Fire Union Scores Win Against City in Battle Over Evergreen Clause

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San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele

The Texas Supreme Court will not take on the City of San Antonio's appeal of a lower court's ruling that upheld the firefighters union contract's 10-year evergreen clause, according to a list of court orders published Friday on the court's website.

The City argued in its original 2014 lawsuit that the clause, which keeps most of the terms of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association's expired contract with the City in place for 10 years or until a new agreement is reached, is unconstitutional because it binds the City to unsustainable spending practices. But the Fourth Court of Appeals and a district court ruled in favor of the fire union.

"The Supreme Court's decision is total vindication for our position which two courts have already ruled in our favor," reads a statement from the fire union, which goes on to characterize City Manager Sheryl Sculley as a power-hungry "unelected out of town bureaucrat." Click here to download the statement.

"We will evaluate our position and discuss our next steps with the Membership. ... It isn't over yet; we have much more work to do."

The City’s current collective bargaining agreement with the union expired Sept. 30, 2014, and it filed lawsuits against the police and firefighters contracts’ evergreen clauses nearly two months later. The police union agreed to a new contract with the City in 2016 after embittered negotiations that included an eight-year evergreen clause.

The fire union has refused to negotiate while the City pursued its appeals. It's unclear if the high court's decision means fire union officials will come to the negotiating table.

"We aren’t going to waste time looking back," Mayor Ron Nirenberg stated in a news release. "Union leaders have said the lawsuit was the roadblock to negotiations. Now that it is over, they should come to the table. The public deserves good faith negotiations. We must remember that we are at this point due to the shortsighted decisions of the past. I’m committed to making sure that the City’s future contracts with police officers and firefighters are fair to all involved, are legal and done right.

“[Fire union President] Chris Steele has my phone number," Nirenberg added in a separate email to the Rivard Report. "Steele said he would come to the table the day after the lawsuit was gone. I’m available tomorrow."

Steele could not be reached immediately for comment.  At a press conference in March, he said he would negotiate if "they drop the lawsuit," which the City did not do. Rather, the Supreme Court dropped it.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a longtime critic of Nirenberg who worked for the police and fire unions as a consultant before he was elected to Council in 2017, said it's unlikely Steele will come to the table any time soon.

"I don't really think [the union's response is] going to be, 'Let’s go back to the table and everything is hunky-dory and nothing happened," said Brockhouse, who has said he plans to run for mayor at some point. "But the union wants to be at the table because that’s where’s the deal’s at."

The State Supreme Court's decision, he said, is "vindication" for the fire union and that he has "been saying for years that you shouldn't be suing family and the [City's flawed lawsuit is] total waste of time and energy."

City officials were confident that the high court would agree to hear the case, especially when the court asked for briefs in December 2017.

The City has spent more than $1 million arguing these lawsuits and appeals, Brockhouse said. "Now I turn the finger and say to Sheryl Sculley and Ron Nirenberg, 'What are you going to do now?'" he added. 

The lawsuit against the police union, City officials argue, resulted in a more sustainable contract and cost avoidance that far outweighs the legal bills. After a task force formed under former Mayor Julián Castro and Sculley found that the City's healthcare costs for uniformed employees would outpace revenue, the then-City Council agreed to have negotiators try to rein in costs in future contracts. The City will save an estimated $87.5 million in healthcare costs for police officers over five years, according to officials.

"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court will not hear the case, but we believe the legal challenge was a necessary result of the union’s unwillingness to negotiate for more than four years,” Sculley stated in the City's release. "The union has used the 10-year evergreen clause to avoid having the conversation about whether their benefits are sustainable and affordable to taxpayers. Now that the legal challenge is over, there is no reason for the union not to come to the table. We remain ready and willing to negotiate."

Meanwhile, the City and fire union continue to fight another war being waged in the hearts and minds of voters as three petitions crafted by the union make their way to the November ballot.

Voters will decide if the City’s charter should include language that limits future city managers’ salaries and tenure, forces binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract, and makes it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote.

