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A vote to make San Antonio poorer

August 25, 2018

A vote for the fire union’s proposed charter changes this fall is a vote to make San Antonio poorer and less competitive.

This is the simple, basic truth. Don’t lose sight of it amid the swirling politics of distraction. It is a vote to make the community poorer.

To say anything else is to muddle the message.

To say the voters need to be educated about the charter changes is to speak with condescension.

To argue the merits and strengths of City Manager Sheryl Sculley is to play on the turf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association. That’s a branding debate the union has mostly won in its ongoing contract dispute with the city.

To dwell on the slippery slope of a credit downgrade is to get lost in the weeds of dull technicalities. Yes, the ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, have said these changes could lead to a credit downgrade, which would cost San Antonio millions a year in borrowing costs. But anyone concerned about borrowing costs and maintaining a triple-A bond rating already knows this. To the unconcerned, bond ratings and borrowing costs are invisible forces and abstractions.

Whereas the proposed charter changes appear deceptively simple, they are as abstract as cement and just as heavy.

One would limit any future city manager’s salary to 10 times the lowest-paid city employee — or $290,000, which is a lot of money, but not enough to attract top talent for such an important job. It would also limit the next city manager’s tenure to eight years.

Another would reduce the signature threshold for referendums from 75,000 to 20,000 and open the door for votes on appropriations, taxes and utility rates.

A third charter change would give the fire union the sole right to declare an impasse in contract talks and force binding arbitration.

Probably few of us really know what that means, but most of us love firefighters. I do. They are the ones who run into burning buildings. They’ve let my kids climb on their trucks. They seem like really good people who deserve the best contract the city can afford.

The charter changes’ message is simple. It’s open government for the people, by the people. But with a sweetener — a chance to stick it to a city and a manager at times accused of heavy-handedness.

The complexities, of course, are very real. These changes will only apply to the next city manager, not Sculley or her $475,000 base salary. Voters already have a direct say in government — they can vote out the mayor and council if they are unhappy. Even the slightest slow down in growth could cost the city tens of millions of dollars a year. Why, just read the report from Steve Nivin, an economist with St. Mary’s University. ...

But, see, the argument is already slipping. Heck, you might already be tempted to move on to the sports section or get a second cup of coffee. What do Rich Lowry and Maria Anglin have to say?

Before you go, remember, these charter changes will make this city poorer and less competitive.

How? It’s a vote that could mean fewer paved roads and could close city pools. It’s a vote that likely sends companies to Austin or Houston. It’s a vote that undermines any new contract for the fire union. It’s a vote to become poorer.

Don’t vote to become poorer. That’s the kind of message that should break through, even with motivated voters who might only be paying attention to the top of the ticket.

If it doesn’t, it will be because Mayor Ron Nirenberg can’t make the case. Because his chief rival at the city, District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who is no fan of Sculley’s and has consulted for the fire union, will linger in indecision when the moment calls for a boldness to match his political aspiration. Because the business community and Texas Organizing Project won’t partner with one another due to the recent dustup over mandatory sick leave. Because groups that have had bitter disputes with the city of San Antonio — the Hays Street Bridge crowd comes to mind — will say, the city has reaped what it has sowed.

If that’s what comes to pass, we will get the city we deserve.

jbrodesky@express-news.net

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