The lead negotiator for the City of San Antonio arrived at collective bargaining talks Tuesday with a counter-offer to the proposal put on the table by the San Antonio Police Officers Association a week ago. For the first time, both sides are looking at the same plan and proposing alternative versions that suggest a deal is within grasp.
The difference in the cost of health care benefits for members of the police union in the City and SAPOA proposals remains significant, yet close enough that a deal could be struck in future sessions.
The City's counter-proposal adopts the general structure of the union's proposal submitted at last week's meeting. It differs is a few key areas. One is the elimination of all out-of-network (OON) coverage. It also reduces the total cost per uniformed employee per year to $10,000, fitting squarely inside the placeholder allocation in the 2015 City budget approved by City Council earlier this month.
The proposal presented by police union negotiators would cost $12,200 per uniformed officer.
The polite, relaxed atmosphere from last week's meeting carried over to Tuesday's two-hour meeting as the two sides met for the second of three planned meetings to discuss a new agreement that would replace the current five-year contract that expired today. An "evergreen clause" in that contract keeps all of the elements in place until a new agreement is reached or 10 year passes, a clause City negotiators are determined to modify in any new contract. Standard evergreen clauses run 30-90 days and are meant to bridge collective bargaining talks near completion.
Benefit plan experts for both sides are expected to meet separately in between collective bargaining meetings to work at closing the gap. The two sides will convene again Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the B Session room of the Municipal Plaza Building. The negotiations are open to the public.
The City’s new proposal offers three levels of coverage for uniform employees, mirroring the union proposal: a Legacy Plan similar to the current level of benefits with very modest premiums and co-pays; a Value Plan with higher deductibles and co-pays and lesser premiums; and a Consumer-Driven Plan with higher deductibles, out-of-pocket costs and no premiums. Download the police union's proposal from last week here. Download the City's counter-offer here.
Council voted in September to hold public safety spending to 66.5 % of the general fund budget, so any softening of the City’s position will require cuts to other departmental budgets. Both proposed plans are far less than the estimated $14,868 health care costs for each uniformed employee this year, but substantially more than the $7,200 the City spends on health care benefits for its civilian employees. Union attorneys estimate their proposal would set public safety spending at 67%.
Both sides are looking for a compromise.
"It still remains to be seen what those compromising issues can be and I'll let the health care experts work though those issues, come back, and see what we can get to," said SAPOA President Mike Helle after the meeting. "(The City has said) there is some flexibility in that ($10,000) number – we appreciate that there is some flexibility in there. Both sides are working hard to find a compromise that both sides are comfortable with. We understand the dynamics of what's at stake."
Jeff Londa, a Houston attorney representing the City, would not officially say that there is wiggle room on the $10,000, "but we're trying to bridge the gap."
Rank and file members are okay with paying monthly premiums for the first time, Helle said, but many are concerned about that premiums and out-of-pocket health care costs will not be offset by pay raises.
"We certainly don't want to be a situation where our officers are in a negative equity situation where they're actually making less because of premiums that they might have to pay for health care," he said.
Londa reiterated the option of using some – not all – of the savings from a new, leaner health care plan for a pay raise.
Attorneys spent the better part of today's meeting considering other, less contentious items within the contract. General language clarification and other housekeeping items and revisions including promotion procedure; cadet probationary periods, hiring, and training; leave provisions; and psychological and medical evaluations.
"They didn't put the tough stuff on the table (today)," DeLord said after the meeting. "There were a lot of other concessionary things they had put in their original proposal and we don't know if they're bringing them back or not ... pay raise, dental/vision, group legal, the evergreen clause ... could all come up next week."
DeLord was confident that talks will continue beyond next week's meeting, providing that no one draws any hard lines in the sand.
"It's going to start tightening down," DeLord said. "Right now nobody knows exactly where the line is ... the rubber will hit the road (next week) when we really have to make tough decisions."
The renewal of productive talks comes after a long and strained period of impasse. The two sides originally agreed in March to negotiate a new contract by June 1. Instead, talks that finally began in May broke down in mid-June after the police union hired a new lead negotiator and the City took a hard line toward holding spending at the 66.5% level. The firefighters union has yet to come to the bargaining table.
Over several annual budget cycles, City Manager Sheryl Sculley has identified rising public safety costs as the City’s biggest fiscal challenge, with steep increases in health care benefits and pension obligations reaching untenable levels. Projections of public safety costs continuing as-is were estimated to overtake the entire general budget as soon as 2030.
*Featured/top image: City (left) and police union (right) representatives during the collective bargaining meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
See all stories related to the current contract negotiations here.