City, Fire Union Select Representatives As Sides Move Toward Arbitration

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) Donna McElroy, lead advocate; Liz Provencio, assistant city attorney; and María Villagómez, deputy city manager, speak with reporters about arbitration with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

The City and fire union have selected arbitrators to represent them as they look to settle a years-long contract dispute.

The City announced Wednesday that local attorney Phil Pfeiffer will represent it at the coming arbitration proceedings. The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union, which has been deadlocked with the City since 2014 as the two sides have attempted to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement, chose Portland, Oregon, labor attorney Michael Tedesco.

The two chosen arbitrators will spend the next 10 days selecting a third, independent member of the arbitration panel. If the two sides do not reach an agreement on the neutral arbitrator, they will look to the American Arbitration Association to appoint one.

At a briefing with reporters Wednesday, First Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Provencio said this is the first time a public safety contract for a major Texas city will be the product of arbitration. That prospect, she said, gives her pause.

“But it’s a process we are prepared to proceed with based on what we have worked through over the course of the year,” Provencio said. “Our goal is to have a fair contract for our firefighters that is also fair to our taxpayers.”

And as City departments are developing their budget proposals, the arbitration process will be a consideration as the City coffers are expected to be tightened in light of recent legislation. Senate Bill 2, for instance, is set to lower the cap on property tax revenue. The new law will not affect the City’s fiscal year 2020 budget but will in subsequent budgets, and the City is expected to shrink its budget to account for the lower minimum as well as the loss of funds from telecommunications franchise fees, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez. Still, it’s too early to say precisely how the budget will be impacted, she said. A draft budget will come before the City Council on Aug. 8.

“Aug. 8 is just around the corner but in budget days we still have two weeks before we make final decisions,” Villagómez said.

At $618 million, the fire and police union contracts make up the City’s largest budget items.

The firefighters union and the City agreed to come to the negotiating table in January after a year of political moves by the firefighters union, including calling for a vote on a series of ballot propositions. Two of the three passed, giving the union significantly more sway.

Proposition C, which was approved by voters in November, gives the union the unilateral authority to call for a panel of arbitrators to decide and impose contract terms as the arbitrators see fit.

Beginning in February, the two sides met 10 times publicly to negotiate terms of a new deal. Those sessions were followed by closed-door mediation proceedings overseen by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson.

But the two sides could not come close to an agreement during mediation, with past issues as health care, wages, workers compensation, and vacation time still in contention. The union sent a letter to the City this month declaring an impasse in negotiations and calling for arbitration.

Once a third member of the arbitration panel is selected, the City and fire union will have until Aug. 16 to submit the issues that are up for dispute in the arbitration sessions, according to the language of Proposition C. However, the sides could extend that deadline if all parties agree.

The San Antonio fire contract dispute tracks closely with a dispute involving the firefighters union in Houston, where a state district judge recently voided a similar ballot proposition passed in that city, ruling it unconstitutional.

The City of San Antonio said Wednesday it does not intend to challenge the legality of Proposition C and will continue with arbitration.

“That’s not our intent,” Provencio said. “We will continue to follow what the Houston courts decide and evaluate it against what our proposition is and how what the courts decide there may apply.”

For the City, Pfeiffer represents a figure in which it will place significant responsibility as he aims to soften the blow of a potentially larger public safety contract. The attorney has experience as an arbitrator in the area of labor relations.

Provencio said the City was surprised and disappointed to learn the fire union had chosen an out-of-state arbitrator, citing the City’s preference for an arbitrator that was intimately familiar with local issues.

According to his website, Tedesco has been representing labor unions for more than 35 years. In recent years, he has negotiated successful arbitrations for the Denver and Las Vegas police protective associations, according to his website.

San Antonio firefighters and emergency medical technicians haven’t received raises in more than four years after the September 2014 expiration of their previous contract. However, a 10-year “evergreen clause” keeps most terms of the previous contract in place.

Arbitration proceedings are expected to begin in August or September.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this report.

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