Given the wide gaps that remain between the City of San Antonio and the police union, representatives from both negotiation teams acknowledged Friday that a new deal will almost certainly not be ratified before the current contract expires at the end of September.

That means the so-called “evergreen” clause in the current contract will be triggered, keeping most of its terms in place — excluding some pay increases and health care costs — for up to eight years.

That doesn’t mean negotiations will stop, and indeed, at least two more meetings are planned before the current contract expires. Both sides are motivated to reach a deal: the city wants better accountability for officer misconduct and the police union wants salary increases for officers. But union negotiator Christopher Lutton said the union doesn’t feel pressure to get a deal done by next month.

The San Antonio Police Officers Association doesn’t want to “end up missing opportunities” or miss identifying weaknesses in proposals, he said — but while the contract is in evergreen, officers will miss out on annual base pay increases and have to pay incrementally higher health care premiums.

That means some union members may want a deal sooner rather than later, he said: “Which is more important to them? Their rights as employees or a cost on an employee benefit?”

While the city would like to reach a deal “as quickly as possible,” said María Villagómez, lead negotiator and deputy city manager, “I don’t feel pressure to do it [by October]. But I think we’ve done a lot of work … the association has worked hard as well.”

The city also has less to worry about in terms of escalating health care costs, because most police officers have started paying premiums, thanks to the current contract. Those premiums increase 10% each year even while in evergreen.

Talks began in February, with the sides wrangling over major issues, including officer disciplinary rules, wages, and health care, and this is where major sticking points remain. Discipline reform, specifically reducing the power an arbitrator has to overturn the police chief’s decision to fire an officer for misconduct, is the city’s top priority.

Consensus has been reached over less controversial — and less costly — points. Some strides have been made on statutes of limitation for misconduct and evidentiary rules, but the two sides remain at a near-deadlock when it comes to the scope of authority given to an arbitrator in the officer appeals process and the process itself.

The union’s latest proposal is still under review by the city’s team, Villagómez said.

Once an agreement is reached by the negotiating parties, it will need to be approved by union membership first, then City Council in order to take effect.

The ratification process for the current contract, which was approved in 2016 took nearly 80 days. A tentative deal was reached in June, union membership approved it in August, and City Council voted to approve on Sept. 1, 2016.

The evergreen clause had been in place for two years by then, as talks stopped and started several times while the City pursued a lawsuit challenging the evergreen clause, an effort that ultimately failed.

The previous contract was negotiated during court-ordered mediation sessions that were closed to the public.

This time around, the negotiations are happening in the public eye and meetings are live-streamed and archived online. That means union members have the ability to stay up-to-date on the issues being discussed, Lutton said — so less time may be needed to understand the new terms. The public can also keep track, he said.

“If people say they don’t understand … where the [sides] are,” Lutton said, “I point them to the website.”

Here’s an updated overview of some of the terms that have been agreed to and what’s still under discussion:

Consensus reached

  • Officers can be punished for major misconduct within 180 days after the police department leadership learns of it, rather than 180 days after the misconduct occurred. Minor misconduct will still be subject to the current 180-day statute of limitations.
  • Officers will no longer be allowed to take home questions (“interrogatories”) from Internal Affairs regarding misconduct investigations.
  • Officers will be given 24 hours notice (down from 48 hours) ahead of an interview with Internal Affairs.
  • Increased training hours from 80 to 120 per year.
  • San Antonio residency points for cadet applicants will be increased from 1 to 5.
  • Chief has discretion to approve or deny leave based on department needs.
  • Employees can take 480 hours of consecutive leave upon separation; under the current contract, there is no limit.

Discussions continue

  • The union has proposed annual pay increases that likely would total more than 12% over five years; the city proposed an 8% cumulative hike.
  • While the two sides have agreed on using a “preponderance” of the evidence standard in proving officer misconduct, the union wants the city to bear to the burden of proving “a substantial shortcoming of the officer” in termination cases. The city wants the officer to prove the misconduct is not a substantial shortcoming. Read more here.
  • There’s still disagreement on the scope of evidence an officer can review before answering questions about misconduct. The city wants to limit what the officer can see, such as witness statements.
  • The city wants an officer’s entire record to be considered in misconduct cases, but the union wants limited consideration of past misconduct.
  • Performance evaluations tied to pay increases remain unresolved. The union is generally opposed.
  • Enhanced family leave provisions are still under discussion. Both sides want to attract more women to the force and have established a committee to explore improvements to work/life balance.
  • The city wants to replace some police vehicles at a mileage higher than 85,000.
  • On health care, the city wants to continue the annual 10% increase of health care premiums for officers who have chosen that plan (officers can choose a plan that does not have monthly premiums). The union wants to cut down that escalation rate to a range of 2% to 7%.

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