Firefighters Dig In, Even Before Sitting Down

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From the SAFD 2012 Annual Report.

San Antonio firefighter Gerard Cortes, represented by the local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, filed suit against the City of San Antonio Wednesday afternoon to prevent officials from learning how many dependents are using his city-funded health care insurance benefits.

Judge Cathy Stryker of the 224th District Court granted Cortes a temporary restraining order (TRO) that prevents City or San Antonio Fire Department officials from requiring him to turn over records showing dependents and their use of the city-funded health care insurance plan. Stryker set a hearing date on the lawsuit for April 23. Download the TRO here.

The TRO hearing came as a surprise to city attorneys, who were given only 30 minutes notice before appearing in court to present arguments defending efforts to gather and analyze the same data already provided by civilians and police. Download Cortes’ petition here.

Stryker granted the TRO, her order stating that the City, unless “restrained by the Court,” would discipline Cortes or cancel his benefits for refusing to comply with an order to turn over records from SAFD Chief Charles Hood.

The city has been trying to get firefighters to update incomplete personnel files, which the union has resisted and gone to court on two other occasions.  SAFD Chief Charles Hood issued a department-wide order to update insurance records, including lists of dependents, which led to Wednesday’s lawsuit.

What appears on paper to be litigation by a single firefighter actually is an attempt by union officials to thwart the city’s efforts to win a new collective bargaining agreement that would require uniformed personnel to pay a greater share of their health care insurance costs. The union represents the city’s 1,663 uniformed firefighters.

San Antonio firefighters, like the 2,375 uniformed local police officers, do not pay monthly premiums for health care benefits for themselves or dependents. That – coupled with unusually low co-pays, deductibles and ceilings on maximum payouts – gives police and firefighters a benefits package unlike any other city-funded program in the state. San Antonio is the only Texas city that gives its uniformed personnel a different, and much richer, benefits package than its civilian workforce.

From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force report.

From the Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force report.

The lawsuit brought by the firefighter likely will delay the start of negotiations between the city and the firefighters union. No date has been set yet to open talks. Police and the city have met for three rounds of talks to date.

Rumors have circulated at City Hall that firefighters might refuse to enter into negotiations with the city. The current contract expires at the end of September, but failure by the two sides to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement would leave the existing contract in force.

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

The city’s efforts to change the terms of the health care plan and to roll back other benefits – such as unlimited college tuition reimbursements, contributions to a legal fund used mostly by uniformed personnel divorcing their spouses, and other unconventional “special pay” categories in the contract – come after City Manager Sheryl Sculley warned City Council last year that rising costs threatened the city’s credit rating and placed a growing burden on the General Fund budget that could force cuts to other services such as parks and libraries.

San Antonio currently spends 66.5 percent of its General Fund budget on public safety, significantly higher than other cities and the national average. Sculley has said at the current rate of expense growth, the entire budget would go to public safety by 2031 unless spending is curbed.

Police and union officials have enjoyed the unusually rich contract for 25 years, and are resisting efforts to reduce health care and other benefits unless they are offset by payroll increases. The next round of city-police union talks is set for April 15.

“We are disappointed that the Firefighter Labor Union has sued the City of San Antonio today for the third time attempting to stop the dependent healthcare verification of fire personnel and their dependents,” Sculley said in a statement released by her office.  “My responsibility is to ensure that any person receiving healthcare benefits from the City is qualified to receive such benefits funded by San Antonio taxpayers. Dependent healthcare verifications are a nation-wide best practice of private and public employers and have already been completed for City civilian employees and police officers.”

Because the average number of dependents thought to be availing themselves of  the city-funded police and firefighter health care plans is more than double the number of dependents using the civilian employee plan and double the national average among municipalities, the City’s Health Care and Retirement Benefits Task Force appointed by Mayor Julián Castro and City Council last fall recommended annual dependent healthcare verifications. Download the task force’s report here.

