Only two days after Mayor Ivy Taylor took the oath of office, the San Antonio Police Officer Association released a 4:28 video to its rank and file Thursday laying down the gauntlet against city leaders and promising a member-funded public relations offensive defending the union’s rich benefits package.
Union President Mike Helle is the only person to appear in the video. He said union dues are being increased to fund the campaign and the union’s decision to change tactics after the City rejected union proposals.
“I want you to know that ends today,” Helle said, saying the union has been making good faith efforts to propose solutions, only to see them rejected. “We intend to raise our dues to fund a war chest. We will focus on taking the message directly to the community through the use of radio, television, block walking, and direct mail. We will utilize online marketing and social media.”
The latest salvo comes nearly two months after collective bargaining talks between the City and union broke down over proposed cuts in union health care and special pay benefits that would require uniformed personnel to pay insurance premiums, higher co-pays, and better manage medical costs.
The City and police union signed an agreement in March to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of June, 90 days in advance of the current five-year contract expiring on Sept. 30.
Union negotiator Ron DeLord told the Rivard Report last week that it would now take until the end of 2014 to reach agreement if both sides bargained in good faith. Thursday he sent a letter to the City’s chief negotiator Jeff Londa declaring that the union would not return to the bargaining table as long as the City threatens to cite a budget shortfall as a way of making the union move to the civilian health care plan, which offers reduced coverage at a higher cost.
To the surprise of some at City Hall, the union video was released only one day after health care consultants for both sides sat down for a productive discussion of a City proposal made last week that would have let the union continue to enjoy a richer benefits package than civilian employees. The proposed compromise was intended to restart talks, an outcome which now seems less likely.
In language that sometimes grew inflammatory, Helle looked into the camera and likened the union’s fight to the last stand at the Alamo.
“The city leadership is trying to break you down,” Helle told union members toward the end of the video. “In the end, we will be successful, but to make myself clear, this is the last stand at the Alamo. Everyone in the state of Texas is looking at San Antonio … if San Antonio falls, they all fall.”
Helle said union officials would “never rely again on City Council members to carry our message,” an apparent reference to the unanimous election of Taylor, who supports a new contract requiring union members to pay a fair share of their health care costs.
Mayor Taylor, in one of her first public statements on a policy matter since her Tuesday election, issued a measured response.
“We respect and admire our police officers and recognize the need to provide appropriate compensation and benefits,” Taylor said. “We will balance that with the other needs of our citizens by maintaining public safety as a fixed percentage of our General Fund budget. Yesterday’s meeting between the SAPOA and City health insurance experts was encouraging. I believe it can create a pathway for us to return to productive negotiating at the table. I encourage the SAPOA to return to the negotiating table.”
Helle, not for the first time, singled out City Manager Sheryl Sculley for his harshest words.
“This city manager and her team have done everything she possibly could to make us look like we’re a bunch of dirty bastards trying to break the City of San Antonio,” Helle said. “That is absolutely 100 percent false and a lie.”
Sculley ignored the remark in her response.
“We have presented the union an alternative that meets them halfway and continues to provide San Antonio police officers a higher level of health care than police officers in Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Houston,” Sculley said. “If the union is unwilling to negotiate, I will recommend that the City Council exercise the provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows the City Council to make changes to health care benefits as part of the annual budget process. By law, the City budget must be balanced. We want the union to be a part of a constructive solution.”
Helle called repeatedly during the video for the rank and file to stay united, and not divide on the union’s position as the public campaign gets underway, even if union leaders decide to file a lawsuit against the City. Anecdotal evidence, such as emails and comments made to this website, suggests union members are divided over the leadership’s tactics, with some supporting a hardline approach and others believing rising health care costs justify a call for police agreeing to pay some of the costs.
City officials say the 2013 cost for each uniformed policeman and firefighter in San Antonio was $12,424 versus $7,300 for the City’s civilian employees. The estimated 2014 costs for union members is expected to rise 20 percent to $14,868.
The alternative concept sent to the union by the City last week would cost the city $10,027 a year for each union member. The City would reduce its estimated $35,312,193 in 2014 uniformed health care costs to $23,813,678, an $11,498,615 savings. A large part of the savings could come from police paying $7 million in premiums and reducing claims by $4 million.
Sculley has warned the Council for more than five years that rising health care and pension costs for uniformed personnel are unsustainable, accounting for 66.5 percent of the current general budget and rising at a rate that would equal 100 percent of the general budget by 2030. Police officers and firefighters pay no insurance premiums for themselves or their dependents, and enjoy an array of special pay perks that place them at the top of the compensation table for uniformed personnel in Texas.
Castro appointed a Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force last year to study the issue. The resulting report, released in March prior to the start of the collective bargaining talks, supported Sculley’s position. You can review the task force report and recommendations here.
*Featured/top image: Screenshot of San Antonio Police Officer Association President Mike Helle.