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Chamber votes to support changes in police, fire healthcare benefits

SA Chamber supports removing active-duty public safety employees' health care benefits from collective bargaining process

The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted Thursday to support cost cutting changes in the fire and police health insurance benefits that are a part of their labor union's collective bargaining agreement, city officials said.

"The board's vote reflects the business community's recommendation that our city balance strong support for our public safety personnel with the need to maintain a healthy city budget as we grow and plan for our future," said Board Chairman David McGee.

The position statement adopted by the board said the chamber supports removing the active-duty public safety employees' health care benefits from the collective bargaining process, so the city can continually monitor and manage the rising costs of healthcare provided to city employees.

This recommendation would place San Antonio's policy on similar terms as the other large cities in Texas, officials said.

Authorities said the board's vote followed several weeks of study and committee meetings including two sessions with representatives of the fire and police unions.

"We made it clear that we want to understand the position of all sides in this issue and concluded that fire and police health care costs are unsustainable in the long run, and a change must be made," said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the chamber.

Other key points in the chamber's position statement include:

--City leadership must develop guidelines for a proper balance where the public safety budget does not exceed a certain percentage of the total general fund budget.

--The city's police and firefighter health care benefits should more closely mirror the premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses of the city's civilian employees.

--The city should develop a strategy to address the state statute limiting the flexibility to modify the structure of the pension funds for public safety employees in preparation for the 2015 state legislative session.

--The city should continue to study pre-funded health care for public safety retirees and study alternatives to provide them coverage from the time they retire, to the time they become eligible for Medicare benefits, and explore options such as bridge insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"The San Antonio Chamber is the region's leading advocate for business growth, development and commerce, and the city is a major contributor to our successful pro-business environment," said McGee. "The health care landscape has drastically changed since the contract with the police and fire unions was struck 25 years ago, and it's time the city and public safety personnel begin paying a fair share of their health care costs."

The San Antonio Police and Firefighters Associations issued a statement in response to the chamber's decision:

"It is a serious concern when the chamber has advocated for several high priority citywide legacy projects where public approval is not near the level of support for uniformed officers. By this action it appears the chamber leadership believes projects like streetcars are more important than fire trucks and police cars."