“We fail to understand why the Firefighter Labor Union will not cooperate with the healthcare verification process,” Sculley said in her statement. “What do they have to hide?”

*Featured/top image: From the SAFD 2012 Annual Report.

Related Stories:

City and Police Union Circling on the Big Issue

Survey: Public Favors Police Paying Health Care Premiums

Council Backs Task Force, City Staff on Police, Fire Negotiations

Union’s Name Calling Can’t Obscure the Numbers

Bossy, Bitchy, Bully: Union Targets City Manager With the B-Words

7 thoughts on “Firefighters Dig In, Even Before Sitting Down

  1. So Mr. Rivard how would you feel about this issue if it was your family who the city lost the birth certificates and social security numbers of your loved ones not once, but multiple times? Would you begin to worry about exactly where those documents had gone? Would you continue to hand them over when you feel they are not protecting that documentation? You need to look at both sides of this issue, biased media is getting really old…

    • John

      You and others can start the name calling, which there has already been too much of so far, or you can take the Rivard Report up on our offer to publish the union perspective. To date, our written invitations to the police and fire union leaders have not been acknowledged. We would be interested in reading you and others debate the numbers and make your case on the merits rather than referring to the mayor or city manager by their last name. –RR

  2. Dear Mr. Rivard,

    For the record my name is Gerard Cortes not Gerald. I am a 26 year veteran of the San Antonio Fire Department. I have complied with the city’s request for verification of dependent coverage. I did so 22 years ago by supplying a copy of my son’s birth certificate within 30 days of his birth as required by the collective bargaining agreement. The City Manager contends that they never required this documentation. This is not true. Every year I am required to review and affirm the status of my dependents. If the City Manager lost my son’s birth certificate why not come out and say so.

    What is she trying to hide?

    I have served on the Firefighter’s negotiating committees since 1988. Healthcare has been the major topic of every contract. In 2005 the City proposed a premium of $25 “as a show of good faith.” When the Firefighters requested a full analyses of the true cost so we can come to agreement, the city refused to allow the association access to the healthcare documents.

    What is she trying to hide?

    In 2009 the city did not propose any premiums however the Firefighters did agree to make significant changes to healthcare. The Police Officers Association was able to establish a Healthcare working group in their collective bargaining agreement in 2005. For the next 8 years City Manager Sheryl Sculley never asked for the work group to study the issue despite all the saber rattling and economic hysteria raised by her in regards to healthcare cost. The committee was finally established at the request of Police Association President Mike Helle. The committee has still not been given full access to the healthcare documents.

    What is she trying to hide?

    I served on the Mayor’s Legacy Task Force. I stated to the committee that the only way to have meaningful and productive negotiations that focus on healthcare cost is to have honest and open access to healthcare documents controlled by the City. My official recommendation is stated below:
    Do not remove active healthcare from the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
    I recommend that this committee direct the city to make healthcare a priority in the next round of collective bargaining.
    We should recommend that the city fully cooperate with the unions and provide all available financial and health insurance related information requested by fire and police during contract negotiations, so long as providing the information does not violate medical or privacy laws.
    In this way both sides can understand the issue and come to a negotiated resolution of the concerns raised by healthcare costs.
    I look forward to upcoming negotiations with the City. I hope the City Manager will be willing to open the books on healthcare instead of trying to negotiate in the media.

    Jerry Cortes
    Lt. SAFD
    San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

    • Jerry:
      Sincerest apologies for our misspelling your name. Thank you for sharing your side of this matter. It’s going to be hard for civilians to understand the complexities of this case through court proceedings and hearings – we invite you to consider composing a stand-alone, narrative piece outlining your story.
      –The Rivard Report Team

  3. It is my understanding that Mr. Cortez posted a response to your story here in the comments. Was it deleted for some reason?

  4. What do FF have to hide Scully, well what do you have to give before you start asking for something. That’s how it works.

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