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City Council Trying To Find Balance In Police & Fire Benefit Recommendations

Ryan Loyd
TPR News
Members from the police and fire departments lined the plaza outside City Hall to let council members know how they feel about their benefits.

San Antonio police officers and firefighters used time off of from their shifts Wednesday to fill the seats inside City Hall to hear recommendations by a task force appointed to study healthcare and retirement benefits.

That task force met a total of eight times, beginning last October. Members like chairman Reed Williams, a former city councilman, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, business leader and pension expert Sam Dawson, and firefighter Lt. Jerry Cortes looked at the city's general fund revenues versus the cost of running the public safety departments.

They also discussed pension benefits, weighed uniformed public safety personnel against non-uniformed members, and contemplated contributions that some public safety personnel make to their health plans. Currently, uniformed members do not pay a monthly premium for their health plans, and their family members are also covered.

Non-uniformed personnel pay about 30 percent of their healthcare costs, compared to nine percent for uniformed personnel.

The task force came up with nine main recommendations, divided into four categories, out of 86 submitted by the individual members of the task force. One of the top recommendations included that the city negotiate uniform healthcare plans and premiums as a part of the collective bargaining agreement in September.

"I don't think anybody ought to be looking at any union person and saying, 'You're trying to bankrupt our city.'" said Williams to the council. "They're not! They negotiated a healthcare program. The healthcare program and the healthcare needs to change, but that needs to be done in negotiation. It wasn't appropriate for it to be done here."

In the category of policy and budget, the task force recommended to the city council that they "establish policies and approve budgets that assure public safety expenses are managed in a balanced manner to the general fund revenues and to the expenditures."

Under the pension category, the task force recognized that the police and fire pension funds are well-managed and well-funded. The task force recommended that the city continue to study active compensation and retirement benefits and submit the recommendations to the city council through the intergovernmental relations committee of the city council as part of a future legislative program.

The task force, recognizing that San Antonio's benefits to public safety personnel are richer by a large margin over civilians, also recommended that the city council consider adjusting uniformed level of healthcare benefits to more closely align with civilians, other peer cities, and public and private employers in San Antonio. Nationally, civilian personnel pay 43 percent, compared to 30 percent in San Antonio for their total healthcare costs.

The task force decided to focus on a wellness program for all city employees.

Professional Firefighters' Association President Chris Steele said many of the costs associated with running the police and fire departments are not controlled by the unions or employees. He said the city is in charge of that.

"We can prove that the costs that are driving this thing is those things that we have nothing to do with. Our costs are going down," he said following the council meeting Wednesday. "Their costs in the radios and the fire trucks, why are we sending four trucks on an EMS call? We have said, send one ambulance."

Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said Sculley created a false crisis when she said that public safety costs would overrun the city budget by 2031. He wants trust restored between Sculley and the unions so that honest negotiations can take place. And he said he believes that can happen.

Williams agreed -- as he spoke to the council -- that the cost of public safety is because the city council responded to people in the community for those services.

"I sat right there," Williams said pointing to the dais, "and we approved fire stations, we approved more police officers. That's what our citizens wanted. They asked us to give them more fire, police, and EMS."

Steele said police officers and firefighters want to do their jobs in San Antonio over other cities because, although they get paid less on average, their benefits make the job attractive. And, he said, they do their jobs for the people.

"Nobody does it to get rich here," Steele said. "What we do it for is we do it for the citizens but all we ask, all we ask, is take care of us and our families and our benefits. That's all we ask, right? That's all we ask. Don't come after us in that part."

During the council member portion of the meeting to respond to the recommendations, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña said if anyone deserves the "rich" benefits, it's police and fire employees.

"If anybody should be a priority, it should be our police and fire," Saldaña said.

"We just want to be able to afford what we decide to promise," he finished, with fierce applause from the audience.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.