While police union and City of San Antonio leadership have finally agreed on a new five-year contract, it will be up to union membership and then City Council to give final approval this summer. Until then, it’s not a done deal.

For City Council’s end of the deal, almost all elected officials showed up to a press conference on the front steps of City Hall on Wednesday to show their support of the agreement that has been more than two years in the making. For the police union side, President Mike Helle will stay busy appearing in a series of union meetings and town halls over the next several weeks to explain the terms of the proposed new contract to union members.

A draft of the latest contract proposal will be made available to the public on Friday, June 24, according to City officials.

Helle expects a union vote by August, and he believes a solid 60% majority of the rank and file already supports the deal. City council does not meet in July, but returns in August and could ratify the agreement before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. That would put a new contract into effect on Oct. 1, the first day of the new fiscal year, two years after the last five-year collective bargaining agreement expired.

“We have to explain to them what this new (plan) will look like, what that means to them as far cost and money out of their pocket – kinda lay it all out for them so they can make an educated decision,” Helle said.

SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks to the police union's new wage increase healthcare and clothing allowance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks to the police union’s new wage increase healthcare and clothing allowance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

The settlement agreement between the City and police union was reached during a court-ordered mediation on Monday after prolonged, contentious negotiations, but the union’s 2,150 police officers must accept the deal before City Council can formally vote to approve. The mediation sessions were a requirement of a still-pending lawsuit the City brought against the union, challenging the constitutionality of the 10-year evergreen clause included in the existing contract. The new proposal would reduce that down to eight years, leaving in effect a lengthy evergreen clause and seemingly contradicting the City’s earlier position that such evergreen clauses do not meet the legal test.

“I think we can all agree that it’s time to move on and get back to working together as a team to serve and protect our San Antonio community,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor at Wednesday’s joint press conference.

The evergreen clause was one of three core issues addressed in the new contract, along with health care costs and wage increases.

“As is often the case in negotiations, neither side accomplishes everything they want, but pending ratification by the union membership and the City Council’s approval, we will have accomplished some key objectives,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. “Most importantly we will be able to give our police officers a raise while they, for the first time, will also share in the cost of health care.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley announces the terms of agreement for new labor contract with the police union. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley announces the terms of a new labor contract with the police union. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Both sides agreed to concessions, but this latest and perhaps final proposal follows the trend of negotiations that had the City offering increasingly rich packages while striving to keep public safety spending under 66% of the General Fund and to properly forecast the 2017 fiscal year City budget, scheduled for Council vote in September.

While the new deal keeps spending under 66% for the first three years (2017-2019), spending is projected to exceed that to 66.3% in 2020 and 67.6% in 2021. Assuming the future costs also exceed the 66% cap mandated by Council vote, the mediated settlement and new contract will void  the instructions officeholders gave the City’s negotiators.

“We’ll see what happens. We could have a recession hit … or we could end up doing well financially,” said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh. “We’re not going to have an immediate issue.”

If the new contract does consistently exceed the 66% cap in future years it will place future City Councils in the same position recent mayors and Council members have experienced where rising public safety costs make ti difficult to finance other City services.

A previous health care proposal, which police and City officials seemed close to agreeing on in September 2015, had an estimated yearly cost per officer at around $13,500. The new contract estimates $15,900 per officer per year, Walsh said.

But since that proposal was made, there has been a year’s worth of additional health care costs, Walsh said. Without a contract, while operating “in evergreen,” the City was anticipating average health care costs starting at $20,000 per officer in 2017.

“The timing allows us to have certainty as staff spends the summer months … developing the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 which must be approved by City Council by law by the end of September,” Sculley said.

Unlike the City’s more than 7,500 civilian employees, police and fire union members do not pay premiums for their own or their qualifying family members. This is the first contract in at least 20 years that would include a health care plan option that has family members – spouses and children – paying premiums.

The so-called “standard” option requires family members to pay premiums. The “consumer driven” option has high deductibles, but police officers and dependents will not pay premiums. The City has 2,385 authorized positions for police officers and 149 vacancies, according to City numbers, with 81 cadets on the way.

“Not everybody got what they wanted, but they got it done,” Helle said.

