The contract negotiations between the City of San Antonio and police union came to a short-term stalemate Friday afternoon after several hours of proposal analysis. Union officials said Mayor Ivy Taylor's July 31 deadline – to come to an agreement or there could be no wage increases built into the budget next year – was an empty "threat" and the negotiating team will not return to the table again until August.
"It's not a threat, it's a fact," said Jeff Londa, the City's lead negotiator. "The City Manager (Sheryl Sculley) must present a balanced budget to City Council by August 6. These offers are going to expire at the end of July."
Without the financial certainty of a new contract, City budget officers will have to move forward with a fiscal year 2016 General Fund Budget, which starts Oct. 1, that will not include a pay raise or bonus for the city’s 4,000 uniformed police and firefighters. It also eliminates the possibility of a wage increase or bonus in 2015.
"We need to know how much we need to set aside for our proposed budget," said Erik Walsh, deputy city manager.
While the existing contract's evergreen clause enables it to stay in effect for 10 years – the constitutionality of which is currently being challenged by a lawsuit brought by the City – there will be no built-in pay increases for officers until a new contract is signed.
"We didn't issue an ultimatum on (when the deadline is), the mayor can answer for herself," said Ron DeLord, the San Antonio Police Officers Association's lead negotiator, who will be on a vacation until the end of July. "We've bargained past July 31 year after year. ... We're prepared to keep bargaining, (but) we're not coming back before July 31 – I'll be on a motorcycle somewhere."
DeLord cited the 1988 contract negotiations that lasted three years. The City would rather avoid the uncertainty of an unsigned contract.
"I'm not prepared to make any comparisons to 1988," Walsh told reporters after the meeting.
"To leave issues like this open because it took us three years to do it 15 years ago? That's absolutely not a good reason for why we shouldn't nail this down now," he added later. "This is why we're challenging the 10-year evergreen clause – it binds us beyond the terms of the agreement."
The need for certainty is tied to the City's ability to maintain a balanced, well-reasoned budget, which effects the City's Triple A bond rating. San Antonio police have a richer benefits program than police in any other Texas city and the costs eat up a higher percentage of the City’s general budget than any other Texas city. The Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force report presented to City Council in March 2014 demonstrated that public safety costs needed to be reined in to avoid a coming financial crisis.
Union members are prepared to deal with possible losses in the short-term if it means they'll get a better long-term contract, SAPOA President Mike Helle said. "We have our marching orders from our rank and file, they're very much aware of what the consequences are."
He added that he will be available for the rest of July for informal communications via email to move the conversation forward. "It's not the end of the world," Helle said. "We can pick it up (in August) where we left off."
Both sides have budged, albeit slightly, on their contract proposals during the 18 months of prolonged, often interrupted collective bargaining talks in terms of wage increases and health care benefits. But so far, they've been unable to close the more than $29 million-gap between the City's most recent $45.2 million proposal and union's $74.2 million proposal. The City also modified its March 20 and July 15 proposals and offered them as alternative options totaling. They total $44.2 million and $45.2 million, respectively.
While the police union's proposal would bring the public safety budget to within the Council-mandated goal of 66% of the General Fund, it assumes that the firefighters will accept a contract that includes no wage increases. It's been reasonably estimated throughout the police union negotiations that the firefighters will want a similar – if not more robust – contract that the police receive.
"That's how they were able to achieve 66%," Walsh said. "By leaving nothing for anyone else."
Other disagreements stand in the way of a new contract even if wages and health care concerns are hammered out including contractual language usage and clauses, length of the contract, education reimbursements, and other important details. Also un-touched is the firefighters union contract, representatives have not responded to the City's request for a meeting.
City negotiators said it needs family members of police officers covered by their health care plans to start paying premiums – at least a percentage. SAPOA agrees – but doesn't want to begin with this contract. Helle said they'd rather see a slower transition towards that model. One of the two health care plans in the union's proposal does include some premium cost-sharing. The City's latest rejected offer includes a year of premium-free health care for both plans.
"They've had the same level of health care coverage where they don't pay a premium for themselves or their families for almost 40 years. So asking to change that paradigm in one, big fell swoop – doesn't happen over night," Helle said.
For the first time, SAPOA conceded that members could take a lump-sum as a signing bonus instead of a percentage increase, something that the City has asked for since the beginning. But the Friday's police union proposal – which included a 3% signing bonus – was too high, City officials said, especially when added to other wage increases and longevity pay throughout the life of the contract.
The two teams will likely meet up in early August, but it's unclear how either side's proposals will change during the more than a two week break – after breaking the mayor's deadline.
*Featured/top image: SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks with reporters after the meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.