Attorneys for the San Antonio firefighters union laid out its compensation proposal during testimony before a three-member panel of arbitrators charged with determining terms for a labor contract.

Union attorney Richard Poulson called witnesses Monday to testify about why San Antonio firefighters should get a 14 percent pay increase and $7,250 signing bonus, and keep their current health care plan. The union’s proposal would have each firefighter pay a health care premium for the first time in at least two decades: $150 monthly regardless of the number of dependents a firefighter claims.

But later in the day, an attorney representing the City picked apart testimony from a union official after the City’s team found several incorrect or out-of-context data points in a workload report the San Antonio Fire Department captain prepared.

The firefighters union called for binding arbitration after winning the right to do so in the November 2018 charter amendment election. Instead of union membership and City Council deciding the final contract terms, the third-party panel has full authority.

The union’s one-year health care and wage packages for firefighters is vastly different from the City’s 2 1/2-year proposal. The City wants to cut health care costs by introducing two new health care plans that are similar to those that the police union agreed to. The city’s proposal would provide a 3 percent lump-sum payment at the time of signing with 3 percent wage increases in 2021 and 2022.

The 14 percent pay increase is out of the norm, Poulson conceded, but firefighters haven’t received a base pay raise in six years because of stalemate between the City and the union. The most recent contract expired in September 2014, but a 10-year evergreen clause has kept its terms in place save for base pay increases.

The large increase is an attempt to get firefighters close to where they would have had a contract been in place over the last five years, with roughly 2.2 percent annual increases on average, Poulson said.

“It is a windfall for the city of San Antonio, not for the firefighters,” Poulson said.

However, the City’s attorney, Donna McElroy said that during the past six years, eligible firefighters still received longevity pay and enjoyed premium-free health insurance for themselves and their dependents, arguing that the increase sought by the union was excessive. The City maintains that firefighters agreed to surrender base pay increases when they entered the evergreen period after the union’s 2009 contract expired in 2014.

McElroy also questioned the validity of a report comparing the workload of local firefighters and EMS personnel to those in departments in Dallas, Austin, and Houston.

The analysis, compiled by SAFD Capt. Douglas Richard Whitehead, found that San Antonio’s fire department covers more ground and serves more people with fewer fire stations than the average of those three cities.

But McElroy pointed out several pieces of data that appeared incorrect or incomplete in the analysis: a total budgeted number compared to other numbers that represent actual money spent, a fiscal year 2017 number that was compared with 2018 figures, and other data points that, for instance, don’t take into account that Austin’s EMS units and total calls for service are separate from its fire department.

A key element of the fire union’s relationship with the City, according to witness testimony so far, has been a lack of trust in how the City is reporting its budget figures and health care costs to the union.

Those issues surfaced again Monday when Mark Black, an SAFD battalion chief who chairs the union’s contract negotiation committee, said he’s concerned that the city is denying too many workers compensation requests related to cancer. He also said he thinks the City is including workers’ compensation costs in the total cost of health care when those costs should be separate.

Asked if the union could provide evidence to support those claims to the panel, Black said he could not, “based on City-produced evidence.”

“You don’t have evidence that workers comp is improperly charged to health care cost?” McElroy asked.

“I can’t think of anything specific to answer that specific question,” Black said.

During his opening statements Monday, Poulson said he’s confident that the City and the union could come to a negotiated agreement less than one year after the arbitration panel determines terms for a contract – hence its one-year contract proposal. City Manager Erik Walsh, however, said the two sides likely would need time away from the pressures of negotiating to mend longstanding wounds, making a 2 1/2–year deal more attractive.

“Frankly, as city manager, I think we need some time apart from each other,” Walsh said.

Retired Judge John J. Specia Jr., who serves as chair of the arbitration panel, asked each side to consider a longer contract term.

“You need a period of time to rebuild [your] relationship, rebuild trust,” Specia said.

Acknowledging that there needs to be more communication between the two parties outside of contract negotiations, the City has proposed a six-member working group be established to facilitate more transparency. The union isn’t opposed to that working group, Poulson has said, but it wants that group to talk about setting up a health care trust.

Terms of the next contract will be the first in the City’s history to be decided by binding arbitration instead of mutual agreement, Poulson noted. “Firefighters hope it will be the last [contract] decided by arbitration.”

“There’s lots of hard feelings … but there is lots of respect on both sides of the table,” he said later.

The arbitration period will last 20 days with optional extensions if needed, City attorneys have said. Meetings are currently scheduled nearly every day through Tuesday, Dec. 17. The panel has the authority to take as much time as it needs to craft a binding contract while taking both sides’ proposals into consideration.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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