City manager: Variety of incentive pay driving up cost of public safety

Higher education adds hundreds of dollars to base salaries

According to San Antonio city officials the cost of public safety is rising, and not just because of healthcare and retirement.
According to San Antonio city officials the cost of public safety is rising, and not just because of healthcare and retirement.

Incentive pay is adding to the rising cost of public safety, San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Scully said Thursday.

Much of the ongoing debate over the city's growing public safety budget has focused on healthcare and pension benefits for active duty police officers and firefighters, but Sculley said a variety of incentives also adds to those costs.

"I think (the unions) understand that changes need to be made, I know nobody wants to give up anything, but that was then. We know what's affordable today and what is happening today is certainly not sustainable for the future.

For example, under the current collective bargaining agreements, which expire on Sept. 30, active duty public safety personnel can add hundreds of dollars each month to their base salary by obtaining a college degree.

Police officers receive $215 per month for an associate's degree, $315 for a bachelor's, $335 for a masters, and $350 for a doctorate.

Firefighters receive $185 for an associate's, $290 for a bachelor's, and $310 for a doctoral degree.

The city also pays for higher education for its active duty uniformed personnel through tuition reimbursement.

There is no cap on the amount a police officer and firefighter can receive and the money can be used for any college course, regardless of subject.

Sculley said the city paid approximately $364,000 in tuition reimbursements for police officers in 2013.

The reimbursement is based on performance.

Receiving an A in a course results in a 100 percent reimbursement, a B results in a 90 percent reimbursement, a C results in 80 percent reimbursement. Personnel who fail a course receive no reimbursement.

Other peer cities such as Austin and Houston offer tuition reimbursements to police officers and firefighters.

San Antonio also provides tuition reimbursement for its civilian employees, but at levels different than active duty personnel.

Sculley said she supports higher education and that the program is not without merit.

She said changes to the system, as well as healthcare and pension benefits, must be discussed if the city is to stabilize public safety costs, which already takes up approximately 66 percent of the city's $988 million general fund.

"These agreements were put in place 25 years ago and they've only been modified very slightly during that time frame," Sculley said. "We certainly have a challenge with what was done before, but I wasn't here then. I can tell you though that it is no longer affordable at those levels today."

Union representatives were unavailable for comment on the story.