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Mayor Phil Hardberger: 100 days down, 630 to go

Mayor Phil Hardberger made two important decisions even before he was sworn in on June 17 following a contentious election campaign against former Councilmen Julián Castro and Carroll Schubert.

First, he killed the Major League Soccer deal that outgoing Mayor Ed Garza had brokered to occupy the empty Alamodome. Hardberger's reasoning was that the $22 million the MLS wanted the City to front to outfit the dome for professional soccer games was an unwise investment. "I don't know when we would have ever gotten that money back. Probably never, certainly not during my term as mayor."

Mayor Phil Hardberger
(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Secondly, after Garza dismantled the heavy wooden door that he had erected between the mayor's and the city manager's offices, Hardberger replaced the door with woodwork. "Let me show you something," Hardberger says, walking to the doorway. He tapped on it a couple of times, then stepped into a meeting room to discuss an evacuation of the Texas coast with disaster management officials. Indeed, the woodwork that replaced the door makes it appear as though the passageway has always been open.

The first 100 days of Mayor Hardberger's initial term in the mayor's office have been a flurry of activity: crafting the city budget, sheltering thousands of hurricane evacuees, and hiring a new city manager. He took time last week to reflect on the challenges during San Antonio's long, hot summer, not the least of which was to forge a consensus among 10 City Councilmembers to make two critical decisions during the 2005-07 council term.

The previous mayor and city council tried, but failed, to hire Sheryl Sculley as city manager. Former Councilman Castro and second-term Councilwoman Patti Radle objected to paying Sculley a base salary of $265,000 for the top job at City Hall, and Sculley refused to accept any offer unless the Council vote to hire her was unanimous. After the spring elections, second-term Councilman Richard Perez worked quietly behind the scenes to negotiate with Sculley to take the position for less money. She finally agreed, and will move to San Antonio from Phoenix and take over the reins at City Hall in October. "The vote was 9-1-1," Hardberger says. "The City Council worked very well together. I was very happy and proud of that coming so close and the council being of the same mind."

Hardberger's long, hot summer

June: Axed the deal with Major League Soccer

July: Revamped City Council meeting times and schedule

August: Traveled to Japan and China; announced Toyota's plan to invest an additional $50 million in its San Antonio plant

September: Hardberger lead the city in caring for evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; Council passed City budget and hired a new city manager

Hardberger calls Sculley one of the best city managers in the United States, "a true star."

City Council recently adopted a $1.7 billion budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year, which goes into effect October 1. The budget added money for arts funding, street maintenance and repair, job training, and a pumped-up reserve fund, which puts the City in a better ratings bracket for bond issues (a higher bond rating garners lower interest rates when a city issues bonds to raise money for projects such as street maintenance). "It's the biggest budget we've actually had in San Antonio. We were able to pay down some debt, and we got on top of our reserves a little bit," Hardberger says.

Budgets are often a source of disagreements and angry exchanges among councilmembers, who want allotments for their district projects. A budget surplus quelled the potential for animosity, but it remains to be seen how Council will cope with a projected budget shortfall of $22 million in 2006-07.

Hardberger speaks highly of the new City Council, comprised of half second-termers, and half newly elected representatives of the 10 districts. "Nobody is tied to a special interest, none that I can discern, which means they are all independent, and that is so important to forming a team, because if you have somebody who is sold out to a special interest they're never going to get along."

District 3 Councilman Rolando Gutierrez, who is in his first term, says he's pleased with the relationship between Council and Hardberger. "The mayor early on set goals and agenda with every one of us in private," Gutierrez says, including goals for individual districts. "We didn't always agree on everything; I didn't side with the mayor on the city manager. We're all moving in a positive direction. I'm pleased with the way things are going. There used to be a good ol' boy system, but you can't pin that label on this council. Everybody is an independent person."

Whoa, wait a doggone minute, says self-appointed tax watchdog C.A. Stubbs in a recent treatise on the City's budget: "The handful of big-money interests, labor-union members, COPS and Metro Alliance, and other special interests got an early Christmas present, and the other 1.3 million of us got a miserable sock of coal."

"He's making noise about the budget because it's big," Hardberger explains. "If you equate the words 'big' and 'wasteful,' then he's right. But big doesn't mean wasteful, necessarily. The questions I would ask is, Do you have enough money coming in to meet the needs of the budget you're drawing up? The answer to that is, Clearly yes, we do. As long as we can meet legitimate needs, keep soundly in the black, and not raise taxes, that's what we need to do."

But Stubbs counters that Hardberger and Council did raise taxes through property appraisals. "This year's general-fund revenue, paid for by property-tax revenues, fines, fees and City Public Service income is $728 million. Last year was $620 million, which is (about) a 17 percent increase over last year. Phil's not doing anything different than what the rest of them (former mayors) do. That money comes from taxpayers' pockets."

Stubbs says city government typically blames the appraisal districts for setting higher values on taxed properties, but when appraisal-district officials are confronted, they suggest telling the City to lower its property- tax rate. "He told me it was going to be a different situation when he became mayor. He said he would stand tall for taxpayers, but he stood taller for the special interests."

