A statewide organization is paying an untold amount in legal fees on behalf of the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) as the oft-heated collective bargaining talks continue between the police union and the City of San Antonio. But aside from investing in the statewide group, the local police union’s members were very active during the latest City elections, demonstrating how high the stakes are with contract negotiations.
Negotiating teams will meet on Tuesday, Aug. 18 to continue the more than 18-month, on-again-off-again collective bargaining process for a new contract.
City officials have estimated that the City has spent about $1.1 million throughout the negotiations so far. SAPOA has not spent any of its funds on legal fees, which are covered by the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT). The Austin-based organization provides a variety of services for more than 90 law enforcement groups statewide. Services range from assistance with labor negotiations and leadership development to legal representation and working with state lawmakers.
Those groups are designated as local affiliations; members of those local associations such as SAPOA approve of a charter for affiliation through a vote. The individual members then pay dues to CLEAT and to the police union through paycheck deductions. The CLEAT deduction comes out to $30 a month for each member. Documents show that in Fiscal Year 2014, police union members paid a total of $1.5 million into their organization, and $800,000 into CLEAT. The statewide group’s South Texas regional office is in the same building as the SAPOA office on the northeast side of town.
CLEAT has claimed upwards of $6.9 million in total revenue in the same fiscal year, according to the Internal Revenue Service. In 2013, CLEAT spent $841,292 in legal-associated activities, according an IRS document. Additionally, members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA), which has yet to start its own collective bargaining talks with the City, paid $1.37 million into their union in 2014.
Due to its nonprofit status, CLEAT is not required to publicly disclose how exactly it spends its money. The group’s executive director, Charley Wilkison, did confirm with The Rivard Report that CLEAT is supporting SAPOA’s legal fees during the negotiations for a new contract with the City.
“We’re a union and SAPOA members are part of their union and of CLEAT. We clearly have a heightened interest in what happens in San Antonio,” Wilkison said. “One of our roles as a state union is to support a local union.”
SAPOA President Mike Helle said he could not divulge how much in legal fees CLEAT has paid on behalf of his union in these negotiations. But he expressed gratitude for the state union’s aid.
“Given the value of the membership due, you’ll want to be supported,” he added.
Wilkison acknowledged there has been comments from local media observers that the negotiations between the City and SAPOA seem to be dragging on despite several proposals and counter proposals between the two sides. But in the big scheme of things, such detailed, tender labor talks are not resolved practically overnight, he added.
“It’s probably a misnomer to say this is taking an incredibly long stretch of time. Lots of resources go into these kinds of discussions, and they, generally speaking, take a long time,” he said.
Wilkison said he is not surprised by the amount of attention that has arisen around the tense exchanges, particularly between City Manager Sheryl Sculley and SAPOA President Mike Helle. The latest volleys between the two sides took place in late July after the last negotiating session held July 17.
Sculley had said SAPOA’s most recent proposal tries to consume 66% of the City’s public safety budget over the next five fiscal years without taking into consideration a contract with the firefighters. She also said both unions’ Political Action Committees (PAC) seemed to be more concerned about spending money to defeat political enemies at City Hall during the election than on healthcare premiums to help produce new workable labor contracts.
A short time later, Mayor Ivy Taylor told the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board that the City Council could consider a vote to impose new healthcare plans, for public safety personnel, that are more amenable to the City’s coffers. The Council this week begins fully fleshing out details for the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. She had previously said striking a deal by July 31 would have been ideal so that the Council has a clear financial picture going into budget meetings.
It is unclear, however, whether the Council has the full right to arbitrarily adjust healthcare packages through a vote, especially if related contract verbiage runs to the contrary. Nevertheless, Helle and SAPFA President Chris Steele responded to Taylor’s comments by saying their unions would try to sue the City if such a Council action were to happen.
SAPOA has been waging a campaign on behalf of its contact negotiation efforts via a website, www.PublicSafetyFacts.com. The City has a counter-online campaign site, www.PublicSafetyFactsSA.com. Through the SAPOA site, Helle responded to what Sculley said following the July 17 talks.
“The City’s own financial projections presented on July 15th showed the maximum SAPOA proposal at 31.2% of the general fund. The City Negotiating Team’s own cost analysis of the SAPOA proposal disproves Sheryl’s outrageous accusation,” Helle stated online. He later told Rivard Report that some of the City’s latest numbers appear “inflated.”
As for Sculley’s comments about union members’ actions during the recent City general elections, Helle stated: “The elections are behind us. We supported candidates as we have every election cycle. Once folks win, we get back to work. SAPOA offered to pay a minimum of $7 million in healthcare premiums. We don’t know what election Sheryl Sculley is referring too, but it wasn’t City elections.”
Helle later told the Rivard Report that Sculley’s healthcare premiums claim is “simply not accurate” and that it “didn’t help matters” for the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations. Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said on Aug. 3 that Sculley was right to focus on the union making concessions on premiums, a key sticking point between the City and SAPOA’s proposals.