SAPOA President Mike Helle greets Beaux County city council members. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
SAPOA President Mike Helle greets City Council members. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

If the contract goes into evergreen, those premiums will go up 10% each year to slightly mitigate the cost of operating in evergreen. The $15,900 total cost per officer was arrived at by estimating how many officers would opt in to either the standard or consumer driven health care plans. City officials did not have the anticipated split between plans on hand, but those numbers will be published when they become available.

“Their numbers are all really close. It’s not going to really tip the scale financially,” Walsh said.

Does the proposed contract contain health care costs for uniformed personnel? That was a key objective of City leadership three years ago when the matter was formally studied by a task force appointed by then-Mayo Julián Castro. What is clear is that the cost of health care for police and firefighters, if the latter union members accept the same deal, will continue to be significantly higher than the cost of health care for the City’s civilian workers.

The most recent proposals made by the City nearly one year ago were for four-year contracts. Because this is a five-year contract, Walsh said, it’s difficult to compare total contract costs of previous proposals to Monday’s settlement agreement. Wage comparisons are similarly difficult, but the latest four-year contract proposed by the City on Sept. 25, 2015 included 13% wage increases over the life of the contract as well as a 3% salary-based signing bonus for each officer.

As proposed, union members will receive a 17% wage increase over five years: A 3% lump sum in year one (2017), 3% in years two through four (2018-2020) and a 5% increase in year five (2021), according to the City.

“There would be no retroactive pay for the two years that officers have gone without a raise,” Taylor said.

The new deal would increase each officer’s clothing allowance by $800 over five years and eliminate a $1.5 million legal fund used by officers to cover personal legal expenses. The later arrangement is contingent on the fire union’s agreement to accept the contract terms.

“It’s important to note that we haven’t begun negotiating with the fire union,” Mayor Taylor said.

The City’s lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the evergreen clause is on hold until the agreement is finalized. If it’s not approve, then the City will continue to appeal a lower court ruling that favored the police union. Police union officials said throughout the process that they would only come back to the table if the lawsuit was completely dropped. The lawsuit against the fire union’s evergreen clause continues.

“I think fire (union) is going to be greatly motivated to come to the table,” Sculley said. The City has asked the union to come to the table eight times over the past two years without success.

It seems the court-ordered mediation, led by Eric Galton of Austin-based Lakeside Mediation Center, was the tool needed to get the police and City talking again.

There was “absolutely” no way a new contract could have been reached without the court-ordered mediation, Helle said. “It was more of a dog and pony show” during the dozens of public meetings held since 2013. “One side was afraid to maybe look bad in front of the camera … there was always this panic back and forth. I think the mediation piece took a lot of the side-show out of (the negotiation process) and down to the brass tacks.”

Helle also gives “extreme credit to the mayor” for taking an “active role” in bringing the two sides together. After the press conference, he explained that it was “obvious our communication with the City Manager wasn’t going anywhere.”

Mayor Taylor shifted the credit back to Sculley.

“I’m very proud of the City’s negotiating team working (under) the direction of our excellent City Manager Sheryl Sculley,” she said. “They worked hard to carry out the policy direction provided by our City Council.”

This could be just the first step in reducing health care costs for union members and bringing their plans more closely in line with civilian health care plans.

“Let’s get this ratified first before we start talking about the future,” Sculley said after the press conference. “But we all know health care costs are continuing to escalate. They have dramatically increased over the past decade, which is why we’ve been striving to get employee participation in the cost of health care.”

It’s not just about what the City pays, she added, it’s about having a healthy workforce.

“We want them to make good choices that are not just about the City’s finances, but good for their own wellbeing,” Sculley said.

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Top Image: Mayor Ivy Taylor looks to SAPOA President Mike Helle during the announcement of the new labor contract with the police union.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Related Stories:

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

City, Police Union: We Have a Deal – Finally 

Police Union and City Officials Are Talking, Quietly

Court Orders Mediation for Police Union and City

Police Cadets Begin Training Amid Lawsuit and Stalled Negotiation

Mayor Offers ‘Olive Branch,’ Police Union Says ‘Absolutely Not’

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com