Negotiators for the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association inched closer to a collective bargaining agreement on Friday, and while several wage and benefits issues remain unresolved, both sides expressed hope that a deal will be reached when they next meet on March 31.
The talks began in March 2014 after a Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force seated in 2013 by former Mayor Julián Castro concluded in its report that runaway health care costs for San Antonio’s 2,375 uniformed police officers and 1,663 firefighters could not be sustained, and threatened the stability of the General Fund and the City’s AAA credit rating. Progress in the talks in recent weeks has come as the City had improved its wage and benefits offers three times now while seeking to keep public safety spending at 66% or less of the $1.1 billion general fund budget.
Once again on Friday, the City came to the table with an enhanced offer, this time upping the wage increase from 9.5% to 10.8% over the proposed four-year contract, including a onetime 2% bonus upon contract ratification by union members, and raises of 3% on Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, a 2.8% raise on Oct. 1, 2016 and a 3% raise on Oct. 1, 2017. The police union has asked for 13.4% increases in wages over that time, and an actual wage increase rather than a onetime lump sum payment once it agrees on the new contract.
A larger wage-related issue is the union’s demand to change longevity pay. Currently, uniform officers receive an additional 3% wage increase for every five years of service, a benefit that is capped at six increases, or 18%, over a 30-year career. The union wants an equivalent of an across-the-board 2.4% longevity wage increase to be paid in the third year of the new contract and henceforth, longevity increases of .75% every year for 24 years. That adds up to the same overall 18% career increase. By changing the time frame, however, the cost to the City would be much higher. Neither side provided figures gauging the budget impact of that proposal.
“The City is not interested in the longevity proposal,” said Houston attorney Jeff Londa, the City’s lead negotiator. “The longevity clause in the contract is already the best in Texas.”
The City also improved its proposed health care plan, offering to reduce premiums for dependents on union members who chose the so-called Consumer Choice plan, which offers a less-rich benefits package than the Value Plan. Both plans now offer all union members premium-free coverage, representing the City’s biggest single concession in these talks. Convincing the unions to pay monthly premiums and a greater share of their health care costs was the centerpiece of City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s plan to manage runaway costs. Under Friday’s revised proposal, union members who chose the Consumer Choice plan would see dependent premiums reduced for both spouses and children. Monthly premiums ranged from $93.60 to $228.20 in the last proposal, and now are $66 to $161.
With the City’s offer of a $2,000 Health Savings Account to union members who select the Consumer Choice plan, the tax-free health savings account will cover more than 100% of dependent premium costs. The union also won City concessions to cap the maximum out-of-pocket expenses, although union members would face higher out-of-pocket costs if they use out-of-network practitioners and services.
“We think this is a good combination,” Londa said of the latest wage and benefits proposal. “We’d like to hammer out wages and health care today and return to address these other items on the 31st.”
Those other items include the City’s proposal to cap continuing education reimbursements, which are open-ended now; eventual elimination of a union legal fund for members’ private legal costs that is wholly funded by the City; extending the length of service for police vehicles before they are replaced; and elimination or reduction in the 10-year evergreen clause that keeps in place all contract benefits for as long as a decade if the two sides can’t reach agreement on a new deal. The last five-year contract expired on Sept. 30, triggering the evergreen clause, and the City subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking to render the clause unconstitutional. That litigation is pending and no state district judge seems eager to proceed on the matter.
Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord, the police union’s lead negotiator, and SAPOA President Mike Helle listened to the city’s latest proposal and then took the union team into caucus for an hour. The animosity that characterized the talks last year has given way to a more relaxed, business-like approach by both sides, and even in the informal press conferences after the talks, both sides have tempered their rhetoric.
Still, when the parties returned to the table, the police union held out for more. It had previously stated the City’s refusal to meet its higher wage demand would cause the union to suspend talks and await the outcome of the May 9 City Election.
“I don’t see any way to reach a deal today,” DeLord said. “We are closer and closer, but not close enough yet. We have a date on the 31st. That may be the finish date.”
DeLord said the City’s health care proposals and other contractual changes represent “a monumental shift” for union members.
“I think we’re close, and we think we’ve given you the kind of wage plan and health care plan that we can sell,” DeLord said, suggesting the union wants further City concessions. Whether any will be forthcoming is uncertain. A member of the City’s bargaining team said the newest wage and benefits proposal would actually take public safety spending to 66.2% of the budget next year.
“The wage increases we have offered more than offset the additional costs of health care,” Londa said afterwards.
DeLord said the union was content to set aside its insistence that the lawsuit over the evergreen clause be dropped as part of any new agreement, and now is willing to take its chances with the courts.
“We are okay going to court. We can win it all, or we can lose it all…I don’t see getting bogged down in all that,” DeLord said. He rejected the City’s proposal to cap education costs, and said continuing education is part of a police officer’s career development. He didn’t say if he agreed with the City that officers would be limited to taking courses related to their professional development rather than pursuit of post-retirement careers in other fields.
Londa and DeLord also discussed the ramifications of reaching a deal when the firefighters union, which traditionally agrees to the same wage and benefits package, has yet to come to the table. Londa said that was a real issue hanging over the talks, which caused DeLord to offer a little wisdom drawn from the Old Testament.
“Even the poor son cast out into the wilderness came back home one day and they killed a calf for him, and gave him a coat of many colors,” DeLord said, suggesting the firefighters will continue to let the police union do the bargaining and then agree to the same contract terms.
*Featured/top image: Houston attorney Jeff Londa, the City’s lead negotiator, addresses media after Friday’s negotiation meeting with SAPOA. Photo by Robert Rivard.