Control Issues at the Heart of City’s Fight with Fire Union

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Robin Black (left) speaks with retired fire department Lt. Bert Kuykendall about charters petitions in February 2018.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robin Black speaks with retired fire Lt. Bert Kuykendall about the fire union's charter petition drive in February 2018.

The political action committee formed to defeat the firefighters union’s three “San Antonio First” charter amendments on the November ballot will officially launch its “Go Vote No” campaign Saturday morning at La Villita. But campaign efforts on both sides began long ago at press conferences, on social media, and in and around courtrooms.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide if the City’s charter should include language that:

  • (Prop A) makes it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote;
  • (Prop B) limit future city managers’ salaries and tenure, and;
  • (Prop C) force binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new labor contract.

Control is at the heart of the controversy. San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association officials argue their ballot initiatives would give the citizens of San Antonio a stronger voice in local government. The PAC, called Secure San Antonio’s Future (SSAF), and other opponents, including the mayor, say special interest groups would win if the amendments were approved – while threatening the City’s rare AAA bond rating, costing the city millions in increased interest payments.

A long list of City, state, and local elected officials and business leaders are expected to attend Secure San Antonio’s Future kickoff rally Saturday, according to organizers. That list includes State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), State Rep. Justin Rodriguez (D-San Antonio), State Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio), Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), all City Council members except Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10), and former mayors Phil Hardberger, Ed Garza, and Lila Cockrell.

Secure San Antonio’s Future lost its appeal at the Texas Supreme Court earlier this week regarding a temporary restraining order that could have kept the initiatives off the ballot. The underlying case regarding whether the union illegally paid for a consultant to collect petition signatures for the three initiatives remains active. The union has filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit and filed a separate lawsuit in federal court alleging the City violated its First Amendment rights as it collected signatures. On Wednesday, the union called for SSAF to disclose its donors ahead of the deadline in October. SSAF officials said they have no obligation to do so before then.

The City’s saga with the firefighters union begins, arguably, in 2013 when then-Mayor Julián Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley formed a task force to look at the health care costs associated with the police and fire union contracts with the City. The task force determined unsustainable health care costs for uniformed employees in San Antonio would eventually impede the City’s ability to fund other city services such as parks, libraries, street maintenance and other things funded via the General Fund. The city’s attempt to reign in those and other costs sparked a two-year, on-again-off-again contract negotiation process with the police union.

Meanwhile, the fire union remained relatively silent, refusing to come to the negotiating table.

Both union contracts’ 10-year evergreen clause – which keeps most terms in place until a new agreement is reached – was challenged by the City in court and both said they would not negotiate while that lawsuit, which the City lost in the 4th Court of Appeals and a district court, was being appealed by the City to the Texas Supreme Court.

Ivy Taylor, City of San Antonio former mayor, sits on the #blackvotesmatter panel discussion.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Former San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Former Mayor Ivy Taylor spoke behind closed doors with police union leaders to arrive at a deal, so the City dropped its appeal to the high court. The police union’s contract included a health care package option that would, for the first time, have members pay a reasonable premium for their dependents. It also included an eight-year evergreen clause.

It’s unlikely the City could keep spending on public safety contracts at or below the Council-mandated 66 percent of the General Fund, Sculley said at the time, so it’s likely that the fire union would get a different – less ideal – agreement from police officers.

The City’s stance has been “first in, best contract,” Sculley said in September 2016 when the police union contract was approved by Council.

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court denied the City’s request for an appeal, keeping the 10-year evergreen clause in the fire union’s contract in place. Its current contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014. No negotiations have taken place.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele says the propositions are not a negotiating tactic, rather a result of the “people” of San Antonio asking the fire union for help to reign in a “corrupt” government.

Nirenberg has said the petitions are directly related to the negotiating process – or lack thereof.

