SAN ANTONIO – Negotiators with the city and its public safety unions are no longer at the collective bargaining table, but they have a date in court coming up.
The city is seeking a judicial ruling on whether the 10-year “evergreen clause” included in the police and firefighters unions collective bargaining agreements are constitutional. The clause keeps the terms of the now-expired agreements in effect until 2024.
City attorneys will argue that leaving the evergreen clause in place for a decade will create an unfunded debt, which violates the state’s constitution.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley has said for more than a year that police officers and firefighters would have to start paying for their health care, but the evergreen clause keeps the city’s contribution at current levels.
City Council members recently voted to strip out more than $14.2 million in funding for road projects in order to pay for the rising cost of public-safety health care.
St. Mary’s University law professor Michael Ariens said the city has a compelling argument.
“Most courts have found that evergreen clauses go too far and, in general, they do focus on the problem of debt,” said Ariens. “There are certain constitutional limitations on debt and this evergreen clause … means there is going to be more expense, thus the possibility for higher debt. That’s the constitutional issue.”
But Ariens said the unions also have a valid argument.
“The unions’ argument is the manager of the city knew what was going on. Nobody required the city to sign the deal in 2009 that included this (clause),” he said.
The complaint filed by the city also asks the judge to declare the collective bargaining agreements expired and/or terminable at the will of the city. A ruling in the city’s favor could jeopardize other portions of the agreement such as promotions, wages, training, and rank.
“What the city appears to be doing by its complaint is create at least the possibility, maybe even the threat, that if this is held unconstitutional then everything is gone,” Ariens said. “I view this as an empty threat, but it remains a possibility because it’s unclear.”
Concerns that their entire agreement could be scrapped led police union President Michael Helle to make a stark warning Tuesday: “I’d venture to say that they’ll probably gut (the agreements) and they’ll probably change a lot of things in there that are going to make a lot of people on this department think twice about working here.”