“We’ve known for a long time we’ve had to make changes to our healthcare costs. We cannot sustain our current rate,” Krier said. “I’ve read third-party independent reviews of the proposals and they support the City. If we continue with no changes in costs, we’re on the road to bankruptcy.”
Krier said he understood Sculley’s frustration directed at how much money SAPOA and its PAC have spent in their struggle with the City.
“In that sense, it’s almost as if they (SAPOA) don’t seem interested in achieving a deal that is friendly to taxpayers,” he added.
Union PACs Spend Big During Election Season
As for those aforementioned elections, the union PACs combined had more than $903,000 in total expenditures between October 2014 and late June 2015, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. The reports detail payouts to individuals such as Greg Brockhouse, a former council aide who now works public relations and political consulting with SAPOA. He alone received close to $215,000 from the police union PAC and more than $19,000 from SAPFA during this latest election cycle. The police union PAC also spent $189,291 with the Austin-based political consulting firm Murphy Nasica and Associates.
The SAPFA report shows that the firefighters’ union PAC – as a group – donated to such candidates as mayoral contestants Leticia Van de Putte ($250) and Tommy Adkisson ($1,700), and incumbent Council members such as Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Ray Lopez (D6), both of whom won re-election. Van de Putte lost a June runoff to Taylor and Adkisson placed fourth in the May 9 election.
Ahead of the May election, SAPOA endorsed Van de Putte for mayor, and five incumbent Council members: Gonzales, Lopez, Alan Warrick II (D2), Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Cris Medina (D7). The union also backed three challengers, including police veteran Jeffry Van Slycke for the District 9 seat that went to Krier. SAPOA endorsed no candidates in District 8 or 10, where incumbent Ron Nirenberg was re-elected and where Mike Gallagher secured a full term, respectively.
It’s been said that the police union’s PAC spent a substantial amount of money for Van de Putte in the hotly contested mayor’s race. But the SAPOA PAC report, with group contributions, does not show to whom the PAC donated except for a $500 donation for Medina, who won re-election in a June runoff, and a $500 donation to Lopez.
PACs disclose what they, as groups, contribute directly to a campaign, but individual members of the police union are free to contribute any amount to a campaign so long as each contribution does not go over the City’s current $1,000 limit. Individuals and organizations may spend their own money, independent of official candidate campaigns, on their own messaging, commercials, mailouts and other forms of campaign communication.
The total expenditures by both PACs this City election year do far outpace those of previous local election cycles. The PACs combined spent nearly $267,000 toward any local, county and state elections held in 2014, and more than $241,000 on City elections in 2013.
Helle said he could not comment much on the PAC’s transactions because, as he said, a PAC functions separately of a union. But he did say, despite Taylor’s victory, the union has moved past the election and wants to keep working with this Council toward a new pact. He hopes that, in the end, the feeling is mutual.
“The PAC is free to support the candidate that supports public safety. The level of activity depends on how aggressive you want to be,” Helle said. “When someone runs for office, win or lose, you pick yourself up by the bootstraps and go on. A good politician builds coalitions by turning enemies into allies and friends.”
Wilkison, though, fears Sculley has stepped over a line with her latest statements.
“It’s a bombastic way the city manager has handled all this,” he said. “It’s a lie for anyone who thinks this is all about some sort of entitlement for police officers.”
In a July 21 letter, Taylor wrote to Helle that progress has been made in talks and that, as the FY2016 budget cycle ramps up, it’s vital that a “fair deal” be struck soon. Taylor also reaffirmed support for Sculley’s handling of the talks, and asked the police union to focus on negotiations at the meeting table and not on “personalities.”
In a July 30 letter, SAPOA requested meeting dates for this month between the two negotiating teams. Helle in the letter extended congratulations, on SAPOA’s behalf, to the City for maintaining its AAA bond rating, saying it proves the City’s strong finances and that “the sky is not falling.”
Krier on Monday reiterated a need for the City to secure “the best police and firefighting forces it can afford.” But he added the time has come to stop quibbling over numbers. He backed Taylor and Sculley’s recent statements.
While he remains optimistic the City and SAPOA can strike a deal soon, Krier expressed confidence in the interpretation that, if needed, the City has the power to revise the public safety healthcare packages.
He added: “I’ve always believe people of good faith could sit down together and arrive at a good package,” that will benefit the unions and taxpayers.
Other observations about the current proposals have been made in the media. Robert Rivard, director of The Rivard Report, offered a July 20 commentary, writing that the City’s current wage and benefits proposal would win approval from most police unions in Texas and from taxpayers. Rivard added that nobody should overlook the healthcare premium factor in the City’s offer.
“San Antonio would remain the only police union in the state and perhaps the country where members pay no monthly premiums for their rich health care plan,” he wrote. “The free ride for dependents would end, but union members would enjoy four more years of premium-free coverage.”
Steele did not respond to a request for comments for this story.
*Featured/top image: SAPOA Presdient Mike Helle (left) stands behind mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte with Charlie Wilkerson, director of Combine Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. Photo by Iris Dimmick.