It’s been almost exactly one year since labor contract talks between the City of San Antonio and the police union began, and while a few major sticking points remain, negotiators say they’re starting to see an amicable end in sight.
“I’m almost afraid to say it, but I think we can see [light at] the end of the tunnel — if some things fall into place,” Christopher Lutton, lead negotiator for the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said at the start of Tuesday’s negotiating session.
Lutton’s optimism was, however, cautious.
“The minute I say we see everything on the same page, the page turns, right?” Lutton joked after the meeting. “I don’t want to jinx it.”
The union and the city are closer to a deal than they were at this point in the previous negotiation process that took more than two years and was stalled for months in response to a legal challenge brought by the city, he said.
Yet major issues do remain, around pay increases, medication costs and perhaps most crucially, around certain disciplinary processes — the result of community and City Council concerns over fired cops’ ability to get their jobs back.
“We have made significant progress,” said Deputy City Manager María Villagòmez, the city’s lead negotiator. “I think we’re close in terms of getting [remaining terms] finalized, but the devil’s in the details.”
While cutting health care costs was the top priority for the city in the 2016-2021 contract, disciplinary reform has taken center stage this round.
They have reached a general consensus on one key element of the discipline process, the rules that an arbitrator has to follow in order to rehire a fired officer — but have not signed a formal tentative agreement on the issue. They have signed tentative agreements on a dozen other terms within the contract, including protocols surrounding promotions, cadet hiring, supplemental benefits, officer safety and equipment.
The two sides are still considering adjustments to the so called 180-day rule, which under the current contract means officers can’t be punished for misconduct 180 days after the incident occurred.
The city has abandoned previous proposals that lay out different rules for “major” and “minor” infractions in favor of a two-year statute of limitations rule that is nearly identical to what the firefighters union agreed to in its most recent contract. The new proposal still uses the discovery rule, meaning the chief has 180 days to punish an officer once leaders in the department — the chief, a captain or the Professional Standards Section — finds out about the violation. (These rules apply to misconduct, not criminal activity.)
The change in direction comes after the two sides spent several meetings going back and forth about what would be considered “major misconduct,” with neither satisfied.
Villagómez said she is not concerned the new rules would result in bad behavior going unpunished, as it is typically discovered within two years.
“Based on what we’ve seen on the cases that we deal with in both departments, we feel the two year statute of limitation will serve the purpose,” she said.
Another disciplinary sticking point is how much evidence an officer can see before an interview with internal affairs over misconduct complaints, and how much of an officer’s record can be used when considering punishment. The city wants to limit the evidence an officer can see; the union doesn’t.
The two sides have agreed the contract should run for a five-year term, but they are still fairly far apart on wage increases.
The city has proposed a package that would provide officers with a 2% lump sum bonus and 2% base pay increase at the start of the contract in October and 3% base pay increases each of the remaining three years.
The union’s proposal would give members a 2% base pay increase every six months for a total of 16% over the next five years.
The two sides have also come to a consensus on increasing members’ health care premiums by 10% each year, but remain split on how to handle medication cost increases.
“We’re discussing the formulary still, but we believe there’s a way to solve that,” Lutton said.
Cutting health care costs was the top priority for the city in the 2016-2021 contract, but disciplinary reform has taken center stage this round.
An evergreen clause allows most of the terms of the current contract, which expired on Sept. 30, 2021, to continue for eight years. During that time, however, base pay raises for union members will halt and they will continue to pay increased health insurance premiums each year.
The two sides agreed to meet again next Friday, Feb. 25, and again on March 2.