San Antonio, firefighters union agree to mediation over contract terms

Talks stalled last week when the city essentially shot down the union’s proposal to provide firefighter health care through a trust funded by city taxpayers but controlled by the union

Dylan Mcguinness
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The city and San Antonio’s firefighters union have agreed to continue contract negotiations with assistance from a mediator, avoiding arbitration for now.

The two sides will meet April 17 and April 18 with former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, who presided over court-ordered mediation between the two sides in 2017.

It’s not clear whether the sessions will be public.

“We are encouraged the fire union accepted our proposal for mediation,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said Sunday. “By involving a neutral third party, we have a better opportunity to reach a resolution that is fair to both our firefighters and our taxpayers.”

The union has the power under Proposition C, a city charter amendment approved by voters in November, to declare an impasse at any time and send the talks to binding arbitration.

Negotiating team have met 10 times since the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association returned to the bargaining table in late January. The two sides were set to hit an impasse today under state law.

Talks stalled last week when the city essentially shot down the union’s proposal to provide firefighter health care through a trust funded by city taxpayers but controlled by the union. The bargaining teams left their session Tuesday without resolving how to proceed.

At that session, the union proposed extending the negotiations for 15 days. But city officials said the negotiations had become futile. They said they wouldn’t agree to an extension unless the union consented to the use of a mediator and provided more detailed proposals about health care benefits and premiums.

It seemed unlikely the union, with Proposition C in its arsenal, would agree to mediation, but it did so this weekend.

The negotiating teams confronted a stark divide after making their initial proposals March 1 and have been unable to make progress on the most contentious issues: health care and wages.

Under the current health care system, the city sets aside a pool of money and hires an insurance company to manage claims. Firefighters and their families receive coverage without having to pay monthly premiums, and they have low deductibles.

The union wants to manage its own benefits and premiums. It has asked for a $50-million lump-sum payment to help start a health care trust and offset the pay freeze firefighters have experienced since their most recent contract expired in 2014.

The union has asked for additional increases in firefighter compensation totaling 17.5 percent over the next five years, along with payments of $19,000 per firefighter to continue funding the health care trust. The plan would cost the city approximately $157 million more than the current system.

The city has proposed a 2 percent lump-sum bonus for all firefighters and a health care package similar to the one the police union agreed to in 2016.

Under the city proposal, firefighters would have two health insurance options — a “consumer-driven” plan with premium-free coverage but higher deductibles, and a “value plan” in which firefighters would pay premiums for their spouses and children.

The cost of health care per firefighter is now about $19,655, compared with $16,000 for police and $8,000 for civilian employees, city officials have said.


©2019 the San Antonio Express-News


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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