A little more than one month after contract talks broke down between the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association, the city's chief negotiator has sent an "alternative" to the police union negotiator that reduces the degree of previously suggested cuts in police health care benefits.
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 revised new health care benefits plan would still be better 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.
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 had not responded late Thursday evening to the offer.
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.
The City's effort to reopen negotiations come 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.
Meanwhile, a special public meeting of City Council is scheduled for Tuesday 9 a.m. so Council members can elect an interim mayor from their ranks to serve out the unexpired one-year term of Mayor Castro. Four Council members have filed letters of interest qualifying them as candidates. One of them will have to win a six-vote majority to be sworn in.
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 he is expected to appear Tuesday to cast his 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 were 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 sessions. 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.