There's more to the mayor's first 100 days than unifying councilmembers for important votes. "I want to get the San Antonio River developed one way or another, to at least connect Brackenridge Park to King William, but not bite off more than we can chew," says Hardberger. There is a plan to extend the River Walk from where it stops at the old Tropicana Hotel (undergoing renovation to its former glory) to the development that's occurring at the Pearl Brewery, which would be about halfway to Brackenridge.

Hardberger says private and public financing could accomplish his goal to extend the River Walk. "It would give us the best linear park in the United States and increase the drawing power of the river ... that would make this City even greater."

But the San Antonio River Authority already oversees the Urban Segment of the Museum Reach Project, part of a $170 million River Improvement Project that would upgrade the river from Lexington Avenue to Joesphine Street near the Pearl Brewery `see "No Dick's need apply," March 17-23, 2005`, and the plans were under way before Hardberger was elected.

In mid-summer, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance Director Annalisa Peace said she was disappointed that nobody from the mayor's office had called her to discuss environmental issues, especially since Hardberger had made protection of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone part of his campaign platform. Last week she said she has met with members of his staff. "He seems to be doing good ... directing his staff to work with us, I have no complaints at this point."

However, Peace says, the litmus test of Hardberger's resolve will come on October 6 when Council votes on a re-zoning case that if passed, would allow a Lowe's to be built over the Recharge Zone. "We oppose that because that kind of high density is not appropriate for the recharge zone. Lowe's does not have a good environmental record. We will see where the new city council's priorities are, we have to see how they do on this vote."

Hardberger says he supports the Alamo Community College District's upcoming $450 million bond issue, up for a vote on November 8. If voters approve the bonds, part of the package would allow San Antonio to address a lack of trained manpower to fill high-tech jobs. The plan calls for implementing a two-year college program through ACCD to train people in tool-and-die making and other "sophisticated things that the industry really needs, and that we don't have. We're not an industrial town, we haven't done much of that sort of thing. We don't have enough people that know how to do those things, and consequently we are losing jobs and subsequently we're losing business."

"I'd love to build in the feeling of early San Antonio, which was an oasis, which was why everybody came here. Urbanization has to some degree wiped that out ... we've been cutting trees and putting cement everywhere we can since then."

Mayor Phil Hardberger

Council recently approved $3 million to fund Project Quest, an existing job- training program. Council urged Project Quest directors to increase the number of students next year from 400 to 700, but Hardberger says job- training programs should accommodate as much as 7,000 residents for Toyota and related manufacturing jobs that officials say are coming to San Antonio.

The North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce doesn't endorse political candidates, but Chamber President and CEO Duane Wilson gives Hardberger high marks so far. "I think he is sending a very positive message to the San Antonio business community, and all of San Antonio. He is able to make decisions and make things happen rather quickly."

Although it hasn't been on the City's radar screen, Hardberger also wants to spruce up the two-block area that includes City Hall, the County Courthouse, and San Fernando Cathedral; and to reconnect the heart of the City that once focused on Plaza de Las Armas and Plaza de Las Islas, or Main Plaza. "I want to tie them together, close some of those streets, so pedestrians can walk from the cathedral, to the courthouse, to the river, without having to dodge cars. I want to make it a park and pedestrian place. There's been good work on the cathedral and the courthouse, but the area does not work. I would like to try to see if we can get that done."

James Aleman supported Hardberger opponent Julián Castro for mayor during the spring election with a $500 donation to his campaign war chest. Aleman refers to Castro as a "young Henry Cisneros," but says he has come to appreciate Hardberger, even though he would support Castro if he runs again for mayor. "To be honest, I have no criticism, not right now. I think he's been very impressive so far, trying to get the city together."

Aleman says he appreciates that Hardberger spearheaded increased funding - up to 12 percent of the Hotel Occupancy Tax - for the city's arts community. "I like the part of him bringing arts back into the city. What he's doing there is excellent ... this city needs more culture, more things going on, there is so much to offer here in San Antonio."

Several San Antonio mayors are known for their accomplishments. Maury Maverick authored an ordinance that led to the construction of the River Walk. Walter McAllister built Highway 281, and Henry Cisneros spurred economic development that 20 years later, led to Toyota's new auto manufacturing plant. Ed Garza will be known for City South and a new Texas A&M campus on the South Side, providing the legislature authorizes its construction.

"I probably would rather be known for leaving a major park system in San Antonio," says Hardberger.

Hardberger cites Chicago and its recently developed linear park system, Millennium Park, formerly a network of railroad lines that was converted to a massive park system. "That's a model for me. It used to be all railroad tracks, ugly as hell. Now people in Chicago will stop you and say 'have you been to Millennium Park?' It's great to see that pride.

"I would like to see a more beautiful San Antonio. It's important to a city, and to individuals," says Hardberger. "I'd love to build in the feeling of early San Antonio, which was an oasis, which was why everybody came here. Urbanization has to some degree wiped that out ... we've been cutting trees and putting cement everywhere we can since then."

By Michael Cary

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