Fire, Police Unions Pledge to Talk If City Drops Lawsuit

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Chris Steele, San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association president, speaks at City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Chris Steele, San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association president, speaks at City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Local police and firefighter unions on Thursday repeated their promise to return to collective bargaining negotiations if the City drops its evergreen clause lawsuit. City officials said the lawsuit will go away only when the unions sign new contracts with the City.

Several dozen members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA) stood on the steps of City Hall while SAPOA President Mike Helle and SAPFA President Chris Steele spoke on behalf of their respective unions.

Helle and Steele addressed State District Judge Martha Tanner’s recent denial of the City’s request for a summary judgment against the unions concerning a clause in fire and police collective bargaining contracts. The contracts’ evergreen clauses will keep the terms of the existing contract in place for 10 years after it expired in September 2014 or until a new agreement is reached.

The clause has been a source of contention between the unions and the City, whose leaders say the clause is unconstitutional as it prolongs existing salaries and benefits to a point that they may begin to saddle the City with an unplanned debt.

The City pursued its pending lawsuit after the police union ended months of on-again, off-again negotiations in September. The fire union has yet to come to the negotiating table.

Union officials said the City shouldn’t bother appealing Judge Tanner’s decision and instead save the money it will spend on continued litigation.

The City has spent $169,000 on the lawsuit to-date, said Jeff Coyle, the City’s Government and Public Affairs director.

Mike Helle, San Antonio Police Officers Association president, speaks about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Mike Helle, San Antonio Police Officers Association president, speaks about the City’s collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

“You lost the lawsuit. Accept defeat in a sportsmanlike manner,” said Steele, who recently was elected to his seventh, two-year term as president. His organization has more than 1,600 members.

A SAPOA press release claimed that City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s current contract is perpetual and has no end date. But officials responded that the City manager is an at-will employee who can be fired by the City Council at any time.

The police and fire unions feel that the City is battling against collective bargaining altogether, Steele said. He recited local government code that refers to collective bargaining as a “fair and practical method for determining compensation and other conditions of employment.”

The police union would “work tirelessly” to get a deal done within 30 days of a dropped lawsuit, if the City would drop it, said Helle. Five Council members have, through press releases, expressed a desire for the City to at least pause litigation in the wake of Tanner’s ruling.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) posted an op-ed piece with the Rivard Report, which said there was no need for an appeal, and that both sides should just return to the negotiation table and finish.

Mayor Ivy Taylor, while speaking to a reporter, echoed a statement she issued last week, recommending that the police union to return to the negotiating table, help the City to arrive at a new contract and effectively stop litigation.

The City will wait until early January to determine if it will proceed with filing an appeal, said Taylor, adding that the police union has had ample time to return to negotiations.

“We have sweetened the pot over and over. The last offer was very generous for police officers and their families, while it let the City achieve its objectives of maintaining health care costs,” she said. “We have to get those costs under control.”

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) defended Sculley’s managerial performance, saying that while the City has 1,000 fewer public employees than before Sculley’s arrival in San Antonio a decade ago. Krier noted that Sculley has since hired 100 more net police officers.

“If we were still paying for those thousand employees we had the day she got here, we would be spending millions of dollars that we are not spending. Why? Because she came here and imposed efficient management,” he said. With the City’s AAA bond rating, Sculley is “worth every penny she’s paid and then some.”

Krier said if the unions do care about taxpayers’ money, they should just return to negotiations. He added that, despite recent statements from five Council members, there is Council support for proceeding with litigation if needed.

“Remember, the City did not leave the negotiating table. The City is ready to sit down anytime today, tomorrow. The union left the negotiating table,” he said.


*Top Image: SAPFA President Chris Steele speaks on the City’s collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Related Stories:

Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive.

Mayor Offers Police Union a Carrot

Gonzales Calls on City to Drop Evergreen Lawsuit

Judge Rules Against City in Lawsuit, City to Appeal

City, Police Union Meet Again, This Time in a Courtroom

Police Union: Drop Lawsuit or Negotiations are Dead

11 thoughts on “Fire, Police Unions Pledge to Talk If City Drops Lawsuit

  1. I’m so very sick of this hogwash. We are a right to work state with a huge growth-rate because we don’t allow unions to strangle the competitiveness of our businesses, but we’re supposed to let these unions have a ten year guarantee of 100% paid health benefits?

    A refusal to give summary judgement means the judge wouldn’t rule without a trial. It does NOT mean the city has “lost” a fair trial.