The union's "San Antonio First" campaign says the petitions aim to giving citizens a stronger voice. But that voice, City officials have said, would be overtaken by special interest groups that want to leverage the threat of easier ballot initiatives to control local legislation.

It's gearing up to be at least a million-dollar fight as Secure San Antonio's Future – a political action committee supported by Nirenberg, several Council members, and business leaders – launches its aggressive fundraising efforts and anti-charter change campaign, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

“It is the duty I take very seriously as a member of this council, but also as mayor of this city, to not remain agnostic when people attempt to hurt this city – which is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the motivation behind [these] petitions,” Nirenberg said when the petitions were verified in May.

“We do hope the citizens of this city take notice of what’s happening here to make sure they have a say in the future – a positive future – for the city.”

26 thoughts on “Fire Union Scores Win Against City in Battle Over Evergreen Clause

  1. Nirenberg and Silly Council do not want to be held accountable. Plain and simple. That’s why they pushed through ethics and finance reform without much debate. The referendums are great- San Antonio citizens have basically no say in what Council does today. For example, the smoking age thing- which I don’t support smoking- but it should’ve gone to the voters.

    We must reduce these petty tyrants’ powers and make them accountable for screwing the citizens. Better via the ballot box than by bullet, to paraphrase.

      • lol no, “Snowflake”. Don’t get scared. It’s a paraphrase from a civil rights speech by Malcolm X in the 60’s. But most likely being a product of hilariously bad SA public schools, you wouldn’t get the reference.

        My comment was to say, I’d rather have the people vote on these things than an unaccountable Council.

        • As the members of city council are elected by voters, they are already held accountable. The voters elected them to make these decisions, that’s how it works, Jose.

        • Our city council has 2 year terms. If you want to hold them accountable, then vote them out of office. I don’t want to go to the polls for every little thing. I sure don’t want to be micromanaging the city council. The worst bosses are those who micromanage! What’s the point of electing officials then?

      • You are kidding. Right? Somehow I missed the controversy, just someone voicing an opinion about city politics. Humm

    • The City of San Antonio Fire and Police pension is a model for the rest of the country. Switching these pensions to 401ks only benefit money managers who make huge profits off of these plans . Perhaps you represent one of these money managers?

      • This is how municipal monies are siphoned from other city programs that rely on US. Public Service Pension is well funded when compared to other Metro areas ( Think Dallas), rising Healthcare costs are the concern.

  2. The city is trying to figure out how to pay for affordable housing, while public employee unions hold.the city hostage. Plenty of blame to be shared with city officials who negotiated the ten year evergreen clause.

    • City governments weren’t created to control the housing market. Perhaps if leadership would bring better jobs to the city instead of wasting time and money on lawsuits and statues, the city would be better off.

  3. Nirenberg claims that passage of the firefighter referendum will lead to special interests controlling the city. He needs to open his eyes and acknowledge the fact that special interests already control the city. Interests like the hotel industry, banks, land developers, all that buy their influence from our weak “leaders.”
    What Nirenberg fears is that the people will finally have a real voice!

  4. Iris, please consider doing a story that reminds people, like myself, which people are responsible for the evergreen clause. This is a perfect example of my continuous drum beat to hold folks accountable for their actions/votes. Who on city council and within San Antonio leadership positions encouraged a vote for the evergreen clause and who is responsible for the $1M spent to fight the union (I assume Sculley and Nirenberg?). Who would of thought the courts would have overturned a contract negotiated and signed in good faith??? Unbelievable. What tax or bond is going to fund this debacle going forward??

  5. The heart of the union issue is 100% paid medical insurance for fire personnel and their families. When so many people in S.A. don’t even have health insurance let alone free insurance, it is completely unrealistic. I can’t support the union, the Evergreen clause, or the vote on everything amendment they hope to pass. Now, if they want me to vote on whether to have a fire union, I will be happy to vote them out.

    • They do pay for healthcare. They pay out of pockets and deductibles. Granted, they’re low by today’s standards, but remember they also haven’t had a pay raise since 2014.

      The heart of the matter is the City manager wants the firefighters to take an enourmous overall compensation pay cut. They love to flout their generous 5-6% pay raises they’re offering, but fail to mention they’re taking away 10% in benefits on the backend.

