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During a special City Council meeting Tuesday morning, $14.2 million was cut out of the City’s General Fund to pay for the expired police and fire union contract.
Nearly $9 million will be cut from street projects by deferring projects to 2016, 35 vacant positions in the police department will be maintained for a total of 75, and no paramedics will be hired in 2015. There are still no layoffs planned for uniform or civilian employees during the 2015 fiscal year.
The City will start to run a $1.6 million monthly deficit if a new contract is not achieved by Jan. 1, which would violate the city charter requiring a balanced budget. Tuesday’s action avoids this at the cost of other city departments but if a contract can be agreed to that costs the City less than the $14.2 million, funds will be redistributed back into the budget. The deferred street projects would take priority.
“Staff recommended today that depending on the timing and cost of the final negotiated collective bargaining agreement the street maintenance program be reinstated to complete street projects contingent upon funding availability,” stated the City’s Director of Management and Budget Maria Villagomez in an email Tuesday afternoon.
City Council passed the budget amendment with a 7-3 vote. The “no” votes were cast by District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina, and District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez.
The City’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30. The five-year police and fire contracts expired Sept. 30 and the City’s 2015 Operating and Capital Budget went into effect on Oct. 1. A cap was put on public safety spending at 66%, as recommended by the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force appointed last year by then-Mayor Julián Castro. The placeholder in the approved budget would have allocated a compromise sum of $10,000 a year to cover health care costs for each uniformed police officer and firefighter, less than the estimated $14,868 costs this year, but substantially more than the $7,200 the City spends on health care benefits for its civilian employees.
Event at 66% for public safety spending, San Antonio has the highest percentage of any major Texas city largely due to the contracts’ health care benefits.
A controversial 10-year “evergreen clause” that kicks in if a contract expires before a new one is agreed to, protects the current level of union benefits through 2024. The City filed lawsuits on Nov. 7 asking a state district court judge for a declaratory judgment that the Evergreen Clause in both police and fire collective bargaining agreements is unconstitutional.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association has been in contract talks with the City since January 2014, but the meetings between respective attorneys and health care experts have ranged from lukewarm to cold in terms of attitude and progress. Most recently, the two sides debated the legitimacy of costs figures presented for proposed benefit plans.
After the announcement of the lawsuit, the almost-cordial talks – like those that took place in late September – seem less likely.
(Read More: City vs. Police Union: Whose Math Do You Trust?)
“The first day I met Jeff and Bettye (attorneys representing the City) when I took over negotiations for the police union, they threatened me with the lawsuit, telling me, ‘The city manager wants and you have to agree about the Evergreen Clause or we are going to sue.’ It’s dragged on and on and now that they’ve billed the City for $6-700,000, they are going to sue us. If they want to reach a deal, why sue us?” said Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord representing the police union after the City filed the lawsuit. “I’ll talk to the team, but that’s like your wife suing you and making you sleep in your car, but she’d still like to have you over for Thanksgiving Dinner.”
The September talks themselves came after a long and strained period of impasse. The two sides originally agreed in March to negotiate a new contract by June 1. Instead, talks that finally began in May broke down in mid-June after the police union hired a new lead negotiator and the City took a hard line toward holding spending at the 66.5% level.
The fire union has yet to come to the bargaining table despite repeated invitations from the City.
Featured/top image: Police and fire union members gather in City Council chambers during the 2015 City budget vote in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
See all stories related to the current contract negotiations here.