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Value streets, parks and other city services? Reject fire’s charter changes

August 19, 2018

It was always a tall order to convince a judge to keep the fire union’s proposed charter amendments off the November ballot.

Yes, there are serious questions as to whether the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association violated state law in how it funded its signature gathering. These are questions that will need to be resolved. However, booting the charter amendments off the ballot also would have disregarded tens of thousands of signatures from city residents.

District Court Judge Cathy Stryker found a reasonable balance in rejecting a temporary restraining order to block the proposed charter changes from the ballot but allowing the case to move forward. There is that question of whether the fire union violated state law. It needs to be answered.

We realize this view is cold comfort for Secure San Antonio’s Future, the political action committee that sought the temporary restraining order to keep the charter changes off the ballot. And it’s cold comfort for anyone concerned about the long-term chaos these changes could bring to San Antonio.

The first charter change would limit any future city manager’s salary to 10 times the lowest-paid city employee and cap the city manager’s tenure to eight years. It would not apply to City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Another would give the fire union the sole right to declare an impasse in contract negotiations, forcing the city to binding arbitration. The third proposal would reduce the number of signatures needed for a referendum from 75,000 to 20,000 and allow for referendums on appropriations, taxes and utility rates.

The ratings agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor’s have warned San Antonio voters these changes will likely trigger credit downgrades, which would mean millions more in borrowing costs.

More recently, in a presentation to City Council, Steve Nivin, who chairs the economics department at St. Mary’s University, warned how these changes could trigger a climate of business uncertainty that could slow growth. Even the slightest slowdown in economic growth — say, 0.1 percent — could cost the city nearly $18 million a year in general fund revenue, he said. Other estimates were significantly higher.

In essence, this is the dollar figure of lost opportunity. Companies may not expand in or move to a city where any decision is subject to voter referendum and top talent may not want to work. Imagine the consequences in a recession.

What does this mean in practical terms? It could mean higher taxes and fees as the city attempts to find other revenues to make up for increased borrowing costs and slower economic growth. It could mean cuts to nonessential services over time — street maintenance, parks and recreation, public swimming pools, animal care and funding for the arts — to cover public safety costs.

The city’s proposed 2019 budget includes $110 million in street maintenance. That likely gets slashed in a future with these charter changes.

In his public comments, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has often focused on the hit to the city’s triple-A bond rating, a distinction it has held for nine straight years. But he’s going to need to move beyond that message and become the city’s explainer in chief. He needs to show voters what a credit downgrade means for their daily lives. He needs to talk about pools and parks and community.

The rest of council will have to do the same at neighborhood and community meetings.

These proposed changes are so serious, and yet worded in such a benign fashion, that unlikely allies will need to be formed to really unpack the repercussions. Specifically, this means having the business community and Texas Organizing Project work together to get the word out.

Yes, the two were on opposite (and heated) sides of required sick pay. But City Council has passed that measure, which won’t take effect until August. It’s firmly in the state’s hands. The business community and TOP need to see this for what it is, and work together in opposition to the fire union’s proposed charter changes.

Voting for the proposed changes is a vote to make this community poorer and less competitive. In no way do these charter changes serve the people or advance the community. That’s not the fire union’s goals with these amendments.