Commentary: Union Challenge Awaits Next Mayor & Council

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The most immediate challenge awaiting the newly-elected mayor and City Council after June 13 is the impasse in collective bargaining talks between the City and the police union, and the refusal of the firefighters union after more than one year to even come to the table.

A quick fix is not the answer. No matter how long it takes, no matter how much the process tests the newly elected mayor and council, the singular goal in mid-2015 should be the same goal set in early 2014: a new contract that is fair to taxpayers and fair to police and firefighters. San Antonio’s public safety personnel already enjoy an excellent pay and benefits package that equals or exceeds what most police and firefighters earn in other major Texas cities.

The goal in 2014, and the goal now, should be to hold public safety spending to 66% of the City’s General Fund, which is the highest percentage of any major city in Texas or the nation (see chart).

Police Fire EMS Budget comparison chart
San Antonio police and firefighters are the only uniformed public safety officials in the state who contribute nothing to the costs of their health care benefits, which means taxpayers pay double to insure police and firefighters what they pay to insure the City’s civilian employees.

The runaway costs of health care for police and firefighters has been a developing issue for years, but it wasn’t until terms limits were relaxed that a mayor was willing to support City Manager Sheryl Sculley and tackle the issue. Mayor Julián Castro’s predecessors had only fours years at most to implement their agendas, and taking on the volatile issue of union benefits in a collective bargaining setting could have untracked all other projects.

Only after he was elected to a third term and had become politically invincible did Mayor Castro agree with Sculley and other city executives that costs were rising so fast they would overwhelm the General Fund by 2030 unless something were done.

Many readers might not recall events in October 2013 when the City’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell delivered an overview briefing to Mayor Castro, City Council and members of the newly formed Mayor’s Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force. The bottom line was simple and stark: control union health care and retirement costs or face the inevitability of cutting other basic services.

Changing retirement benefits and pensions would require action in the Texas Legislature, so the focus was put on controlling health care costs. Less than four months later, in February 2014, the task force delivered its findings and recommendations.

One month later, in March, the PFM Group, nationally-recognized consultants hired by the City, delivered its Public Safety Compensation Analysis to Mayor Castro and the City Council, comparing what San Antonio police and firefighters earned to their peers in other Texas cities. San Antonio might be known as a low wage city, in general, but the report showed the city’s police and firefighters earn a total compensation package near or equal to the best in state. Factor in the city’s low housing costs, and the total pay was even more attractive.

That same month, Castro and City Council voted unanimously to adopt the task force findings and to use them as a guide in collective bargaining talks, set to start in April and conclude by the end of June with a new contract agreed upon in advance of the Sept. 30, 2014 expiration of the existing five-year contract. Union representatives on the task force, however, issued a minority report and declined to attend the task force presentation to City Council.

That marked the beginning of what has become a protracted standoff between the City and the police union after City negotiators proposed contract changes that included police union members paying monthly insurance premiums for the first time, just as their peers do in every other Texas city. The firefighters watched from the sidelines, refusing to bargain to this day.

Negotiating teams for the City and police union met six times, but made little progress as tensions mounted with each meeting. By the end of April, the police union had fired its lead negotiator and hired national union powerhouse Ron DeLord, a Georgetown attorney whose negotiating demeanor swung from folksy cracker barrel charm one minute to hardened ultimatums the next. DeLord is the co-author of what is still regarded as the textbook for unions mounting a successful political and public relations campaign to win concessions at the bargaining table.

(Read more: Police Union Power, Politics and Confrontation in the 21st century.)

Ron DeLord, the police union’s lead negotiator, during the contract negotiations on Tuesday, March 31. Photo by Scott Ball.Ron DeLord, the police union’s lead negotiator, during the contract negotiations on Tuesday, March 31. Photo by Scott Ball.
Two of three scheduled meetings in May were canceled by DeLord, and in mid-June, talks broke down.

Mayor Castro, meanwhile, had become less and less of a presence in San Antonio, spending almost every weekend in Washington D.C. or elsewhere as he prepared to become the next Secretary of Housing & Urban Development in the Obama administration.

On July 22, Castro resigned as mayor and City Council elected Ivy Taylor as interim mayor to serve out the remainder of Castro’s third term in office. Two days later, the police union intensified its attack campaign targeting City Manager Sculley, calling for her dismissal even as collective bargaining talks remained suspended throughout the summer. Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, appeared in a bizarre video comparing the police union’s position to the Defenders of the Alamo, predicting that if San Antonio fell, every other U.S. city would follow.

Mayor Taylor, seeking to sound a more conciliatory note, invited the police union back to table in early August. Her invitation did little to quell the union’s personal attacks, but five meetings were held between late September and early November. The talks reached impasse again on Nov. 3 over disputed financial projections, with City negotiators challenging the union’s vague financial assumptions when compared to the City’s detailed projections vetted by third-party experts.