“These proposals that they are putting forward are in the self-serving interests of a union leader who has refused in good faith for over four years to come to the table and bargain a solution for his members,” Nirenberg told reporters in April on the day the signed petitions were filed to get the charter amendments on the ballot. He and the Go Vote No campaign have stressed that the amendments have nothing to do with their support of firefighters.

Such ballot initiatives require a fiscal impact report, according to Sculley. One was presented to City Council last month before Council officially placed the fire union’s items on the ballot last month.

Steve Nivin, director of the SABÉR Research Institute and an associate professor of Economics at St. Mary’s University, carried out a City-commissioned study and explained the results to Council.

Nivin’s research found that the City would experience slower economic growth if the ballot amendments were approved, 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.

The amendments could allow voters to micromanage every decision City leaders make, SSAF Campaign Manager Christian Archer said Wednesday, throwing the local government into chaos.

San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall in April 2018.

“That pretty much describes how cavalier they are with three propositions that [could] have a devastating effect on our city,” he said.

The propositions also threaten the City’s AAA bond rating, according to statements issued by Fitch and Standard & Poor, two of the three major rating agencies, earlier this summer.

The City’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said at the time he was “personally surprised” by their statements as “they don’t typically speculate” about what could impact bond ratings.

A lower bond rating could result in the same ballooning costs the health care task force said would affect the city. Gorzell said the result would be fewer infrastructure projects and a possible increase in property taxes to keep up the current level of service.

CPS Energy officials also have said it could impact the utility’s credit rating, too.

But union officials deny these propositions would impact bond ratings, property taxes, or growth.

“Cities and States all over the country who allow their citizens more voice at the ballot box share our credit ratings. The fact is that City leaders were tone deaf to the voters last year and raised utility rates. Voters didn’t have a voice and were not allowed to weigh in on the issue,” according to a February post on San Antonio First’s website.

However, San Antonio is the only U.S. city with more than 1 million residents to achieve the highest rating from any of the three agencies.

“Your Firefighters are simply saying if it takes 20,000 signatures on a petition to allow voters to voice their opinion at the ballot box and change the City Charter, why not be consistent and make the same rules apply to changing a City Ordinance. Giving voters a voice should never be used as a threat like claiming it will hurt credit ratings,” the website states.

Asked Thursday what Nirenberg would like voters to remember when entering voting booths on Nov. 6, he said, “These special-interest charter proposals will irreparably damage our city’s economic future and will end up costing taxpayers more.”

Below, find the ballot language that will accompany each proposition on the ballot:

Prop A: Changing Referendum Process

“Shall the City Charter be amended to expand the types of ordinances that may be subject to referendum including appropriation of money, levying a tax, granting a franchise, fixing public utility rates, zoning and rezoning of property; and to increase the number of days within which a petition may be filed seeking a referendum on an ordinance passed by Council from forty to one hundred eighty days after passage of the ordinance; and to provide that no more than twenty thousand signatures of registered voters are required for a referendum petition instead of ten percent of those electors qualified to vote at the last regular municipal election?”

Prop B: Term and Salary Cap for City Manager

“Shall the City Charter be amended to limit the term the City Manager may serve to no longer than eight years, and to limit the compensation of the City Manager to no more than ten times the annual salary furnished to the lowest paid full-time city employee, and to require a supermajority vote of City Council to appoint the City Manager?”

Prop C: Forced Arbitration for Collective Bargaining Agreement

“Shall the City Charter be amended to provide the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 624 with unilateral authority to require the City to participate in binding arbitration of all issues in dispute with the Association within forty-five days of the City’s receipt of the Association’s written arbitration request?”

14 thoughts on “Control Issues at the Heart of City’s Fight with Fire Union

  1. Interesting article on a very important subject. The article hints at “corruption” in the city but doesn’t provide any examples or specifics.
    Secondly, it would be nice to also have specific examples of other cities with similar language in their charter or that have been able to successfully work with their civil service unions and explain how they have done it.
    I can’t say that I am a fan of binding arbitration because that is a closed proceeding and it is incredibly expensive. We have our legal system in place for a reason, and it would be nice to have transparency for those instances too. So, at least two alternatives: 1. Agree to a mutual fast-track process in a court system, or two: allow the arbitration proceedings to be publicized.
    Finally, what does a “model” system look like for fire/police agreements with a city? Give some examples of that too. I know we are still struggling with evergreen clauses, etc., but if we can identify the model that we want to work toward, maybe 5-10-15 years down the road we can finally get there.

