City of San Antonio's Public Safety Headquarters at 315 South San Rosa St.

The chief negotiator for the San Antonio Police Officer Association said the union’s health care expert is analyzing a proposal delivered by the City of San Antonio’s chief negotiator that could lead to renewed collective bargaining talks between the two sides, which broke off more than a month ago.

“I talked to him (City negotiator Jeff Londa) last night about it,” said Ron DeLord, the union’s chief negotiator. “We appreciate the City moving off dead center and I’ve told him that. We have taken their proposal and given it to our health care benefits expert, Randy McGraw, for his analysis.”

Ron Delord. Courtesy photo.
Ron Delord, representing the San Antonio Police Officer Association.

DeLord said the union also has accepted a suggestion from the City that McGraw meet with Buddy Morris, the City’s health care benefits consultant, to discuss the details of what city officials have described as “an alternative” to the current standoff.

“The two experts will meet Wednesday in San Antonio, and once Randy understands exactly what the City is proposing, we will counter with a proposal for them to consider,” DeLord said. “If the City then thinks it’s worth it, we can schedule a meeting to move the ball forward.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley sent a Thursday evening email to Mayor Julián Castro, the City Council, and senior City, police, and fire department staff, stating that the City’s new proposal for sharing health care costs with union members would still be a better plan than what police receive in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.

City officials say the 2013 cost for each uniformed policeman and firefighter in San Antonio was $12,424 versus $7,300 for the City’s civilian employees. The estimated 2014 costs for union members is expected to rise 20 percent to $14,868.

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

The alternative concept sent by the City’s chief negotiator, Houston attorney Jeff Londa, to the police union’s chief negotiator, Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord, would cost the city $10,027 a year for each union member. The City would reduce its estimated $35,312,193 in 2014 uniformed health care costs to $23,813,678, an $11,498,615 savings. A large part of the savings could come from police paying $7 million in premiums and reducing claims by $4 million.

Sculley has warned the Council for more than five years that rising health care and pensions costs for uniformed personnel are unsustainable, accounting for 66.5 percent of the current general budget and rising at a rate that would equal 100 percent of the general budget by 2030. Police officers and firefighters pay no insurance premiums for themselves or their dependents, and enjoy an array of special pay perks that place them at the top of the compensation table for uniform personnel in Texas.

Castro appointed a Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force last year to study the issue. The resulting report, released in March prior to the start of the collective bargaining talks, supported Sculley’s position. You can review the full task force presentation here.

With Thursday’s offer, the City effectively is offering a compromise to end the existing standoff and open the door to renewed negotiations. DeLord’s remarks in a  Friday interview indicate the union is eager to come back to the table and work out a compromise.

The current five-year contract for both the police and fire unions expires on Sept. 30, and both sides agreed in April to negotiate a new five-year deal by June 30. The San Antonio Firefighters Association, which traditionally negotiates separately with the City and is given the same benefits package, so far has refused to come to the bargaining table.

“Let’s take out all the threats and the Oct. 1 date and lawsuits and all the absolutes, and this issue could be resolved before the end of the year,” De Lord said. “We’ve already conceded the major points the City Manager has requested: paying premiums, shared risks, and getting a plan closer to the demographics of the city civilian plan. The last plan we gave them made huge concessions and they just pooh-pooed it. They’ve come back with a proposal and we are taking it seriously, and we will come back with our own proposal and be ready to negotiate. Less theatrics, more negotiation.”

The City’s effort to reopen negotiations comes amid an extraordinary shifting of power and politics at City Hall and deepening acrimony on the part of the unions toward senior City staff. Amid the tensions, Police Chief William McManus, a 40-year law enforcement veteran, announced his sudden retirement this week to accept a new position at CPS Energy as the utility’s top security executive. He has agreed to remain in office until the end of the year.

District 7 Councilman Cris Medina
District 7 Councilman Cris Medina

An off-stage Council melodrama has developed after an anonymous email alleging ethical misconduct by District 7 City Councilman Cris Medina was widely distributed last week. Medina denied the allegations, but dropped plans to seek the mayor’s post. This week he abruptly put out a press release announcing he will take a leave of absence to fulfill his obligations as a military reservist. The release said an acting Council representative would be selected to fill his seat during his leave, although Medina is expected to appear Tuesday to cast his interim mayoral vote. Once an interim mayor has been chosen, Castro will resign his office and depart for Washington to be sworn in as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration.City Hall-union tensions have intensified since negotiations broke down.

An Express-News story published Thursday evening reported that police union officials were accusing Sculley of threatening to lay off about 65 police officers to save $8.5 million in the next general budget, a charge her office vigorously denied. The firefighters union, watching the negotiations and developments from the sideline, has spent tens of thousands of dollars in a public campaign to stop the City from contributing $32 million to VIA Metropolitan Transit’s streetcar project. Last week the union presented petitions with what it said were 26,000 signatures to the City Clerk, demanding that city participation in the downtown transportation project be put on the Nov. 4 ballot. The validity of the petitions and the signatures was questioned by City Attorney Robbie Greenblum and are currently under review. City and VIA officials have said they are on solid legal ground funding the approved project and moving forward.

The City Manager’s email was released Thursday evening to demonstrate the City is willing to reopen negotiations and discuss alternatives to the positions both held when they last met.

City-police union talks broke down at the June 12 bargaining session. The police union had proposed the creation of an annual $29 million trust fund to cover health care benefits, while the City wanted to eliminate the union health care plan and place uniformed personnel on the less costly plan that covers civilian employees of the City.

When the union rejected the civilian plan, city negotiators said they would exercise a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that allows City Council to unilaterally reduce benefits as part of the annual budgeting process. In effect, the City said it would end the current union health care benefits plan at the end of the contract and put uniformed personnel on the same plan now provided to civilian workers.

Since then, the police union has attempted to persuade individual Council members to distance themselves from the City’s negotiating position, even though Castro had elicited a commitment from Council members in March when the task force report was accepted not to interject themselves individually in the collective bargaining talks. Ironically, the union found only one Council member willing to break that commitment and publicly call for alternative proposals. That was Medina, who will not be around for whatever transpires next. 

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

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.