It's been more than nine months since the City's contract with the police and firefighters unions expired, and the lack of a new contract continues to cast a shadow over the City's annual General Fund budget and a clear picture of how much money officials will have to spend on other city services.
Now City and police union negotiators are poised to return to the bargaining table, a development that looks something like a patch of blue on the horizon of an otherwise stormy sky.
City Council's special budgetary goal-setting meeting held Thursday showed a sometimes divided Council is united in its understanding that public safety spending has to be maintained at 66% of the budget to provide sufficient finances to meet other essential services and protect critical line item expenditures.
The City's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and the FY2015 budget cycle started and finished without a new collective bargaining agreement. No one on Council wants to see that happen again to the FY2016 budget. Mayor Ivy Taylor met with Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, days after her victory in the June 13 runoff election over state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the candidate endorsed by the unions. In a follow-up letter, she prodded Helle and negotiators to get serious about the City's standing offer of a new four-year contract.
Thursday the City confirmed that the police union's negotiators have agreed to a series of three meetings next month meet on July 10, 15, and 17. Mayor Taylor's letter to Helle made it clear that the City wanted a new deal by July 31 or City Council would proceed with a new budget and no plans for FY2016 increases for police or firefighters.
Mayor Taylor will lead City Council and senior staff on a one-day retreat at Hardberger Park Friday and then council will recess for the traditional summer break in July. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and staff are tasked with poring over the results of Thursday's all-day meting – prioritizing policy issues and balancing the budget that in a way that meets the expectations of council members and responds to comments submitted by the public. Sculley will present the proposed budget to council on Aug. 6. From there, it's another month of twice-a-week budget workshops and community input meetings until Sept. 10, when the final budget is expected to go to Council for a vote.
The City's negotiating team is armed with a strong, reaffirmed directive from City Council to keep that 66% cap.
"We've agreed that there should be a line in the sand at 66%," said Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6), summing up the Council's stance.
Thursday's meeting was held at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center – a warmer, more open setting than any venue in the Municipal Plaza Building. (And guests were allowed to enjoy catered snacks and coffee, a pleasure usually reserved for council members and staff.)
The July meeting of the City and police union will be the first face-to-face session since a series of meetings in March that ended with the City's latest offer left on the table, the union unwilling to take it or offer a counter-proposal. Union officials refused to meet again, awaiting the outcome of the mayoral elections. That has now been settled.
San Antonio is paying a larger percentage of its General Fund for public safety than any other major U.S. city. Even with a new deal, at 66%, that will still be the case.
During a coffee break on Thursday, Taylor said she was confident that police union negotiators will show up to the negotiating table.
"From my initial meeting with (SAPOA President Mike Helle) it was clear to me that he would like to maintain as close to the status quo as possible," she said. "I think the offer we made was fair, so I hope that's where their starting point will be."
The March 20 offer, still on the table, upped the City’s wage offer from 9.5% to 10.8% over the proposed four-year contract, including a onetime 2% bonus upon contract ratification by union members, and raises of 3% on Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, a 2.8% raise on Oct. 1, 2016 and a 3% raise on Oct. 1, 2017. Also, the plan calls for union members to only pay premiums for their spouses and dependents who elect to be covered.
The police union had asked for 13.4% increases in wages over that time, and an actual wage increase rather than a onetime lump sum payment once it agrees to a new contract.
Taylor has told the police union that members will forfeit any pay increase in 2015 if an agreement is not reached, and she reiterated past City Council declarations that there will be no retroactive pay raises.
Community Priorities Heard Loud and Clear
After more than 30 input meetings across San Antonio, citizens in each council district have come forward with a consensus list of top priorities: streets, sidewalks, and drainage. The basics. The very same ground-floor City services that were, ironically, cut in order to compensate for ballooning public safety spending. The 2015 budget had a built-in assumption that the 66% mark would be reached with public safety spending before FY 2015 started on Oct 1, 2014. Obviously, that deadline was missed. In September 2014, Council voted to re-allocate $14.2 million from the General Fund – away from street projects – to pay for the resulting public safety deficit.
It's probably a decision that no one in City Hall – or the city – wants the Council to have to make again.
"'Hey, you guys said last year, the number one priority for new dollars was streets, and drainage. And then the second Council had to cut back the budget because we didn't get a union deal. The first thing we cut back on was streets and drainage,'" Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) said, quoting what constituents have told him.
Krier asked Sculley if there was a way to make sure these kinds of line items weren't the first to go if the City was faced with another union contract set back.
"We gave the Council several alternatives and the choices were difficult," Sculley said during the meeting. In addition to cutting the General Fund budget, 75 positions are going unfilled in the Police Department and no paramedics will be hired in 2015. There are still no layoffs planned for uniform or civilian employees during the 2015 fiscal year.
Nearly 2,000 comments were collected at meetings, online, and via social media, and compiled and analyzed by City staff for administration and elected officials. Download the public comment report here. The community also prioritized social and senior services as well as parks and recreation.
"The council gave us clear direction today that we should keep public spending at or below 66%, and that policy will enable us to use any additional revenue we have for those infrastructure improvements," Sculley said later.
Of the 2007 and 2012 bond programs ($550 million and $600 million respectively) "80% of the last bond programs has been devoted to streets, drainage and infrastructure," she said.
The demand for street and sidewalk projects is bottomless. A decade ago, the cost of fixing every single street and sidewalk in the city was estimated to cost $3 billion, Sculley said. That number has only increased as the fast-growing City struggles to keep up with infrastructure costs.
"To be able to tackle that, we have to have a huge part of our budget devoted to infrastructure, and I think that was the message from the community and the message from Council today: Do everything that we can to address streets, sidewalks, and drainage improvements," she said.
Residential home values increased an average of 11% in Bexar County in 2015, surprising many home owners with higher property tax bills. Preliminary property values are up 9.5%. Only 22% of property taxes go to the City of San Antonio. The majority goes to school districts.
"I know folks would appreciate relief, but there are so many demands as far as services, so it's a balancing act," Taylor said.
While many council members – including Krier, Mike Gallagher (D10), Rey Saldaña (D4), Roberto Treviño (D1), Rebecca Viagran (D3) – agreed that a small, symbolic reduction may help public perception and wallets, Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) was weary of reducing revenue in the face of a growing city with growing demands.
"I just don't see how we can reduce property taxes," Warrick said. "Why wouldn't we just use the extra money that we get for streets and sidewalks?"
Most Council members agreed that it's the property appraisal processes that need to be adjusted – but that's in the hands of the Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector. Krier suggested a future meeting with that office on the matter.
"We're saying, collect more – but not as much," Sculley said. "In the past 10 years, we've lowered the rate three times. We've not raised the City property tax rate in more than 20 years. ... I just hope that the other taxing jurisdictions follow the City Council's lead in the symbolism, if nothing more than that, because when we all (lower tax rates), it adds up and it does become impactful."
Over the course of seven hours, council members and staff also discussed municipal broadband, civilian City employee wages, the 2017 bond program timeline, law enforcement technology, annexation, the Alamo Plaza master plan, and solid waste and storm water fees. Click here to download the overview presentation. The long list of budget and policy issues the Council will consider for the next budget goes on: implementation of the Gentrification Task Force's recommendations, the City's overhaul of San Antonio B-Cycle program, the Lone Star Rail District, and homeless policies.
*Featured/top image:From left: Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6), City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Councilmember Rebecca Viagran settle in to the FY 2016 budget meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.