Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council on Thursday placed the firefighter union’s proposed charter amendments on the November municipal ballot.
If passed, the amendments could cost the City between $382.3 million and $4.2 billion over 20 years, according to a City-commissioned report.
The ballot proposals would make it easier to change ordinances, launch referendums, utility rates, zoning, and other rules typically left to City Council; limit the tenure and salary of future city managers; and force binding arbitration on a new labor agreement between the City and fire union.
Council is required to place the three initiatives on the ballot as signatures for each petition exceeded the requisite 20,000 and were verified by the city clerk in May.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Council’s action on Thursday was purely a “ministerial,” or procedural, act. Council members did not discuss the amendments.
“Council is not considering the petitions on their merits,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said – it is simply placing the proposals on the ballot.
Bexar County Judge Cathleen Stryker of the 224th Civil District Court on Wednesday denied a temporary restraining order filed by political action committee Secure San Antonio’s Future (SSAF) that could have stalled the initiatives from getting placed on the ballot. However, Stryker left open the possibility of the court hearing SSAF’s lawsuit alleging that the fire union illegally used member dues to pay an out-of-town consultant to collect a vast majority of petition signatures. If the court rules in SSAF’s favor, the ballot initiatives could still be tossed out.
Council members on Thursday will also decide whether to place a paid sick leave proposal for employers on the ballot or vote for it themselves on the dais as an ordinance. They are expected to pass the proposal to avoid a crowded ballot and allow the Texas Legislature to reconcile the local ordinance with statewide rules.
The City is required to perform a fiscal impact analysis on charter amendments before they are placed on the ballot, the City’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said. Steve Nivin, director of the SABÉR Research Institute and an associate professor of Economics at St. Mary’s University, presented the study he carried out for the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association initiatives to Council before it voted to call for the election.
Nivin said his research found that – if approved – the City would experience slower economic growth, which would impact revenues by creating uncertainty in the business sector.
“Recessions [would be] more severe, [and the initiatives would] inhibit our ability to recover from them,” Nivin said, adding that it would impede the City’s ability to attract, retain, and expand businesses and potentially increase the City’s interest expenses on loans.
It would also put a strain on the general fund, Nivin said. Next year 63 percent of the general fund will pay for the collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire unions. The remainder goes to other City services that could receive less and less funding as revenues decrease, Nivin added.
The fire union filed its own lawsuit against the City before SSAF’s, alleging that the City violated petition gatherer’s First Amendment rights.
That suit came less than one month after the Texas Supreme Court chose not take on the City’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that upheld the union’s so-called “evergreen clause” that keeps the current collective bargaining agreement in place for 10 years. To date, the fire union has refused to come to the negotiating table, where the City is has offered a similar deal to the one the police union accepted in 2016.
Nirenberg has said the fire union is using the petitions as leverage to negotiate a better contract, especially since one petition would essentially force binding arbitration in the union’s favor.
Fire union President Chris Steele has said the petitions are about giving the people of San Antonio a stronger voice. Steele could not be reached for comment Thursday.