  2. We should not amend the City Charter for this issue. That is not the right way to get the issues resolved. It is the Firefighters Union’s responsibility to negotiate. It would be good if they had a leader who wasn’t on a power trip.

  3. Apparently the mayor and big business bosses fear more participation by the people.
    Their argument that the city of San Antonio will lose credit rating is ludicrous.
    I support our firefighters!

    • Everyone supports our firefighters. People don’t support Chris Steele. And the fact that you think losing our credit rating is not a real threat demonstrates that you do not understand the gravity of the situation.

      • The city and it’s bosses from the Chamber of Commerce don’t respect firefighters including Chris Steele.
        It was the city that initiated this fight and has lost twice in court. I stand with the firefighters union!

  4. Plenty of mention of the 2013 task force finding that firefighters healthcare was going to bankrupt the city, however, no mention in this article if any of those findings have come to fruition.

    We should have solid numbers by now to substantiate or refute the firefighters then 2013 claim that the task force was a sham loaded with friends of City Hall who cherry picked the findings.

    Seems to me if we have $15M to drop on a critter bridge and countless other pork projects, the City might not be in nearly as dire straits as they predicted.

    The reason why the City is so scared of these propositions is because special interests already run this City straight from City Hall. No votes needed when you’ve got the ears of a majority of council. By voting yes, council and the special interests power would be threatened if they oversteped their limits. Case in point: giving away prime real estate to a developer when it was specifically given to the city to be a public park. How can any citizen of this city think that’s OK?! Vote YES to make sure the people have a say!

    • How can there be updated numbers when no one has negotiated a new contract?

      But you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. First you lament high parks spending, then you decry the city giving park land over to a developer.

      It sounds like you’re just finding a reason to attack city spending. SA has a AAA credit rating, hardly the greedy spendthrifts you seem to accuse them of being.

      Btw, if amazing, premium free, low co-pay healthcare plans for every firefighter and their family cost only $15 million, I’m sure the city would be glad to pay for it. But these kind of things (that should be national priorities!) can’t be the cities responsibility. Healthcare is amazingly expensive. According to this website these plans are the best in the state. Drug prices are very high. Healthcare should be left to national or even state lawmakers so that the city can concentrate on making SA an even better place to live.

  5. I have made numerous phone calls to lawmakers to try to get answers, but nobody wants or has information. I am a retired N.Y. teacher and use Medicare and Supplemental for my retirement. The costs are cheap. We certainly should not have to pay for FF’s medical at this stage, as it has (and continues) to bankrupt cities like New York, Chicago, Bell, CA, Detroit, etc. Already, the taxpayers (homeowners) in S.A. never stop complaining to me about taking out loans to pay school and local taxes….hitting there 401K plans, and borrowing money from parents to pay. The scams are endless in this city.

  6. Can’t we all just get along?
    Such a cliche, right?
    I’m going to be completely honest, I’m not a fan of politics. I believe that it’s a bunch of crap!
    Let’s be real!
    We all know what is right. We know firefighters put there lives in danger for us every day they go to work.
    We also know they should, like teachers , have medical coverage. Why are we not going after the real culprit here? The Pharmaceutical company’s? This shouldn’t be a yes or no. This shouldn’t be an issue. In my very personal opinion, we shouldn’t have CEO’S with fat stacks of cash and people who are a positive influence and help to our community struggling!!
    I’m sorry but it absolutely boggles the mind. Vote with your heart and not your motives.
    I’m not saying yes or no. Please ,dont be influenced by anything other then your own knowledge.

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