With a gap of almost $30 million between competing contract proposals, the City of San Antonio's negotiation team came to the table Wednesday with two key improvements in its offer to the San Antonio Police Officers Association. City negotiators offered to add a fifth year to its proposed four-year contract and extend the phase-in period for police union members' dependents monthly health care premiums.
Jeff Londa, the City's lead negotiator, put the value of the new health care offer at about $17 million. He did not specify a proposed fifth year wage increase. The change in premium payments would bring the City's proposed contract cost over four years to $62.2 million compared to the police union's proposed $74 million package.
The concessions follow the City's decision earlier this year to drop its demand that union members themselves start paying monthly health care premiums. Unlike the City's 7,699 civilian employees, the 4,038 police and fire union members do not pay monthly health care premiums for themselves or their dependents.
Collective bargaining talks were held Tuesday and Wednesday after a one-month hiatus and will continue on Sept. 1 when City negotiators expect to receive the police union response. City Council is scheduled to adopt a new budget on Sept. 10 for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. However, an eleventh-hour agreement on a new contract, while still far from a certainty, would allow City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her team to amend the general fund budget to cover a new wage and benefits package.
After more than four hours of meeting in separate caucuses and lunch meetings on Wednesday, the two sides agreed that their respective health care consultants and the City's certified actuary need time to confirm the financial implications of adding another year of premium-free coverage for dependents to the City's July 17 proposal.
SAPOA President Mike Helle sounded an optimistic note after the latest session, saying progress was made "behind the scenes."
"It may not seem like it was productive on the outside, but on the inside I think it was," Helle said, adding that the talks are "going in the right direction."
"It's important that both sides allow our health care experts to kind of get down to the minutiae, the intricacies, of what our plans are so that we can get it right," he said.
Helle has said during previous meetings that a more phased-in approach to having members pay for their dependents' care would be ideal. The City's concession was "a little unexpected this morning," he said Wednesday.
If the two sides can get past the issue of how to start sharing the rising costs of health care, the difference is proposed wage packages is the biggest of several other unresolved contract terms and accounts for most of the remaining $11.8 million gap, Londa said.
"We're trying hard to get a deal and we're looking at different alternatives that will satisfy our mandate (from City Council) of keeping public safety percentage of the General Fund at 66% while still trying to satisfy some of the union's objectives," he said.
The City has proposed an 8.8-9% wage increase over the life of a four-year contract, while the union has proposed a 16.5% increase that includes a 3% bonus paid at the signing of the contract which would amount to $8.5 million. Since the City has made significant concessions on how rising health care costs will be met, it might prove less willing to give ground on wage increases. Otherwise it will not stay under the 66% ceiling, a figure the police union negotiators have never accepted as an absolute figure. Helle wouldn't say at this stage if there was room for the union to budge on wage increases.
"That's all part of the bargaining process. That's the mystery behind it," Helle said.
Now that the negotiations have extended past the July 31 deadline set by Mayor Ivy Taylor, the City has taken its proposed 2.5% bonus off the table and incorporated that $8.5 million back into the City’s fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget to go towards street infrastructure and maintenance. That, too, Helle said on Tuesday, is also part of the process. The union reiterated in its proposal yesterday that a wage package should still include a 3% signing bonus despite the missed deadline.
Negotiators for the City and (SAPOA) have been meeting off and on for 18 months. Meanwhile, the terms of the five-year police and fire union contracts that expired on Sept. 30, 2014 remain in effect, thanks to the contract's 10-year evergreen clause. The police will receive no wage increases during this time, but union members and their dependents continue to enjoy premium-free health care. That clause is the subject of a City lawsuit challenging its legality.
If tradition is any guide, the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association will agree to accept the same contract terms negotiated by the police union.
*Featured/top image: Lead negotiators Ron DeLord (right) and Jeff Londa (left), for the police union and City respectively, prepare for discussion during the Tuesday meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.