SAN ANTONIO – As the end of its current five-year contract looms just 41 days away, the head of the negotiating team for San Antonio’s police union says it’s “probably more than likely” that they won’t have a new contract done before then.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association and the City of San Antonio have been negotiating a new contract since Feb. 12. More than six months later, they have yet to reach a consensus on the biggest issues: pay, health benefits, or the appeals process for fired officers.
Even if the two sides fail to strike a new deal before the current contract ends on Sept. 30, an evergreen clause would keep the terms of the contract in place for up to eight years. Should the evergreen clause come into play, though, officers’ pay would remain flat, even as their health care costs continue to increase.
“I would say, at this point, just due to the logistics, evergreen is more -- probably more possible than not,” Sgt. Chris Lutton, SAPOA’s negotiations committee chairman, told KSAT after a bargaining session on Friday. “And so we can find a way to discuss some of this stuff. But you just, you end up with time constraints. And I tell you what -- the minute people feel pressure on them, that ends up with negative results. You know, time and distance is always a good thing for people.”
The biggest outstanding issue is also the city’s top priority -- revamping the appeals process for fired officers.
The city says the current system, which allows a third-party arbitrator to reinstate a fired officer, is not working. A KSAT Defenders investigation found two-thirds of fired officers who appealed their firing ultimately got their jobs back, either by arbitration or the chief reinstating them.
After six months, though, the city’s chief negotiator, Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, thinks, “We’re much closer in the language than what we’ve been in the past.”
The city’s latest proposal would allow an arbitrator to overturn a firing if the chief’s claims aren’t backed up by a preponderance of the evidence, or the fired officer can establish that their conduct wasn’t a “substantial shortcoming.”
The city defines that as conduct or a violation that either makes the officer’s continued presence in their job detrimental to effective law enforcement or “the law and sound community expectations” recognize as good cause for firing them.
First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio told KSAT the city’s proposal would also allow the firing to be overturned if there was a problem with the due process of the hearing.
Though the union’s proposal uses similar language, it would require the city to prove both elements of the “substantial shortcoming” definition rather than the officer having the burden to disprove both.
Villagomez sees discipline and wages as the two big sticking issues left to be resolved.
The city has proposed pay increase of 8 percent over five years, while the union has proposed at least 12 percent worth of raises. The union’s proposal also includes a clause that would match any pay raises the city gives its non-sworn employees, something that could come into play as soon as the next budget year.
The city’s current budget proposal for FY 2022 includes a 4 percent recurring pay bump for civilians as well as a one-time, 1 percent lump sum, Villagomez said.
While police officers’ pay increases for FY 2021 had already been locked in because of their contract, civilian employees had their pay frozen because of the pandemic. Now, with the economic forecast looking up, city officials have talked about making up for that.
The city also wants officer contributions for healthcare to continue to go up by 10 percent each year, while the union wants to drop that annual increase down to 2 percent year-over-year.
If the evergreen clause goes into effect, officers’ contributions would continue to go up by 10 percent annually.
The two sides are scheduled to meet again on Aug. 30 and Sep. 8. However, even if they are able to hash out a deal at the table, it would still need to be approved by both the union membership and the San Antonio City Council before it would go into effect.