The San Antonio police union proposed a five-year labor contract with the City of San Antonio on Friday raising wages on a schedule that would amount to 12% altogether. Meanwhile, the City proposed an 8% cumulative hike – representing a multimillion-dollar gap.

The two negotiating teams also traded health care proposals that were also miles apart: The City wants to continue to increase premiums paid by officers and their dependents by 10% each year while the union wants to cut down that escalation rate to just 2%.

“Today was an important day for for both sides,” said Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez, who is leading the city’s negotiating team.

The fourth meeting of collective bargaining concluded with both sides agreeing to dive into the details of the other’s proposals before what likely will be heated conversations as they attempt to arrive at a compromise.

But they will perhaps not be as heated as talks surrounding changes in disciplinary processes. The two sides remain firmly rooted in their positions: The City doesn’t want a third-party arbitrator to overturn the severity of punishment the chief of police issues to an officer during the appeals process while the union wants arbitrators to decide punishments that should be informed by how previous violations were handled.

It’s too early to say if they have arrived at an impasse, but they remained deadlocked on the topic last week. There was little discussion about it and no movement on either side on Friday.

“We’re still far apart on the most important issue for us, which is discipline,” Villagómez said.

While health care took center stage during talks for the current contract, which took more than two years, disciplinary procedures are taking on the spotlight in San Antonio and nationwide after a summer of protests calling for police reform. Still, wages and health care are two of the most critical and expensive pieces of the contract.

Survey finds San Antonio police are second-best paid in Texas

The City’s 8% package reflects the results of a survey it commissioned that found police officers in San Antonio are the second-highest compensated in Texas – behind Austin – when pay packages are regionally adjusted to establish a baseline pay index.

On dollar amount, San Antonio’s officers total cash compensation ($64,468 for entry-level, and $95,011 for a 20-year veteran) ranked 5th in the study that looked at eight police departments: Houston, El Paso, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Arlington, Fort Worth, and Austin.

But that doesn’t take into account variations in the cities’ wage markets: $100 in San Antonio’s wage market is worth more than $100 in Austin’s or Houston’s markets.

“[The Texas City Area Pay Index] normalizes the differences between the different cities across the state,” Villagómez told the San Antonio Report. “They use this [index] to be able to compare apples to apples.”

“The survey helped us inform our proposal, but it’s also [about] our ability to pay. … We have our parameters,” she added.

María Villagómez, deputy city manager and lead negotiator for the City of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

On top of reduced revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, City Council adopted a financial policy in 2014 to keep spending on police and firefighter union contracts at or below 66% of the general fund.

The City’s wage package would not include a pay raise for the first year of the contract, but it offers 2% increases for the next four years.

The union’s wage proposal is smaller percentage-wise than the 14% included in the current 2016-2021 contract, which expires at the end of September. (Officers did not receive a 14% pay increase; rather, the increases over the term of the contract added up to 14%.)

The wage proposal acknowledges that the City faces an uncertain economic outlook as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, the contract would include no base-pay increases for the first two years. For the next three years, officers would receive a 4% bump.

“We understand the virus and the [winter] freeze and the things that are going on in cities … [and] this being a tourist city also had a huge impact,” said Ron DeLord, the union’s chief negotiator. “We think the economy will pick back up. … [Tourists will] come back. I mean, there’s just one River Walk and one Alamo, so we think that’ll recover.”

The union also included two caveats: If City employees receive a cost of living increase – typically 1-2% – or the firefighters get higher yearly increases, police officers will, too.

Previous contracts have included a lump-sum payment that officers recieve when the contract is approved, much like a signing bonus. Neither side proposed a signing bonus on Friday.

“We are happy that the city proposed wages. However, we are somewhat disappointed that the city did not recognize the savings in the association’s health care plan,” Danny Diaz, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said via text after the meeting. “Health care cost is essentially flat over the last five years.”

San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz, center, during a press conference in March.
San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz during a press conference in March. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Union wants lower health care premiums

In 2016, the union agreed to a health care plan option that had officers and their dependents pay premiums for the first time. This helped the City manage ballooning health care costs that threatened to overtake the City’s general fund.

“I think one of our biggest successes last time around was the change in health care,” said union treasurer Jason Sanchez during the meeting. “We anecdotally call it ‘flattening the curve’ on inflation health care spending.”

But the union wants to reduce the annual premium escalation rate because costs have not increased to the city at the same 10% rate, Sanchez said.

“We’re looking to capture that in premiums going forward and reducing at 10% escalator … [to] a 2% increase, which is kind of where inflation is today,” he said.

Beyond five years, the union’s plan would increase it to 5% if a new deal isn’t signed.

There is “no doubt” health care costs continue to increase, Villagómez said in an interview after the meeting.

Costs were lower in 2020, she said, but “the cost of health care continues to increase, not as high as it was before we made the switch to the plans that we have today. … We are going to get in-depth into what that means next week as to why we’re asking for 10%.”

The City largely wants to keep health care as it is.

“On health care, we are not recommending major changes because our main focus is discipline,” she said.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org