By Gilbert Garcia | January 29, 2015
January 29, 2015 Updated: January 29, 2015 9:00pm
Five months ago, Sheryl Sculley made a PowerPoint presentation about public-safety costs at the 2014 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Her presentation focused on how cities can build public support for their efforts to control police and fire benefits, and she used San Antonio as an example of how to successfully sell your argument to the community.
Sculley outlined three facets to her winning strategy: establishing credibility (in part by creating a 13-member task force to study public-safety costs), providing context (by comparing S.A. to other cities), and telling the story (via the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations).
Sculley’s presentation articulated what has been obvious over the past year and a half: She is preoccupied with winning a PR battle against police and fire unions for the hearts and minds of San Antonians.
The city, of course, disputes my characterization.
“What we told ICMA and what the PowerPoint shows is that we gather the facts, we provide them to the public and engage the community. It’s not sophisticated, it’s obvious. There is no advertising, no spin, it is straight up. This is a community issue,” said Di Galvan, communications and public affairs director.
It was easy to see Wednesday’s lengthy City Council B Session — with its multiple presentations from city-hired consultants, its dizzying parade of numbers and its frequent notes of praise for city management — as part of the plan Sculley described in Charlotte.
A pint of “Establish Credibility” mixed with a cup of “Tell the Story.”
In Charlotte, Sculley touted the success of her PR campaign, citing a 2014 City of San Antonio Community Survey, which found that “70 percent of respondents said they support having public safety personnel contribute to the cost of healthcare, such as paying monthly premiums, as other city employees do.”
It’s a valid point, but there’s one problem with it. Collective-bargaining deals are not reached in the court of public opinion. If they were, the 1994 World Series wouldn’t have been canceled.
Sculley would have achieved more by quietly teaming up with the unions in 2013 to bring in an independent, third-party actuary, agreed to (and paid equally) by both sides. It’s something that the unions still want, despite recent claims to the contrary by city leaders.
Public posturing is the enemy of negotiation. That’s why Jimmy Carter took Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to Camp David in 1977, to get them away from the media and the kind of daily pronouncements that would have shattered a fragile Middle East peace accord.
In August 2013, Sculley launched a public-relations offensive with a warning that public-safety costs could consume the city’s entire general-fund budget by 2031.
As a tool for affecting public opinion, it was a masterstroke. As a tool for understanding the city’s fiscal future, its value was less clear.
Keep in mind, after all, that when the city does its five-year budget projections, the results can be way off. For example, an April 2009 general-fund forecast projected the city would face a $70 million shortfall in fiscal year 2011 and a $68.6 million shortfall the next year. In both cases, the city balanced its budget without any tax increases.
Union reps continue to argue that the city has skewed its projections by low-balling its revenue estimates and overselling the fact that public safety makes up 66 percent of the general-fund budget, when important services — such as solid-waste management — are outside the general fund, and parts of the public-safety budget (such as park police and 911 dispatchers) are outside the realm of the police and fire contracts.
There are also countless fiscal variables, such as one that came up Wednesday. The San Antonio Fire & Police Pension Fund has approved a recommended reduction (requiring passage in the Lege) in the city’s pension fund contribution (from 24.6 percent to 23.2 percent of payroll) that would initially save the city $4.3 million a year. Pension-fund reps believe it could mean $225 million in savings for the city over the next 30 years.
Financial consultants hired by the city backed the projections of city staffers Wednesday on future police and fire costs.
In fairness to Sculley, she surely saw a PR campaign as the only way for the city to achieve bargaining leverage, given the evergreen clause that maintains the existing contract terms for up to 10 years after they expire, if no new deal is reached. It’s a clause whose constitutionality the city is now challenging in court.
And, of course, the union has upped the ante by running its own aggressive media campaign with radio, TV and print ads.
But little has been achieved at the bargaining table and plenty of time has been wasted. That might be the most instructive lesson for city managers at the Charlotte conference.