Council approves plan to pay for police, fire health care

Council slashes $14.2M from budget to pay for increased costs of health care

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio City Council on Tuesday approved a plan to cut millions of dollars from the city's General Fund in order to pay for health care coverage for public safety employees.

"We're doing the very best possible with the taxpayer's dollars and what we need to do is achieve what is affordable and sustainable for the city," said City Manager Sheryl Sculley. "We know that if we don't take action and control public safety costs, it will bankrupt the city in the years ahead."

By slashing $14.2 million from the budget, the council is able to pay for the increased costs of union benefits, which are estimated to cost $16,400 per uniformed employee this fiscal year. The plan cuts $8.8 million from the Street Maintenance budget, $3.3 million from the San Antonio Police Department budget, and $1.9 million from the San Antonio Fire Department budget.

The plan also contains 35 additional vacant positions in the police department, for a total of 75 vacant positions. It also delays the hiring of paramedics in 2015. Leaders from both departments said the cuts will not impact public safety.

The council voted 7-3 in favor of the plan. District 2 Councilman Keith Toney, District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, and District 7 Councilman Cris Medina voted against the proposal.

"I just don't see these actions as being conducive to trying to create an atmosphere of a contract negotiation," Lopez said. "That's where we want to be. We want to be making a decision here that takes care of the police and fire corps that provides services to our constituents."

"I know that everyone in this room would rather be taking a different action today such as approving a new contract for our police and firefighters," said Mayor Ivy Taylor. "I think we have made progress through the negotiation process and I don't want to preclude more progress through taking this action today. However, I will be clear: the City Council must and will maintain a balanced budget."

City Budget Director Maria Villagomez said without the cuts the city would rack up $1.6 million of debt each month beginning Jan. 1.

"As we closed fiscal year 2014, we anticipated a deficit of $20 million in the employee benefits fund. If we don't take this action today, that deficit could increase to about $34 million," Villagomez said.

The cut to the street maintenance fund comes just months after the city approved an additional $15 million for street repairs in the current budget. The council's action means dozens of yet-to-be-determined street projects slated to begin in 2015 will be deferred to 2016.

"Nobody wants to see streets in disrepair. Nobody wants to see us fall behind on growth for the city, so I view this action as unfortunately necessary, but a basic responsibility that I have a City Council member," said District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg.