The collective bargaining talks between the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association came to a tense and abrupt halt Thursday afternoon as both parties left the negotiating table without so much as a handshake or fare-thee-well. The two sides were scheduled to meet for two days of continuous bargaining Thursday and Friday, but the negotiating room was empty by 3 p.m. Thursday and neither side plans to return Friday or any other time in the near future.
Hopes for agreement on a new, five-year contract are dead for now, and the two sides are likely headed for the courthouse to settle their differences in litigation that will be costly, time-consuming and ultimately left unresolved until the matter reaches the Texas Supreme Court. A good-faith bargaining agreement signed in March that set an end-of-June deadline for a new contract now seems all but forgotten.
With Mayor Julián Castro increasingly absent from the city and bound for Washington next month for hearings on his nomination as President Obama’s next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the brinkmanship is sure to test City Council unity and resolve on the issue. The 10 council members will gather later this summer to choose among their own ranks to elect an interim mayor to serve out the last year of Castro’s unexpired term leading up to a new election in May 2015.
The Castro-led council has supported City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s call to rein in rising health care costs by negotiating new police and firefighter contracts that cap costs at the current 66.5 percent of the city’s general fund. That will require cutting about $20 million annually out of the contract, Houston attorney Jeff Londa, representing the city, said Thursday.
The current contract, an extension of benefits first won by the unions in the controversial and much-criticized 1984 contract, expires on Sept. 30, 2014, but a so-called evergreen clause keeps the current level of benefits in place once the two sides reach impasse for as long as 10 years. Such clauses found in contracts in other cities typically extend for 30 – 90 days and serve as a mechanism to bring negotiating parties back to the table.
Thursday’s talks began to unravel when Londa told Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord, representing the police union, that the city now regards that clause as “unconstitutional, illegal, and void.”
Londa, citing language found in an amendment to the contract, told DeLord that city officials now intend to cancel existing police and firefighter health care benefits programs and enroll uniformed personnel in the same program offered to civilian employees on Oct. 1, 2014. Although there are several levels of benefits programs offered to civilian employees, all of the options offer less comprehensive coverage and carry more out-of-pocket expenses for enrollees and their dependents. Currently, police and firefighters pay no premiums at all, and pay reduced copays and minimum contributions to overall medical costs for themselves and dependents.
That contract language cited by Londa, which had not surfaced in negotiations until Thursday, gives city officials the power to reduce health care benefits if City Council determines that it cannot continue to fund a given level of funding. That assertion will be sure to be tested in the courts.
The day began with a union presentation of a revised proposal of its previous offering, which called on the city to contribute $32 million a year to a union-controlled health care trust fund. That proposal was summarily rejected by city negotiators when first presented. Under the union’s revised proposal presented Thursday, the city would still contribute $29 million annually to a city-controlled, jointly-managed fund for uniformed personnel health care benefits.
After a closed-door caucus to consider the offer, city negotiators returned with a swift rejection. Londa said the core issue on the table was how to manage uniformed personnel health care costs, currently at $12 – 13,000 a year per employee and rising, down to the $7,000 cost for civilian employees, a figure that has been successfully managed down in recent years.
DeLord said the union’s new offer would save the city $5.5 million a year, which Londa challenged before noting that the two sides needed to find $15-20 million in annual savings.
“We need to get the 12 or 13 down to seven,” Londa said, rejecting the latest union offer. “The hard work in solving the problem with the plan is setting premiums and setting benefits, and the union is not doing that.”
“We are not moving to the civilian plan,” DeLord declared. “I told you that from the first day and we’re not going to do that.”
DeLord said there were “a lot of trust issues, I’m not going to call any names,” but during a break he lambasted City Manager Sheryl Sculley by name in an interview with reporters, criticizing her own compensation package and that paid to her senior staff.
“We’re not going to be a revenue source for the city manager and a bunch of her pet projects,” DeLord told the media. “We’re not going to funnel money to the city manager for projects like light rail or trolley cars.”
DeLord apparently was criticizing the city’s planned financial contribution to VIA’s modern streetcar project, funds at the same time it is trying to address the $516 million annual costs to fund uniformed personnel benefits. Until now, the police union has not participated in the community debate over streetcars, even as firefighters have been actively running petition drives against the streetcar project and appearing at neighborhood meetings to generate community opposition.
Londa said that rising health car costs threatened the stability of the general fund, which city officials have said threatens the city’s AAA bond rating and the city’s ability to borrow money at lower interest rates than other cities. San Antonio is now the only major U.S. city with a AAA bond rating, and at least one rating agency has put the city on a watch list.
“Look, the city manager and the city council are committed to keeping the total spending at 66.5 percent of the general fund,” Londa told DeLord. “I don’t think basic street repairs, parks and libraries are pet projects.”
Without a new deal, he said, the costs would rise to $561 million a year and 68.8 percent of the budget by 2016.
After the talks ended, DeLord told reporters the city’s position ultimately “will be determined by City Council, not the city manager,” a sure indication that union officials will take their case directly to officeholders in the coming weeks and months. Council members originally gave their word to Castro that they would not engage in individual talks with union members, but with Castro departing and tensions rising, that pledge now seems at risk.
“I like Mayor Castro, but it seems to me he wouldn’t want to enter those confirmation hearings up in Washington if he can’t get a single police officer or firefighter back home willing to say a single nice thing about him,” DeLord said.
*Featured/top image: City of San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St.