Negotiations will begin later this month between San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her top advisers and representatives of the city's two powerful public safety organizations, and San Antonio businessman Sam Dawson, who is a member of the Legacy Costs Task Force, says no less than the city's future sustainability hangs in the balance.
"All of our peer cities are already making drastic changes to their pension and health care plans, because they think they have exceeded the appropriate 'healthy city' balance," said Dawson, CEO of Pape Dawson Engineers and a respected business leader.
The issue of total public safety costs, which are the long term costs to taxpayers of the health care and pension benefits promised generally to uniformed city employees, was first raised by Sculley when she unveiled the city's 2014 budget last September. The Task Force delivered its report on the issue last month, setting the stage for this month's negotiations.
At the time of the task force recommendations, police and firefighters packed the City Council chamber, many holding signs indicating that the Task Force was blowing the impact of the legacy costs out of proportion, a claim that Dawson rejects.
"We are the only city where no premiums are paid for our uniformed employees," he said. "Our deductibles are significantly lower than our peer cities."
Independent analysts say the sacrifices the city is asking the police and firefighters to make are little different than the sacrifices that most private sector employees have already made. All private sector workers have seen their co-payments skyrocket and the amount they have to pay each month for their employer-supplied health insurance has increased sharply over the past decade.
Dawson says unless these changes are made and made now, the city's general fund budget within the coming decade will be 100% taken up by legacy costs by 2040 or as early as 2031, with no money left over for the city's other services, like parks, street repair and maintenance, and libraries.
And Dawson says other Texas cities have already started making the sorts of cuts which are currently being considered in San Antonio. He says they have all gotten their legacy cost impact, which is currently about 67% of the city budget, closer to about 50%, which Dawson says is essential.
"Dallas is at 57%, Ft. Worth is at 56%, Houston is at 56%," he said.
Several officials of the San Antonio Police Officers Association and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association has said Sculley's rapidly growing salary, she now, with bonuses figured in, makes more than the President of the United States, will make it more difficult for the city to make cuts in benefits for public safety officials. But city officials reject that claim as a 'distraction,' and say Sculley's move to streamline city spending more than makes up for her salary.