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No End In Sight For Police Benefits Discussion, Despite Budget Proposal Presentation

San Antonio City Hall
Ryan Loyd
TPR News
San Antonio City Hall

The proposed city budget for FY 2015 places more emphasis on services like street maintenance than in years past, all the while talks are stalling in the saga over police and fire health benefits.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley firmly held her stance against the labor unions for what she believes are unreasonable expectations for the city to continue paying "excessive" health care costs. Currently, public safety costs consume two-thirds of the city's general fund. Sculley is hoping to prevent further reach by the public safety departments in the budget so they don't crowd out other services. Her argument maintains that while she, city staff and residents are grateful for their tireless work and willingness to put their lives on the line, police officers and firefighters should help contribute to their healthcare benefits to alleviate some of the budget pressure.

Sculley said in a recent interview that the budget she proposed to the city council and mayor last week adds $15 million for street maintenance and another $7 million for drainage.

"And that's the number one thing we hear from the community: we want the city to do more street maintenance," she said.

It also places priorities on parks, libraries, adult literacy and comprehensive city planning, Sculley said. The proposal does not raise property tax rates, a tradition that has continued for the past 22 years. But with a back-and-forth fight waging between the city and police union for health care benefits, Sculley recalled that she has heard from officers that taxes should be raised so they can continue their plans that require little personal contribution.

"Perhaps that's easier for them to say because less than half of our police officers and firefighters live in the city of San Antonio," she said.

The budget proposal maintains public safety costs at 66 percent of the general fund. Instead of spending $13,000 per uniform, she recommends spending $10,000. She said they'll still enjoy the best benefits in Texas, but the alternative plan, as it's being called, helps the city pay for important services.

"Is there anyone out there that doesn't contribute toward their own cost of health care for themselves and their family?" Sculley asked. "We know that they have very difficult jobs. We cover on the job injuries. We invite them to participate in wellness activities and the cost of health care and in managing that."

If the unions don't reach a compromise, the city council can change the plan with the adoption of the budget, according to Sculley, citing a clause in the master contract that the unions negotiated more than 20 years ago. Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said that the city has rejected two of the union's proposals that meet Sculley's objectives.

Right now, Helle is waiting on a response from consultants before responding to Sculley's alternative plan.

Meantime, Sculley said a survey of the community conducted by a third party found that 70 percent of San Antonians believe police and firefighters should contribute something to their health care benefits.

Similar to community workshops before the proposed budget was presented, the community will again get to voice their opinion on the city's spending at workshops this week.

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