City (left) and police union (right) representatives during the collective bargaining meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
City (left) and police union (right) representatives during the collective bargaining meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Negotiating teams for the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association will meet twice this month for collective bargaining talks, the first such meetings since Nov.3, according to a Feb. 3 letter sent by City Manager Sheryl Sculley to business and civic leaders.

Police union President Mike Helle, who was re-elected to that office last month, confirmed the resumption on talks.

 San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle
San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle

“We have never left the table, and since our dates of bargaining are past the conflicts of the holidays season and our San Antonio Police Officers Association elections, it’s just part of a regular process of setting dates again to return to work,” Helle said Wednesday.

The two sides have been engaged in on-again, off-again talks since last March in an effort to reach agreement on a new multi-year labor contract. The firefighters union has still not agreed to accept the City’s invitations to begin talks.

The next meeting between the City and police will be Friday, Feb. 20 at 10 a.m. in the B Session room of the Municipal Plaza Building. A second meeting will follow on Thursday, Feb. 26, same time, same place. Mayor Ivy Taylor has expressed hope to reach a new contract agreement by March, well before her term as interim mayor ends in June. The existing five-year contract for fire and police expired on Sept. 30, although a 10-year evergreen clause keeps all contract terms in place.

The most recent break in talks came after the City filed suit against both unions seeking to set aside the evergreen clause as unconstitutional because of its unusual length, which the City claimed serves as a disincentive for the unions to bargain. Union leaders, in turn, said the lawsuit demonstrated bad faith on the part of the City and demanded it be withdrawn in order for talks to resume. It now appears the suit will not be heard by a state district judge before summer, so the two sides have agreed to return to the table. A new agreement likely would render moot the lawsuit.

The most current developments in the protracted negotiations came on Jan. 28 when third-party financial firms presented their independent analysis of health care proposals put forward by the City and police union, as well as the financial impact of legislative changes proposed by the Fire and Police Pension, to Mayor Taylor and City Council. Mayor Taylor had called for the independent reviews on Dec. 1 and later said she unsuccessfully sought the participation of union leaders in the selection of the third-party firms. The City then selected the firms and paid all the costs.

(Read more: Independent Reviews Support City Vs. Police Union.)

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

“At the heart of the issue is the fact that public safety expenses are growing faster than general fund budget revenues,” Sculley wrote in her letter. “One of the escalating cost drivers to the general fund budget is public safety healthcare. The police union has proposed paying toward healthcare, but only in conjunction with salary increases far in excess of any annual healthcare premiums. The City has proposed a combination of employee healthcare premiums with modest wage increases keeping the public safety budget within the policy guidelines established by the City Council and at no more than two-thirds of general fund spending.”

Sculley was the target of a concerted media campaign by the unions, which also had called for her dismissal, but the attacks have subsided and an advertising campaign paid for by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce defending the city manager and the City’s position also have ended. With the third-party financial analysis of the respective proposals now completed, the possibility of a new contract agreement seems to come down to whether the two sides can find a way to balance health care cost cuts with wage increases and allow the City to maintain public safety spending at the 66% general fund budget cap.

*Featured/top image: City (left) and police union (right) representatives during the collective bargaining meeting in September, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

RELATED STORIES:

Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive.

Mayor Tables Union Lawsuit Discussion

Divided Council to Discuss City-Police Union Standoff

Mayor Taylor Blocks Council Move on Unions

Interview: Mayor Taylor on the Police Union, Negotiations, and Her Political Future 

Mayor Taylor to Police Union: Let’s Cool it for the Holidays

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.