SA Council approves budget, lowers contribution

Benefit changes put on hold while negotiations continue

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio City Council on Thursday approved the 2015 fiscal year budget.

The $2.4 billion budget includes lowering the city's contribution to health coverage for police officers and firefighters.

"We respect the work that they do, and we also know that their pay and benefits have to be affordable to the tax-payers. That's really the balance we are trying to strike," said City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

While the annual contribution change from $13,000 to $10,000 per uniformed employee annually doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, city officials decided not to impose the change in order to allow collective bargaining negotiations to continue, or, in the case of the firefighters' union, start.

If negotiations break down again, the City Council could vote to impose the benefit changes. Or they could leave benefits untouched, which would mean making cuts in other portions of the budget.

A negotiating session between the city and the police union is scheduled for Sept. 23. San Antonio Police Officers Association President Michael Helle said the union is willing to talk about paying premiums, which police officers are not currently paying.

"We need to do what's best for the city and that's at the table -- that's working those issues out," said Helle. "I think we need to be responsible about doing that."

As the police union prepares to return to negotiations, the firefighters' union dug in Thursday. President Chris Steele delivered a scathing, applause-filled address in which he singled out District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and Sculley.

While Steele spoke, Nirenberg leaned over to speak with Councilman Joe Krier. Steele cut off his speech and told the councilman to pay attention.

Steele saved his harshest remarks for the city manager.

"I'm tired of hearing, and I think everybody else is tired of hearing, (that) you love the firefighters, you support them, you've done a great job. Actions speak louder than words," said Steele. "For a whole year -- one year -- it's been nothing but, ‘These guys are greedy. These guys just take money.' She berates us in the public. How would anybody feel about that if their boss did that? All we're asking for is that proper respect for the job we do. You talk to anyone out here, they do not feel the love."

Despite the rhetoric, the apparent breakthrough in negotiations has at least one councilmember optimistic.

"I'm glad to know that today's budget reflects the fact that you are all receiving compensation and benefits at a higher level than a civilian because we appreciate and respect the risk associated with the job," District 4 Councilman Rey Saldana said. "However, that number or that position will likely change depending on the ability of the leadership from both police and fire to come forward."

Hundreds pack council chambers

Hundreds of firefighters and police officers packed council chambers for the vote. Many held signs that said, "Negotiate fairly," "We have your back. Do you have ours?" and "I don't mess with your house. Don't mess with mine."

Patricia Garcia is married to a police officer and has a son who is a police officer. She was one of hundreds of union backers who attended the city council meeting.

"(Families of police officers) make sacrifices every day. We kiss (and) hug our loved ones, never knowing if they're going to walk back through that door again," Garcia said.  "Let's all sit down, let's all have a voice in it, and let's all make sure that it's all fair and equitable to all parties involved."

Firefighters' union members said they want a deal struck, but not one that is balanced on their backs.

"We have given up our raises and have given up a lot to get to this point to keep (healthcare benefits)," said firefighter Dana Cornwell. "It's not that we haven't given, because we have. We expect fairness back to us."