Book Review: Greedy Bastards: One City’s Texas-Sized Struggle to Avoid a Financial Crisis

Greedy Bastards is a surprising title for a book about public administration. And for a book about public administration, it is a surprisingly compelling story.

Calling it a book about public administration, however, may be misleading. Greedy Bastards: One City’s Texas-Sized Struggle to Avoid a Financial Crisis, tells a dramatic story of a city manager’s efforts to take on San Antonio’s powerful police and fire unions and rein in the costs of public safety employee benefits.

One of the ironies of the story is that the author and protagonist, former San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, is by no means an anti-union crusader. In fact, she grew up in a union household in northwestern Indiana. Her father was a linotype operator and an active member of the local typographical union.

The first part of the book tells the story of how Sculley, then serving as an assistant city manager in Phoenix, the largest city in the U.S. with a council-manager form of government, was recruited by San Antonio, the second largest city manager city.

Initially, she resisted the offer, happy with her job in Phoenix, a five-time All-America City winner. But San Antonio’s newly elected Mayor Phil Hardberger and other local officials, convinced her to take the job.

Her tenure began in 2005. Although the start date for her new job had not arrived, Sculley spent Labor Day weekend helping coordinate the relief effort in San Antonio, where Mayor Hardberger, a former special advisor to LBJ’s Office of Economic Opportunity, had volunteered to host tens of thousands of flood refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

Early on, Sculley was faced with a tough dilemma. In a sting operation, it had been discovered that hundreds of city employees were surfing porn on their work computers. The city’s executive leadership team recommended mass firings, but the new manager discovered that the city had no written policy governing the use of technology on the job, so she felt it would be unfair.

Instead, she helped the city develop strict policies about technology use and warned employees that violations would henceforth result in termination.

But the real challenge came when Sculley came to believe that the city’s very generous benefits package for public safety employees set the city on course for fiscal disaster. The police and firefighters and their dependents enjoyed full health care benefits with no employee share when it came to the cost of premiums.

The grueling, six-year struggle over the union contracts is the main story of the book, which readers can discover for themselves. Suffice to say that police and fire unions are very powerful in most cities, and San Antonio was no exception. (In his introduction to the book, former Mayor Hardberger refers to it as “San Antonio’s version of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.”)

But the struggle did not prevent the city from implementing innovative programs such as the ambitious SA2020 strategic visioning process, one of the projects that earned San Antonio an All-America City Award in 2018. Or Pre-K 4 SA, an effort led by Mayor Julian Castro to provide citywide access to early childhood education programs. (During Sculley’s years as city manager, San Antonio won four All-America City Awards.)

“Whether you’re an elected official, a resident, or a city employee,” writes Sculley, “I hope that my story will give you the insight, knowledge, and tools to guide your city through the complicated process of an organizational turnaround. And I hope your rewards will be as amazing as those reaped in San Antonio.”

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