.
Sheryl Sculley has served as San Antonio city manager since 2006. The police and firefighter contract was reviewed and renegotiated in fall 2006 and again in 2010, both times while she has been in office. Yet, somehow the apparent fiscal time bomb of growing health care costs was not a dramatic issue during those previous discussions. We’ve managed to see two large bond packages put before the voters, a sales tax proposal for crime (defeated) and another for Pre-K for SA, as well as renewal of the Proposition 3 sales tax for aquifer protection and greenways. City leaders have found the funds for initiatives as diverse as Café College and the proposed downtown streetcar, and the room to lose property tax revenues in order to support new downtown housing development (and developers). However, somehow the larger fiscal implications of the 1988 police contract were effectively deferred and avoided.
The decades-long history of the 1988 police contract deal suggests a few things about how San Antonio makes public policy. In order to win sufficient support to accommodate a range of interests, big projects like the Dome get packaged with side deals, which may have far larger implications. These days, the efforts to finance and build the proposed downtown streetcar have involved trades with TxDOT to free up local transportation funds. And in order to sustain the support of a whole of array of interests and people around downtown, VIA has chosen the grandest and most expansive version of the streetcar schemes, a version that we now don’t have the money to afford. How much will those deals end up costing us? And much like they Dome, will they too deliver far less than promised at the beginning?
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