Mayor Ivy Taylor thanks Tommy Adkisson for his endorsement. Photo by Iris DimmickMayor Ivy Taylor thanks Tommy Adkisson for his endorsement on May 22, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick
The City, frustrated at what it saw as the union team’s bargaining in bad faith, filed a lawsuit on Nov. 7, 2014 challenging the 10-year evergreen clause in the contract, a concession the unions had won years earlier that kept all benefits in place for up to 10 years after expiration of their contract. Such clauses typically cover 30-90 days and are intended to serve as an incentive for the unions to bargain, but the City’s lawsuit said the 10-year term served as a disincentive.

The attacks against Sculley continued, and by early December, Taylor was attempting without much luck to cool tempers by calling for a “holiday truce.” By January 2015, the unanimity Castro had forged on the council had evaporated and five council members attempted to challenge the City’s decision to file the lawsuit. Taylor blocked the move, but individual council members who had pledged to Castro that they would not meet privately with union officials to discuss the collective bargaining were now doing so.

The divided council was now falling victim to DeLord’s game plan laid out in his book as if they were players in a movie following a script. Police union officials and supporters, meanwhile questioned the fealty to law enforcement of anyone who challenged their bargaining position.

Mayor Ivy Taylor calls for and end to personal attacks during the police union contract negotiations. Photo by Iris Dimmick.Mayor Ivy Taylor calls for and end to personal attacks during the police union contract negotiations in December 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

In late January, three national financial firms hired to scrutinize the competing health care proposals put on the bargaining table by the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association appeared before City Council and strongly affirmed the City’s financial practices and projections, praised its coveted AAA credit rating, and warned that the union’s proposal would drive up wage and benefits costs by $76.8 million over the life of a three-years contract.
(Read more: Independent Reviews Support City Vs. Police Union.)

The financial reports represented an across-the-board affirmation of the fiscal management of Sculley and her staff. Afterwards, Helle, who had narrowly won re-election as the police union president, rejected the third-party presentations and said the union would soon release its own independent financial analysis. That report never materialized.

The City’s proposed wage and benefits plan, the independent reviews confirmed, would cost an additional $28.5 million over the life of a three-year contract and keep public safety costs at 66% of the General Fund. The union proposal would cost $48.3 million more than the City plan and would elevate public safety spending to 69% of the General Fund. That assumes the firefighters would receive the same wage and benefits package as police.

Both sides agreed to a series of meetings in late February and March, and expressed hope that an agreement could be reached by March 31. The City improved its offer three times as the two sides met, and even agreed to drop its demand that police officers pay monthly insurance premiums, arguably the most significant concession of the now year-old bargaining process.

Even that would not prove enough to win a deal. The tight race for mayor became an invisible but obvious presence at the negotiating table. On March 24, one week before the police union was scheduled to come to the table with its own proposal to finalize a contract, former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte appeared on the steps of City Hall, surrounded by Helle and union officials and supporters, and accepted the union’s endorsement of her for mayor.

Leticia Van de Putte accepts the endorsement for her mayoral campaign from the police union on the steps of City Hall on March 24, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.Leticia Van de Putte accepts the endorsement for her mayoral campaign from the police union on the steps of City Hall on March 24, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
One week later, DeLord and Helle appeared at the March 31 negotiating session only to inform the City’s negotiating team that they would not be offering a counter-proposal to the City’s series of concessions and would not accept the City’s offer. For the third time, the talks came to an end without an agreement. The two sides have yet to meet again.

Throughout the campaign season, Van de Putte has steadfastly insisted that she offered nothing in return for the police union endorsement or the firefighters endorsement that followed later.

(Read more: After an Endorsement, Police Union Adopts Wait-and-See Strategy.)

City Hall has been a house divided since Castro’s departure in July. It rejected VIA’s streetcar project in the face of a petition drive fueled in part by firefighters. It argued for months over regulations for rideshare services Uber and Lyft, clearly influenced by the taxi lobby, and it divided on the merits of various development projects.

For all the political attacks and disinformation of the last 18 months, the simple fact remains that only the fair resolution is an agreement that holds public safety spending at 66% of the budget, the highest percentage of any major city in Texas or the nation.

Taxpayers will soon learn whether their newly elected mayor and City Council are prepared to demonstrate the leadership necessary to achieve that goal. They can do so simply by taking two-steps, in tandem, after the mayor and new council are sworn in on June 24: reaffirm their unanimous support for the current offer on the table, and move to renew City Manager Sculley’s contract now rather than waiting until the end of 2015 when it expires. While there is room to negotiate an end to the lawsuit in return for union concessions on the length of the evergreen clause, sending the signal that city staff enjoys the unequivocal support of the mayor and council would be the single most effective way to bring the union to the table.

There are too many other pressing issues facing San Antonio for the city’s elected officials to waste another year distracted by a standoff with the police and firefighters.

*Top image: San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle (center) and Ron DeLord, the police union’s lead negotiator (right) during the contract negotiations on Tuesday, March 31. Photo by Scott Ball.

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