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With the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association launching another campaign to distract from its unwillingness to negotiate a new contract that is affordable to taxpayers, the timing is right to remind San Antonians how we got to this point.
Make no mistake: the union’s campaign is not about “increasing transparency at City Hall,” but rather about attempting to tilt the playing field in its favor to avoid any compromise on its members’ pay and benefits.
The City of San Antonio holds its first responders in high regard. Public safety is our core business, which is why nearly two-thirds of the City’s General Fund Budget is dedicated to public safety. I have recommended, and City Council has approved, adding approximately 600 police and fire uniformed positions during my tenure, while eliminating more than 1,600 civilian positions to fund public safety.
But in order to balance the costs of public safety with other community priorities, the City needs a contract with the fire union that is both fair to employees and affordable to taxpayers.
Since the late 1980s, San Antonio firefighters have paid no monthly premiums for health care for themselves or their families. The healthcare market has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, and costs have grown exponentially. Most of us have had to contribute more of our income to cover the cost of insuring our families.
In 2013, former Mayor Julián Castro and the City Council appointed a task force consisting of business and community leaders and police and fire union representatives to review the City’s healthcare costs and provide recommendations on how to ensure the City maintains a strong financial position for the future. The task force concluded that San Antonio is the only major city in Texas where uniformed employees pay no healthcare premiums for their dependents and that the benefits for public safety employees were “excessive by any metric.” (You may be surprised to know that more than 84 percent of the City’s highest paid employees are police officers and firefighters, not City executives.)
Nine months before the union contracts were to expire in September 2014, the City sought to begin negotiations on new contracts. The contracts, called Collective Bargaining Agreements, are negotiated by the unions on behalf of their thousands of employees.
While talks with the police union were on again, off again, talks never even began with the fire union. To date, the fire union has refused eight invitations from the City to come to the table and bargain. Three-and-a-half years since the 2014 expiration of its contract, the union remains in “evergreen” status due to a clause in the contract that continues pay and benefits for up to a decade after its expiration.
Months after both public safety contracts expired in 2014 – and without new agreements in place with either union – the City filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of evergreen clauses that cannot be changed no matter how much the costs of the contracts escalate. For context, every other City contract contains the clause “subject to annual appropriations by the City Council,” meaning if the elected leaders of our community decide the City cannot afford to continue a particular contract, they can terminate it. The public safety contracts do not contain such language.
The lawsuit led to a judge ordering mediation with both unions, an action the City had requested from the court. Mediation ultimately led to a settlement with the police union. Police officers received a 17-percent raise over the five years of the contract, and for the first time in the City’s history, police officers are now contributing healthcare premiums for their dependents under one of the two healthcare plans they can choose for their families.
Mediation with the fire union, on the other hand, was unsuccessful and declared an impasse. Today the fire union is standing outside of polling locations asking voters to sign petitions that would give them the unilateral right to call for binding arbitration and bypass negotiations.
Binding arbitration would turn the City’s financial future over to an arbitrator who doesn’t have to set tax rates, balance budgets, or manage taxpayer dollars. City Council would no longer to have the ability to determine whether a union contract is affordable and consistent with the needs of employees and taxpayers.
Negotiating involves give and take, and the fire union doesn’t want to compromise. By refusing to bargain for the past three years and now seeking to change the playing field, the union is abandoning any duty to the taxpayers to bargain in good faith.
The City of San Antonio wants to reward its firefighters with a pay raise and also wants a contract that is affordable to taxpayers. The only way to achieve these goals is for the fire union to come to the table and negotiate.