Negotiators representing the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association held collective bargaining talks Friday, the first such face-to-face meeting since Nov. 3. The City, which is seeking significant concessions to reduce runaway health care costs, offered an improved wage package and a contract that would run for four years, one year longer than its previous offer.
The City’s proposal includes a 9.5% in wages over the four-year life of the contract. Police officers would receive a lump sum bonus equal to 2% upon signing of a new collective bargaining agreement. Wages would then increase by 2% in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, 2015, another 2.5% in fiscal year 2017, and 3% in fiscal year 2018.
The city’s health care plan would require all union members to pay monthly premiums. Union members currently do not pay any premiums and contribute very little to other health care costs. The issue has been the major sticking point between the two sides since talks first started last April. The City would spend $11,300 per uniformed employee under its proposed plan, less than the $20,000 per employee it would face without any changes, yet far above the $7,700 it currently spends on its civilian employees. In addition to the better wage offer, the City moved from its prior position that annual health care costs not exceed $10,000 per union member.
City officials said Friday that the enhanced wage package would add $56.9 million over the city’s current fiscal year 2015 budget, but would hold public safety spending at the 66% of the general budget threshold. That assumed the firefighters union, which has not yet come to the bargaining table, would accept whatever wage and benefits package the police union agrees to accept.
Both sides hired actuaries to help arrive at more accurate projected health care costs, each side presenting its own proposal and projections while also scrutinizing what was put forward by the other side. Houston attorney Jeff Londa, the City’s chief negotiator, said the cost to cover each employee was a number that both sides seemed to be closer in the way of agreement.
“We’d like to jump-start negotiations and get something done,” Londa said. Indeed, it marked the City’s attempt to break an impasse that has included Mayor Ivy Taylor expressing hope that a new agreement could be reached by March and the firefighters’ union not yet accepting an invitation to begin talks on their new contract.
The current five-year pact for both unions expired on Sept. 30, but a 10-year evergreen clause keeps those pact terms in place. The presence of the lengthy evergreen clause prompted the city to file suit against both unions in an effort to get the clause declared unconstitutional. Union leaders have demanded the City withdraw the lawsuit, calling it a gesture of bad faith while others see it as a bargaining chip to get the unions to agree to a new contract. It now appears the suit will not be heard by a state district judge before summer, so both sides pushed to get back to talking.
The City’s negotiators also offered to phase out a public-safety legal fund over three years rather than end it completely, and to capping tuition reimbursements.
Taken together, the longer contract, enhanced wage offer, improved health care package, and legal fund reflect a growing urgency on the part of Mayor Taylor and the council members to bring the talks to a satisfactory conclusion well before the May 9 elections. A new contract would alow City staff to focus on other important matters and would remove the issue from the campaign.
Both sides, however, continue to wrangle over their respective employee enrollment assumptions, and the differences between proposed coverage plan structures. These are factors that appear to be increasing the overall projected health care coverage costs.
“We need access to the information that will help us to determine what is driving up those costs,” said police union President Mike Helle said Friday, referring to line-item health care data held by the city.
Londa said the union’s negotiators have had access to all City data all along. Regardless, there was no agreement on the accepted number to use for the health coverage part of a new contract.
Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord, the union’s lead negotiator, said he appreciated the city’s offer.
“I think when the city pares down its earlier laundry list of proposals, that makes us a little more flexible to move,” DeLord added. “I think it’s movement. I don’t think we’ll get a deal done by (the next scheduled meeting on Thursday, Feb. 26) but we’re moving forward.”
DeLord said union members also want to strike a deal and end the long standoff. He acknowledged that health plans need to be restructured, but he remained skeptical of the City’s financial assumptions.
“We’re looking for certainty in our costs,” responded Erik Walsh, deputy city manager. “We want to make structural changes and give employees more options.”
Helle said he and the union would not disagree with that point, but that another point of contention – the lawsuit over the evergreen clause – has angered many rank-and-file union members.
“We feel our proposals are validated by our assumptions, but those proposals were met with a lawsuit,” Helle said. “It has created a ripple effect.”
“Let’s crunch the money and figure out a cost, and who pays for what and when,” DeLord added.
Following the meeting, Londa addressed reporters, saying both sides tried to put aside differences on how to best to fund care for uniformed officers at an acceptable rate in favor of achieving consensus first on everything else in a new contract.
“We do have an objective with health care concerns that go beyond the cost in the first year,” Londa added.
Helle also talked to reporters, saying that while he appreciated the mayor’s pronounced desire for a deal to be done by March, he criticized city leaders for filing the lawsuits. He said the law suit has created anxiety for union members.
“My challenge is to temper that so we can move forward,” he added.
*Featured/top image: Negotiating teams from the City (left) and the San Antonio Police Officers Association (right) before their latest meeting on collective bargaining Friday. In forefront left is Jeff Londa with the city; in forefront right is Ron DeLord with the union. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.