      Don’t believe everything you read. Fake news isn’t so great at getting all the facts. Only the ones the city wants you to hear.

    • Do the citizens of SA really feel safer because the family members of police and firemen have 100% health coverage? I don’t think so..the union compromises the integrity of the individuals who conduct those jobs. I have respect for each person whose job entails hazardous situations. I don’t have respect for their union who hold the city (and it’s residents) hostage.

      • Remember, more than 80% of fire department calls are for EMS. We probably have way more firefighters than we need and we don’t need to pay them through the nose. Eventually, cities will realize they should not be planning based on the movie The Towering Inferno.

        Cut the fire department down to size.

        • Everyone in the SAFD is an EMT or Paramedic. Don’t be misled by the title ‘firefighter.’ Eighty percent of the calls may be medical (which firefighters respond to), but that 20% is the structure fire, hazmat incident, technical rescue, purposeful mass casualty, active shooter, weapon of mass destruction type call that they train for every shift. Hopefully they will never have to put those skills to use. Slashing the force is a dangerous consideration in this fast-growing city. How quickly we forget of the dangers around us every day.

  6. Nirenberg says he will fight people/positions that hurt the city. He needs to look in the mirror after spending over $1M to fight the lawsuit and was probably part of the inane group that agreed to the evergreen clause in the first place.

  7. Fire Union will not come to negotiation table in a week. I remember reading in SAEN that Fire Union stated they would run the health benefits program, saving money… HA HA. Let evergreen clause continue ( 6 more years) and give no pay increases during this time ( does clause require mandatory annual increases ). Healthcare costs for Public Safety/Sector bankrupt/siphon municipal coffers.

    • The fire and police unions already manage the retiree healthcare plan. They realized huge savings when they opened their own clinic here in town specifically for the uniformed retirees. It’s amazing what can happen when the bureaucracy is removed.

      That’s a great idea to not give raises, etc for 10 years total to FF’s, EMS and Police. You do realize these are the people you call when you’re having the worst day of your life. No pay raises for 10 years and horrible healthcare won’t have any effect whatsoever on the quality of people who will be coming to help you.

      • Then negotiate. That is what the city has requested since the beginning.
        The Union is representing good people but damaging morale and quality of life for the whole community by asking for more than a fair share. No one wants to short change their pay, we need them, but not at any price.

  8. When you look at the list of “highest paid firefighters,” we pay an average of $65,160 in San Antonio. Sacramento, Hartford, Boston, San Diego, Washington DC, Napa (CA), other cities in CA, even Honolulu, pay less than we do. Their costs of housing are tremendously higher than ours. So why do we pay so much? Because too much of the firefighter and police pay is about politics, not fiscal reality of the city, and, dare I say, some corruption as well.

    Firefighters can go get medical training and pull shifts in an ambulance and make an extra $20+/hour. Cops can pull private-security duty and make easily into the $60-90k range per year, depending on how hard they want to work. If firefighters and cops want to make more money, there are plenty of avenues available, but it should be on a “work” system, not an entitlement system.

    Average household wage in North America is about $54,000. For an unskilled position that provides all the training for free, they should likely get paid in the $30-45k range. That can include a 401k plan of 8% match per year. Corporations figured out years ago that fully funded pensions were going to bankrupt them, so they switched from Defined Benefit Plans to Defined Contribution Plans and/or 401k’s. I’d be okay with a DCP, but it’s obvious that DBP’s are not-sustainable.

    I’d also recommend giving them health care at 100% for themselves because of the risky nature of their position, but only at 60% for their families. They should be on the “financial” hook to decide about getting married, having kids, and determining if their wives stay at home or not, and how they want to pay for the health care for the entire family. Every other non-governmental employee in San Antonio makes that decision every day.

  9. Research student in applied sociology . I try to understand how you use legitimate means of your power as the the employer to negotiate with your workers, and the third party (Union).How would you build a coalition to stop the attack and promote negotiation that will bring your opponent to their senses,not their knees. You can do it, from adversaries to partners if you choose.

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