As election continues, a financial storm looms over the city
As the mayor’s race heads into a runoff, voters should notice the financial clouds looming over the city of San Antonio this election.
That storm is coming regardless of the outcome between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who has yet to adequately answer questions about two alleged incidents of domestic violence and the unexplained disappearance of a 2009 police report.
But the outcome of this race could have tremendous financial repercussions for the city given Brockhouse’s fervent support from the public safety unions, particularly the fire union, which has declared Brockhouse “our own guy” and is seeking a new contract.
The biggest financial cloud on the horizon is a significant drop in property tax revenue for the city. State lawmakers are almost certain to cap annual property tax growth for cities and urban counties at 3.5 percent. The present cap is 8 percent. This change will provide some modest relief for homeowners, maybe a few dollars a month, but for the city, it will mean millions less for police, fire, parks and streets. For example, a 3.5 percent cap would have meant about $51 million less in revenue in 2019, according to city projections.
The next cloud can be seen in legislation that would remove utility fees when telecommunications companies open up city streets. The city of San Antonio has estimated a loss of about $8 million in revenue from this legislation — and there is no evidence these savings will be passed on to consumers.
Together, these dynamics would put tremendous downward pressure on City Hall, and that’s where the mayor’s race really matters. At a time when city revenues will almost certainly be tightening — property tax caps are happening — Nirenberg has pledged to contain public safety expenses.
But Brockhouse is the candidate of choice for the public safety unions, and the lack of a fire contract is another cloud on the horizon.
Prior to his election to City Council two years ago, Brockhouse did significant consulting work for the San Antonio Police Officers Association and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association. And the unions have, in turn, gone to bat for Brockhouse in his bid for mayor. Off-duty firefighters worked polls during the general election, and the police union flooded voters’ mailboxes on behalf of Brockhouse.
In fire union President Chris Steele’s own words, the goal is to “set it up to where May of 2019, we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be Greg Brockhouse.”
The goal for the fire union has always been to land a lucrative new contract. That’s the play. Bear in mind, the police union already agreed to a lucrative contract in 2016. The deal included a 3 percent lump sum bonus, a wage increase of 14 percent over four years, a shift in the evergreen clause from 10 years to eight years, and some necessary cost shifts on health care that will save taxpayers an estimated $87.5 million over the span of the contract.
But Steele and company want something better. They want to manage their own health insurance at significant additional cost. And again, Brockhouse is their guy. A practical question, then, is how will Brockhouse deliver on a better contract for the fire union amid an obvious tightening of revenue? And what would that mean for the police contract?
Yet another practical question is just what would Brockhouse be willing to cut if that lucrative fire union contract happens? It’s not possible to take in less revenue, or even less-than expected revenue, but then spend more on public safety and also deliver more for neighborhoods. Something has to give, and not just the city’s bond rating. Yet Brockhouse has championed a city property tax cut.
It’s all magical thinking. But magic won’t make those storm clouds looming over the city disappear. If anything, it will make the wind and the rain stronger whenever it arrives.
There are many issues in this campaign — those police reports and what happened to remove one of them from public records, as well as that Chick-fil-A vote by council — but perhaps none is as important as a practical matter of city governance as public safety spending amid a tightening budget. Keep that in mind in the runoff election.