Henry Cisneros wasted no time in the new year as the newly-installed chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and held a Monday press conference calling on San Antonio police, firefighters, and the City to return to the negotiating table over a new collective bargaining agreement.
Negotiations on the unions’ health care costs reached an impasse late last year after five-year contracts with the police and firefighters expired on Sept. 30, although an evergreen clause in the contract keeps current benefits in place for 10 years in the event the two unions cannot reach agreement with the City on a new contract.
The City of San Antonio filed lawsuits against the unions in November, seeking a declaratory judgment that the unusually long evergreen clause is unconstitutional.
“We express strong respect for the public safety function and for our city’s public safety personnel,” he said. “These are people who take personal risks as no other employees do – of the city, or for that matter, the community – to protect us.
“It is the first duty of local government to protect the good order of the community and residents – we rely on public safety personnel to do that,” he said.
As the Chairman-elect of the Chamber last year, Cisneros studied and evaluated the issues very carefully, conducting community surveys among fewer than 1,000 people to determine public opinion on how the City should move forward with police and fire union negotiations.
“The public wants a solution that’s fair to both sides – that’s the clear import of what (the public) at large believes today,” he said.
Cisneros announced that the Chamber purchased an ad to run in tomorrow’s San Antonio Express-News as well as airtime on key radio outlets to air the message about the desire to return to the table for talks.
He said he talked to City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her team, the members of the police negotiating team, and the heads of the San Antonio Police Officers Association and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, drawing from those conversations enough common ground that “once they get back into negotiation, they’ll be able to hammer out some reasonable compromise,” he said.
He also offered support of Mayor Ivy Taylor, stating that she’s shown personal strength, good judgment and backbone on political matters in the short time that she’s been mayor. Her “call for better third-party numbers is appropriate,” he said.
The talks are sure to be contentious. At present, the City must foot the bill for health care for public safety employees amid rising health care costs.
Cisneros said he was led to believe through personal discussions that there would be a way to share costs and that some accommodations or calibration needs to be made regarding what proportion of the budget should go to public safety and what is available for other critical costs, from the airport to the convention center, streets, library, and more.
“Over the years, the contracts have grown in a way that there are extraneous benefits outside the norm that can be addressed,” he said. “In talking with the principles, there is some flexibility on these questions … it can be done on a phased basis rather than a single contract to reach a long-term goal. The City’s best interests are served if everyone is back at the table negotiating in good faith looking at third-party numbers. The Mayor has called for an independent analysis in getting good third-party numbers.
“A great city must be fiscally strong. San Antonio is a well-managed city. We have a respected mayor and City Council and nationally-respected city management, particularly at the level of having gained that strength is because of the fiscal strength of the city, with its AAA bond rating, designed to protect all San Antonio residents,” Cisneros said.
It is essential to provide generous benefits in order to attract people to San Antonio and fulfill demanding roles in the City’s public safety departments as firefighters and policemen, he said.
Cisneros said both sides will need to give something up over a period of time. Whether an agreement can be reached by the May 9 election is unknown.
Cisneros served as mayor of San Antonio from 1981-89 when the police and firefighter unions won many of the health care, pension and special pay benefits their members now enjoy. The rising costs associated with those benefits has become the central issue in trying to reach agreement on a new contract, one that would have union members pay health care premiums for the first time and make other concessions designed to keep public safety spending at 66% of the City’s general budget.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Chairman Henry Cisneros spoke to reporters Monday afternoon about continuing police and fire union negotiations. Photo by Katherine Nickas.
For more coverage of the police and fire union talks, click here.