After 18 acrimonious months, the City of San Antonio and its police union appeared on the verge of striking a new collective bargaining agreement after two days of marathon negotiations, but neither side budged Thursday night when talks turned to the controversial evergreen clause.
The clause, with nothing comparable found in any other police or fire union contract in the state, keeps wages and benefits in effect for as long as a decade in the event of a collective bargaining standoff like the current one.
The on-again, off-again negotiating marathon still underway has afforded the union the option of repeatedly walking away from the bargaining table, a strategy that has led to an increasingly rich package of enticements from a City government eager to strike a deal while still managing overall public safety costs at 66% of the general fund budget.
The union strategy of holding out for more seemed to be working after two days of intense negotiations that have brought the two sides within $2 million of a deal. Yet a final agreement now seems bogged down over the City's insistence that the evergreen clause be cut in half to five years and the police union's refusal to consider less than an eight-year clause.
Further talks are scheduled for Friday morning, but union representatives said they might not show up.
The current 10-year evergreen clause has been in effect since the most recent five-year contract expired in September 2014. It offers members no wage increases, but continues to cover ballooning health care costs, which union members do not help cover. Meanwhile, The City filed a lawsuit earlier this year, still pending pretrial hearing motions, that claims the evergreen clause is unconstitutional.
"The evergreen (clause) is not a financial issue," said San Antonio Police Officers Association's lead negotiator Ron DeLord. "(The City) chose to get into a lawsuit during bargaining and (that) made a problem."
The two sides exchanged two rounds of proposals for more than six hours on Thursday. Talks continued after 8 p.m., the latest the teams have negotiated into the evening. Both sides had agreed on a wage increase package and the basic structure of a health care plan, and for the first time, the City had prepared its proposal into a contract format with spaces for each side to sign and date. More details remain to be to worked out, but City representatives said they felt the rest could be worked out through a subcommittee after ratification.
Jeff Londa, the Houston-based lead negotiator for the City, said that regardless of the lawsuit, the City's position would be the same on the evergreen clause because it is indeed a financial issue.
"The fact that we sued the police union has nothing to do with what we would agree to during collective bargaining," Londa said. "(An evergreen clause) should be as short as possible. Most labor agreements are negotiated on time. This is not negotiated on time and the City and the unions here have a history of long deliberations which (results in) uncertainty for the employees and leaves budgeting problems for the City."
Such long evergreen clauses disincentive timely agreement, he said, even five years is too long but "we did that to try to get an agreement."
It's an argument that both sides have had before and will likely be heard in court after any pretrial motions are dealt with. The deadline to file such motions is months away, Londa said.
"I don't know what will change between now and tomorrow morning," DeLord said. "I don't know if we'll be here or not."
SAPOA President Mike Helle said the negotiating team will consider it, but that he will likely attend a union picnic scheduled for members tomorrow instead.
Securing a long evergreen clause has been "one of the mandates from our membership," Helle said. "I take a great risk even reducing to eight years versus the 10 (but) it was a compromise that the team felt we were willing to do."
Helle and DeLord said they didn't mind waiting to get the evergreen clause matter settled in court.
Under the current contract, the City is paying approximately $17,000 per uniformed employee for health care. During 2016, if a new agreement isn’t reached, that will increase to about $19,000, according to City staff. One of the latest proposals that both sides seemed agreeable to would bring those costs down to around $13,500 in 2016. These costs, along with a 15.75% wage increase that includes a 3% signing bonus, would keep public safety costs below 66% of the City's General Fund if the same deal can be reached with the firefighters union.
Historically, the firefighters’ union has accepted the same contract terms negotiated by the police union. San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association has yet to formally meet with the City’s team.
The City's negotiating team started with proposals that cost far less than what was proposed today by either side and repeatedly sweetened the deal throughout the negotiations, compromising by increasing wage packages and the City's contributions to member health care plans.
The police union's negotiating team has made some concessions, but is holding a stronger line. Members and their dependents, typically spouses and/or children, currently do not pay any monthly premiums under either the value or consumer-driven health care plans. The union has agreed to add nominal premiums for dependents under the value plan but not for the consumer-driven plan.
*Top image: Jeff Londa, the City's lead negotiator (left), reads over his latest proposal to the police union's lead negotiator Ron DeLord (right) while SAPOA Vice President Dean Fischer (center, left) whispers into President Mike Helle's ear. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.