City Manager Erik Walsh at talks between the City and the firefighters union.
City Manager Erik Walsh walks past negotiators during talks between the City and the firefighters union. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh made a rare appearance Friday at the negotiating table with the firefighters union.

Walsh told the labor contract negotiating team face-to-face that “we are looking for a fair resolution, and I don’t want you to think that we’re not.”

The talks have been marked with fierce disagreements surrounding health care, wage increases, workers compensation for cancer diagnosis – even the contract length. After several meetings with no apparent progress, the general mood was that Friday’s meeting was productive. The City agreed to at least cautiously listen to the union’s health care trust proposal – though its team still needs to see plan details to consider it and option.

Walsh said he showed up to demonstrate the city’s commitment to arriving at a fair and balanced deal. It’s the first time that a city manager has made remarks ahead of such a negotiating session in at least 30 years, said Walsh, whose first day as CEO of the municipal corporation was March 1. Previously, he served as deputy city manager and oversaw police and fire departments – and helped negotiate the police union’s 2016 deal. Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley was long criticized by the union for helping City Council lead the charge toward reforming health care for its public safety union.

“I feel directly responsible for all employees … including firefighters,” he said, and the city faces “revenue challenges … [that] affects, frankly, more than just you guys. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

The City has proposed a yearlong contract because of concerns over State legislation that may limit the City’s ability to collect property tax revenue. The union wants a five-year deal.

Representatives from both sides welcomed Walsh’s brief appearance and told reporters after the meeting that the negotiations benefited from it.

After Walsh left, the City’s negotiating team proposed a new provision to the contract that would give the City the same rights to call for binding arbitration that the fire union acquired through a proposition vote last November.

“It’s something we’re going to take a look at just like any other proposal,” union lead negotiator Ricky J. Poole told reporters. “I find it interesting that the city spent so much money and so much time opposing Proposition C and now wants to be part of it.”

The union already has the ability to take its case to court – the City does not – according to State law, he said. “It’s uniquely left to the union. So I do think Texas Legislature was considering the union should at some point have a unilateral right to seek a new contract. … I’m not sure that is an equal footing that we need.”

City lead negotiator Jeff Londa disagreed with Poole’s interpretation that the State law implies that employees should have an advantage and said voters in November didn’t vote against the City having the same right.  They merely voted on “what was in front of them.”

For negotiations on health care, the union brought a consultant from Seattle to describe what a union-controlled health care trust in San Antonio could look like. Marcus Morrell, a consultant at DiMartino Associates, has set up and on worked on several trusts in Washington and Idaho, he said.

One of the main problems with a union controlled trust, Londa said, is that the board – typically union members – can be “slow to act” when it comes to increasing premiums or decreasing benefits when unexpected challenges arise in the health care network.

Morrell said he is aware of that problem, but he personally has not encountered it. When faced with a “sinking ship,” he advises boards to act for the broader goal of maintaining the trust, he said.

The union presented its health care proposal on Tuesday that included few specific details about how the trust would operate or what the benefits would look like. Morrell provided more context for the conversation, Londa said, but the City still needs to know what specific benefits, premiums, costs to the City, and what kind of safe guards can be put in place in case of failure and for the City to have some kind of oversight.

The union has proposed a City health care expense of $19,000 per firefighter per year, less than the current cost. The City would like to see that number decreased to roughly $16,000 – close to what it pays per police officer.

The City has proposed a health care package that is similar to what it agreed to with police: two plans – one of which would have the dependents (spouse or family members) of firefighters paying premiums.

Currently, no firefighters or dependents pay premiums and they receive the richest benefits package in the state – a cost that is unsustainable, City officials have said.

The City also proposed adding another exclusion to the list of 35 procedures and services not covered by the City’s health care plan for firefighters and their dependents: procedures and costs associated with surrogacy.

First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio said the City proposed that change after an “SAFD Wives – Become a Surrogate Mother ” advertisement in the union-produced monthly Grapevine publication. It promised “$30,000 or more in compensation.”

“It raised a concern because [the website] specifically refers to … a health insurance review and if you’re not covered then they’ll help you find other ways to cover it,” Provencio said. “So presumably if you’re a firefighter wife with this insurance that doesn’t have the exclusion right now, it will be covered. It raised a red flag with us.”

PrimaVita owner and Executive Director Simi Denson, who is married to a San Antonio firefighter, told the Rivard Report on Friday that her company does not currently have any clients within the San Antonio Fire Department’s network. The advertisement, she said, is part of her company’s strategy of “casting a wide net” to find clients.

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