    I truly wish our city could follow Ronald Reagan’s precedent with the flight controller’s union: fire them all and hire back those that want to work for a fair wage and benefits just like the citizens of this city who fund their salaries do every day.

    • I have to laugh every time I see the “fire them all” comment made. And who will make the calls in San Antonio, BCSO? Might want to check with them, I think they may be a tad understaffed. Reagan fired the air traffic controllers because they violated the law and went on strike; you want to fire 2200 police officers because we have the unmitigated greed and audacity to expect the city to comply with the contract they negotiated and signed, and want to negotiate with the city in accordance with state law? I say we because I am an SAPD officer and have been for 26 years. The city has not accused SAPOA of a work slow down or stoppage; in fact, according to city staff, response times are better than they have been in years, despite of the large number of vacancies the department has. Right now the department can’t fill a class of 45 cadets, how long do you think it will take to replace 2200 officers? And I’m sure officers and applicants will be beating down the door to work for a department that fires its officers for negotiating wage and benefits.

      • Tony,

        Yes. Although my frustration is real, I do understand that this is unworkable. I also do appreciate your 25 years of service as a police officer. Thank you sir.

        That said, I have 27 years in my job, and I and my employees have withstood annual changes to health benefits because of the extreme costs of health care. We of course have to have positive cashflow and at least some profit in order to exist and put food on families tables.

        Surely you can see that an expectation, not of a contract, but of an “evergreen clause” which extends it for ten years, isn’t fair to the taxpayer who has nothing like that same benefit and must pay those costs.

        Holiday best wishes to you, and thanks for the intelligent discourse.

        • Joe,

          I understand your frustration, it’s frustrating for us too. I just hope the animosity that seems to be so bad disappears once the contract is signed. I agree with you the cost of healthcare needs to be reigned in, or it will eat up way too much of the public safety budget. I know the city saves money by not increasing pay during the evergreen period, but I’m not familiar enough with the numbers to know if it’s enough of a savings to cover the healthcare. Thank you for the discourse as well, unfortunately it seems like differing viewpoints degenerate into personal attacks too often on these message areas. I’m glad you feel strongly about this, we realize work for you and ultimately we answer to you.

          I hope you have a good and a safe holiday season.

  2. The constitutionality of the Evergreen Clause is an important issue to resolve whether or not the new Union Contract is resolved,,, so it should not be dropped until settled law for future reference. That will save time and money in the future on many other contracts.

    • The problem is that the city didn’t just argue that the evergreen clause is unconstitutional, apparently the city attorneys made the argument that any multi-year contract is unconstitutional unless the total cost is set aside at the time the contract is signed, or unless a sinking fund is established to cover the costs. That would void any contract the city and the SAPOA sign if it’s true. It’s already hard enough to recruit good applicants, that kind of uncertainty would just make it harder.

      • I can’t see how cost accounting in municipal financing has any affect on recruiting anyone. The whole point of the sinking fund or a set aside is specifically to AVOID UNCERTAINTY. This doesn’t restrict the amount of money spent on any contract/project, just that it has to be accounted for BEFORE the contract/project is approved/starts. It’s good business practice.

        I haven’t read the documents, but my understanding is that because a contract may last over multiple councils, the actions of an earlier council could effectively take away the ability of the future council to act (and the will of the voters) . So the accounting for future obligations would be required. This makes perfect sense and should be done. If the public body doesn’t have the means to finance the project/contract, then there needs to be a mechanism in place to make sure the costs are allocated PRIOR to the start of the contract.

        This is conceptual similar to commercial real estate lease accounting and whether a tenant should recognize the future obligations of the lease in a manner similar to a debt instead of a current operating expense.

        • The effect on recruiting is not due to the cost accounting in municipal finance, it’s due to supply and demand. Right now most departments are having difficulty finding enough qualified applicants. Why would someone come here to San Antonio given the uncertainty and friction between the city and the PD when they can go 90 miles up I-35 and do the same job for more money? I don’t think it’s a coincidence San Antonio is now offering a signing bonus for the first time. Police and fire don’t have as much freedom to switch jobs as other occupations, since you always start at the bottom when you go someplace new. Add that to the way the pension is designed (leave before 20 years and you only get your own money back, no city match or even interest, with no Social Security eligibility) and it is in the applicant’s best interest to try and be sure he is willing to stick it out for 20 years when he takes the job. I do see your point about restricting future city councils and the will of the voters though.

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