City of San Antonio's Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St.
City of San Antonio's Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

There are 41 articles and 141 pages in the collective bargaining agreement between the San Antonio Police Officers Association and the City of San Antonio. After several rounds of talks, including a session at the Municipal Building on Monday, the two sides agree on the remaking of very little of it.

They do agree on the one-paragraph preamble and two of the 41 articles which together account for less than two pages of the contract.

In other words, there is little common ground so far, and none at all on the rising cost of the union’s health care insurance benefits – the negotiation’s defining issue. The two sides meet again on April 15, the only scheduled meeting during the 18-day Fiesta stretch from April 10-27, when the city and the union will each offer a presentation by a health care benefits expert.

There is consensus on the 141-word preamble, in which both sides agree that “the efficient and uninterrupted performance of the municipal police function is a primary purpose of this Agreement, as well as the establishment of fair and reasonable compensation and working conditions for the Police Officers of the City … this Agreement is intended to be in all respects in the public interest.”

Article 5, another point of agreement, is a pro forma anti-discrimination provision.

Article 6 is the No Strike Clause, which simply states the union doesn’t have the right to strike nor “slow down, disrupt, impede or otherwise impair the normal functions of the Department nor refuse to cross any picket line … The City shall not lock out any Officer.”

That’s it. On the issue of the rising costs of health care insurance there is no agreement in sight.

Houston labor lawyer Jeff Londa, representing the City of San Antonio.
Houston labor lawyer Jeff Londa, representing the City of San Antonio.

Houston labor lawyer Jeff Londa, representing the City, proposed two other contract changes Monday. One would extend the average life of a police cruiser, now pegged at 70,000 miles, an odometer reading reached in just two years. City auditors cited the national norm of 100,000 miles and three years in service. The change, Londa said, would yield more than $300,000 in annual savings.

Londa also proposed eliminating the City’s monthly contribution of $31 for every one of the 2,375 police officers into a legal fund that, he said, is primarily used to cover legal fees for officers divorcing spouses. That perk costs the city $911,000 a year for police, and $1.55 million when the city’s 1,663 uniformed fire fighters are included.

“Employees in most other cities pay those costs themselves,” Londa said. “We (the city) don’t even know how much money is in the fund. We’d like to know that, please.”

City leaders have long contended, and their negotiators now argue, that rising health care costs are unsustainable and already have exceeded prudent levels of expenditure and, therefore, must be contained or even rolled back in any new collective bargaining agreement. The current five-year contract for police and fire fighters expires at the end of September. City negotiators expect to begin talks with fire fighter union representatives in the coming months.

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

At the foundation of the current contract negotiations is the warning that has been raised over several annual budget cycles by City Manager Sheryl Sculley that San Antonio cannot sustain its current rate of public safety spending. San Antonio currently spends 65 percent of its General Fund budget, which is nearly $1 billion, on uniformed personnel. That number was only 36 percent when the first collective bargaining agreement between the city and police and fire fighters  in 1975-76. Other Texas cities spend substantially less than San Antonio.

Sculley told City Council last year that public safety costs would eat up 100 percent of the General Fund by 2031, driven by rising health care costs, pre-funded retirement health care coverage and pension contributions the City must meet each year.

The matter is finally coming to a head as the current five-year San Antonio Police contract nears an end. Mayor Julián Castro responded to Sculley’s warnings by appointing the City’s Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force last August, which recently presented its report to City Council that supported Sculley’s warnings. Union representatives on the task force authored a minority report, but declined to present it to City Council, and instead engaged in some name-calling directed against Sculley. I read the minority report, and none of the City’s financial assumptions are refuted in that minority report.

[Read More: Union’s Name Calling Can’t Obscure the Numbers]

The unions have enjoyed the current level of benefits since 1988 when they won many of the concessions now at issue. In fairness to the rank and file and the union officials who represent them, no one wants to surrender benefits hard-won 25 years ago.

Attorney Craig Deats, representing the police unions.
Attorney Craig Deats, representing the police union.

That was made evident again Monday when Craig Deats, the attorney representing the union at the negotiating table, said the City’s proposals to make uninformed personnel pay monthly health care premiums for the first time like their counterparts in all other Texas cities – and agree to other cost-saving measures – is tantamount to a $5,000 pay cut. Deats wants to tie any health care benefit reductions to offsetting salary increases.

The City is determined to reduce the percentage of general revenue funds used to pay public safety costs and to reduce the growing sums it must pay for health care under the current contract. There is no way to achieve those goals if city officials simply shift expenses from the health care column to the salary column.

Much of the Monday morning session was devoted to a recitation by Londa of what San Antonio spends on uniformed and civilian monthly health care premium costs versus other Texas cities and what those employees pay out of their own pockets, on average, compared to their counterparts in other Texas cities.

San Antonio’s police and fire fighters, by any measure, enjoy a benefits package unmatched anywhere else in the state relative to its size – even in bigger, richer cities with much higher costs of living. Beyond the premium-free coverage, San Antonio’s police and fire fighters have a better deal by every measure: out-of-pocket costs for health care; deductibles and co-pays; and maximum allowable payments by individuals and families.

From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force presentation to City Council on March 19, 2014.
From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force presentation to City Council on March 19, 2014.

Because the coverage is premium-free, Londa said it is evident that union members and their spouses always opt for union coverage over other plans available to their members and often choose more expensive out-of-network physicians, prescription drugs and emergency room treatments. The average union member has 2.3 dependents relying on the plan, while civilian employees working for the city have 1.1 dependents because in many cases the other spouse’s insurance coverage is used. That civilian dependent number, Londa noted, is consistent with national averages.

“There is a very high police utilization of health care,” Londa told Deats. “I’d like to know if the union is aware of that and, if so, if it has a plan to curtail that? … Does the union have a plan or proposal to address rapidly increasing prescription drug costs?”

Deats answered with his own question: “Are you suggesting that the union members are somehow abusing the plan?’

No, Londa said, but he did say union members do not economize when it comes to making health care treatment choices, “because financially it doesn’t make much difference to them.”

Londa said the city is looking to trim at least $10 million a year from its health care costs and agreed that was a conservative number that could reach the $15 million that Deats said San Antonio Chamber of Commerce officials were citing as the potential savings.

Deats said Londa was “trying to make the plan less attractive so they’ll seek health care elsewhere.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Londa said. “There are structural problems with the plan, and the benefits are unheard of elsewhere, and they are driving up costs, and I am saying it is not sustainable.”

“You’re talking about a $5,000 cut in pay,” Deats said, dividing the hoped-for $10 million in savings to the city by the 2,375 police officers. “Isn’t that what you’re asking my members to do, take a $5,000 pay cut?”

The actual number, if it were a real pay cut, would be $4,200, but even that is subject to challenge. Deats assumes all cost reductions would come from reduced benefits, when in fact many costs savings could be realized at no expense to either the union or the City simply by shopping for less expensive health care options.

“We are asking them to bring down union health care costs per person down to what the civilian plan costs,” Londa said.

The sparring between Deats and Londa continued along those lines until the lunch break. Afterwards, union leaders caucused behind closed doors. The afternoon session was brief and fairly uneventful. It would be hard to conclude at this juncture that the two sides stand much chance of bridging their differences on the cost of health care insurance.

*Featured/top image: City of San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St.

Related Stories:

Survey: Public Favors Police Paying Health Care Premiums

Council Backs Task Force, City Staff on Police, Fire Negotiations

Union’s Name Calling Can’t Obscure the Numbers

Bossy, Bitchy, Bully: Union Targets City Manager With the B-Words

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.