The current five-year contracts between the City and the police and fire unions expire on Sept. 30. Collective bargaining talks began in April on a timeline to be completed by the end of June, but the City’s efforts to rein in runaway health care costs and the union’s determination to preserve its rich benefits package led to an eventual breakdown of negotiations in June. Since then, the two sides have not formally met.
The letter was dated Aug. 4, but sent via email and regular mail Wednesday. Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Helle said he had not read the letter and would comment on it Thursday. He vowed to launch a union public relations campaign against the city that he likened to a war in a video posted to youtube in late July, comparing the union’s defense of its health care benefits to a latter-day Battle of the Alamo.
“We respect the police officers who keep our residents safe, and we acknowledge your passion for the members you serve as elected President of the San Antonio Police Officers Association,” the letter stated. It was co-signed by Council members Rebecca Viagran, Ron Nirenberg, and Rey Saldaña.
“We recognize your commitment to negotiate the best contract for your members, as we hope you recognize our responsibility to approve a fiscally sustainable one,” the mayor’s letter continued. “We call on you to resume negotiations; not only for your membership, but also for the San Antonio taxpayers who will rely on all of us for public safety as well as other critical services.”
City officials say San Antonio already spends 66.5 percent of its general budget on public safety costs, the highest of any Texas city, and union health care costs, expected to rise 20 percent in 2015, must be curtailed to avoid cuts in other basic services such as parks and libraries and to preserve the city’s coveted AAA bond rating.
Police and firefighters enjoy a far richer benefits package than civilian workers for the city. Police and fire pay no health care premiums and very little out-of-pocket expenses. They also enjoy other perks, such as access to a legal fund to pay all personal legal expenses. City negotiators have told their union counterparts that unless a deal is reached, the City will unilaterally place uniformed workers on the same plan as civilian workers, a move that would be certain to trigger a legal challenge by the unions.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley recently proposed a compromise that would reduce union benefits, yet still keep police and firefighters in a plan substantially richer than the civilian one. City officials say the 2013 health care benefits cost for each uniformed policeman and firefighter in San Antonio was $12,424 versus $7,300 for civilian employees. The estimated 2014 costs for union members is expected to rise 20 percent to $14,868. Sculley’s compromise offer, which has not led to a renewal of talks, would give union members a plan worth a little more than $10,000 a year. That offer was referenced in the mayor’s letter sent Wednesday.
“We urge you to give serious consideration to alternatives presented by the city’s negotiating team, and to our collective responsibility for a reaching a new agreement on behalf of all San Antonio families as soon as possible,” Mayor Taylor’s letter stated. “As you know, the city manager will present the proposed budget to the City Council on Aug. 7, 2014, and we will adopt a balanced budget, as required by law, in September before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.”
If the police union does not return to the negotiating table, Council is likely to adopt a 2015 budget that curtails health care costs for uniformed workers and could lead to union members being placed on the civilian plan.
*Featured/top image: City of San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St. Photo by Iris Dimmick.