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City-Fire Union Remain Far Apart In Labor Talks

Brian Kirkpatrick
Texas Public Radio

The City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Professional Firefighter Association, the city's firefighter union, remain far apart in labor contract talks after five meetings.

The latest meeting was held on the 18th floor of the Weston Centre in downtown San Antonio.

The City is looking for a one-year contract through September 2020, while the fire union wants a five year deal.

The city wants a shorter term deal until the city's available property tax revenue becomes more clear. Pending state legislation could reduce those revenues.

City Negotiator Jeff Londa said the two sides remain far apart on wage increases too.

"They proposed a 27.5 percent wage cost, which would be on top of the existing health cost, which are not sustainable, so ecomomically, it's a non-starter," Londa said.

The 27.5 percent wage cost covers four years of past pay and five years of future pay under the proposed five year contract proposed by firefighters.

The City countered with a lump sum pay increase of two percent on one year's salary in their proposed one-year contract.

The fire union wants a health care fund of its own to operate, with start-up funding from the City. The City is opposed to such a fund.

The fire union wants a fund of its own because they believe the City does not believe firefighters suffer higher cancer risks compared to other city workers. The union said workers' compensation is often denied, or when it is approved, it does not cover the costs of treatment.

City officials deny both those claims.

The fire union's lead negotitator said the City has the means needed to meet labor contract requests from the union.

Ricky Poole, a lawyer for the union, said he had hoped the union and the City could begin the healing process under a new city manager. Sheryl Sculley has retired. She backed a City lawsuit against the fire union that was later dropped. Erik Walsh took the reins as city manager Friday.

But after day five, Poole said the sides still had a long way to go to reach a deal.

I don't think it's a shock to say I'm disappointed in terms in what the city is initially putting across the table," he said. "I'm disappointed, again, it is not even recognizing cancer as an issue for firefighters. I am disappointed that the city doesn't think firefighters should have a wage increase."

Images of ill and dead firefighters, including Lt. Woody Woodcock, was shown at the meeting. Woodcock died from a form of leukemia in 2016 after his worker's comp was denied.

Credit Brian Kirkpatrick / TPR
Lt. Woody Woodcock

The fire union is a seeking 2.5 percent pay raise for each of the past four years, amounting to a cost to the city of 51.8 million dollars, and a 3.5 percent raise for each of the next 5 years, at a cost of 121 million dollars to the City.

The City also does not want the fire union to create its own health trust fund, citing the failure of several others in the U.S. that can easily be identified, Londa said.

City representative and attorney Michael Bernard objected to remarks that the city does not care about the health of firefighters and said there was no rogue element working against the union, a reference to former City Manager Sheryl Sculley's support of a lawsuit against the fire union.

The union suggested the city could pay $20,000 per firefighter to start up the department's own healthcare trust fund.

The City countered by offering firefighters choices on healthcare. One opion presented was a consumer driven health plan used by San Antonio police, where the employee pays no premium for themselves. Another was a $1,500 health savings account. Yet annother health option was a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) value plan where the employee pays no premium but contributes for dependent coverage. It's better than what Dallas, Houston or Austin offer its employees, according to Londa.

The City projects healthcare costs in 2019 for its civilian workers to be $8,000, police to be at $16,000, and firefighters at more than $19,000.

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