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Fire Union Contract Negotiations Begin After Five Year Wait

The San Antonio Professional Fire Fighter’s Association and City of San Antonio began the groundwork for future negotiations over the fire union’s contract, including discussions on health care, salaries and other financial matters.

At the first meeting Wednesday morning at the union's headquarters, union attorney Ricky Poole thanked the city for accepting the invitation to begin talks.

“I thought it was productive,” Poole said of the initial meeting. "I thought we got off to a good start. Hopefully we can continue that.”

Jeff Londa, representing the city, said officials want a fresh slate with the union.

He too was positive afterwards. “We covered procedural items. We’ll see how goes when we get to the substance, but we are hopeful.”

Day one talks centered around setting ground rules for future talks, prioritizing public information requests by the union from the city, and setting the dates for the next round of meetings: Feb. 19. 22, 26, and March 5.

Both sides expect to exchange initial contract proposals by Feb. 22 and hope to reach an agreement within 60 days. They agreed health care coverage and wages will be the biggest sticking points.

The last five years saw lawsuits filed by the city and city charter amendments initiated by the fire union. One of those amendments resulted in the union gaining a new ability to declare impasse during negotiations and ask for arbitration.

The contract expired in 2014 and has since then operated through a ten-year evergreen clause with salaries staying in place and health care premiums for firefighters and their families fully paid by the city. The evergreen clause would allow the contract to continue until 2024.

The city filed suit against the union, saying the evergreen clause violated the Texas constitution. The city ultimately lost in district and appeals courts and dropped its lawsuit after the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the case late last year.

Throughout those five years, the city has maintained the cost of health care for firefighters has grown too high and in the past indicated that firefighters need to begin sharing some of the cost.

While the suit was active, the union leadership had declined to come to the negotiating table, skipping multiple proposed meetings.

The union agreed to come to table after District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse sent a letter to the union saying it needed to start negotiating. Brockhouse has been the union’s strongest supporter on the council.

“I’m hopeful that it just gets down to the basics and facts and both sides can get to talk,” he said.

Brockhouse said the union seemed more willing to negotiate with a new city manager in place.

“I think a couple of key things occurred. One is obviously Erik Walsh was voted in [as city manager] -- with the new city manager position I think that changes the tone,” Brockhouse said, adding that his letter moved things along.

As deputy city manager, Walsh participated in negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officers Association and during mediation with the fire union. He officially takes office as city manager on March 1.

Proposition C, which voters approved in November, allows the union to be the sole entity to declare impasse and ask for binding arbitration. Looking ahead, both City Attorney Andy Segovia and Brockhouse believe that will not be the union’s first move.

“Assuming that we’re going to turn a new page … I think the chances of that are minimal,” Segovia said. “I think if the approach is one where we want to have productive discussions I think we can achieve a new [collective bargaining agreement], and my hope is that becomes a moot question.”

Brockhouse said it would likely be a tool of last resort.

“I think they’re closer to a deal that anyone anticipates or anybody really recognizes,” he said.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules. Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.