San Antonio council members flout mayor, demand meeting on stalled fire contract talks


SAN ANTONIO – The heat of the stalled negotiations between the City of San Antonio and the fire union has spilled out of the bargaining room.

The negotiations between the city and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association came up repeatedly during a Wednesday city council meeting, as their outcome will affect how big of a deficit the city will have to tackle in its next budget. However, Mayor Ron Nirenberg denied a request to hold a more detailed discussion in a closed-door executive session.

In response, half the city council immediately filed a memo to demand an “executive committee meeting” on the negotiations by May 17.

The members who signed included Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), Marina Alderete Gavito (D7), Marc Whyte (D10), Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5).

Cabello Havrda, the Public Safety Committee chairwoman, said council members have had one executive session discussion but wanted more. Though they had been asking Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh “for weeks,” she said, they had been repeatedly denied.

When the mayor refused to go to an executive session Wednesday, despite the option being on the agenda, Cabello Havrda said the group went for the “nuclear option” of forcing a meeting through a three-signature memo.

“We want transparency. We want to support our firefighters, and we want to be able to discuss our direction to the city team — the city negotiation team — in an executive session, and they weren’t allowing for it,” she said in an interview with the other council members Wednesday evening.

In a statement texted to KSAT by a staff member, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said:

“If a memo calling a closed door executive session was indeed filed, I would like to point out that ongoing negations (sic) between staff and the fire union have been in open session.

If Council wishes to debate the merits of the contract, we should do so publicly.

I have full faith in the City Manager and City Attorney’s teams to deliver a fair and affordable contract that takes care of our firefighters.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

The group laughed when they heard Nirenberg’s comment about a public discussion.

“Challenge accepted. We’ll do it in public. I don’t have any problem with that,’’ Cabello Havrda told KSAT.

“We were told by our city attorney that we have to have these discussions in executive sessions because we’re talking about hard numbers. And I’m very happy to do it — I’m more happy to do it publicly. I’d rather do that,” she said.

The council’s executive session conversations are supposed to stay confidential. However, a city hall source told KSAT there was a concern that information would still leak to the fire union.

Under the city charter, any three council members have the power to force a special meeting. However, Whyte told KSAT late Wednesday night that City Attorney Andy Segovia had indicated he would not call the meeting.

KSAT was unable to immediately confirm that through a city spokesman.

NEGOTIATIONS AT A STANDSTILL

After some initial optimism, the city and fire union are still miles apart after eight bargaining sessions.

Pay raises are the biggest issue, with the union looking to make up for ground lost during its previous contract fight. Between years of flat wages and underwhelming raises they received after forcing negotiations into arbitration, firefighters have seen inflation grow at roughly three times the rate of their base pay over the past decade.

The two sides exchanged opening salvos of 21.7% over five years and 37.5% over three years, but their counter proposals have become increasingly convoluted. Generally, though, the union is asking for a much steeper hike.

All combined, the city says the fire union’s requests are too expensive. By the city’s calculations, the union’s proposals would cost $520 million over five years, compared to $157 million under the city’s latest offer.

On the other hand, the union has said the city isn’t making any concessions or listening to firefighters’ concerns. It also questions the validity of the city’s numbers.

As an example, SAPFFA President Joe Jones pointed to the “roughly about $109,000″ Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez told KSAT was the average take-home pay for a firefighter in 2023.

Jones said members with large amounts of overtime likely skewed that number.

The base pay for the department’s highest-ranked firefighters, district chiefs, is just under $107,000 before additional incentives and overtime pay.

A large portion of the city’s estimate is based on adding more than 400 new firefighters to staff a fourth shift they say the union wants. Though the union’s proposal does seem to call for moving to a new schedule by September 2027, Jones said that was an error on the union’s part, and they had only wanted a schedule change to be examined as a possibility.

In any case, the two sides have not made much progress. Though they have put forward proposals for at least 22 contract articles, they’ve only come to a tentative agreement on one.

The city suggested on Friday they bring in a mediator, but it is not yet clear if the union will accept.

BIG BUDGET SWING

The city had hoped to hammer out a contract quickly so the costs could be built into the FY 2025 budget proposal, which staff will present in August.

City staff already expect there will be a need for cuts or other cost-saving measures, but the actual amount will largely depend on where they land on the new contract.

Under a “trial budget” they presented Wednesday, staff said San Antonio faces a roughly $5 million budget deficit in FY 2025 and FY 2026.

However, they arrived at the number by factoring in the contract costs based on the city’s proposals. City staff say the deficit would jump to $50 million in both years if it had to account for the union’s proposals.

The city maintains a financial policy of keeping public safety spending below 66% of the general fund budget. The spending between police, parks police, and fire is currently well below that, at 60.5%.

While the union’s latest proposals would not bring the city past that cap, city officials say that doesn’t mean there is money for them.

“The premise that we are underneath our financial policy, but the balance between 60.5 and 66% in the budget is — there’s no increment on that on that pie chart that says ‘available for stuff.’ It’s allocated to public work, parks and then the litany of departments off to the side,” Walsh told Cabello Havrda during Wednesday’s meeting.

The trial budget is essentially the broad strokes of what could end up in the actual budget proposal, based on the city’s five-year financial forecast and council members’ early budget goals.

Wednesday’s presentation also factored in plans for another 130 San Antonio police officers over the next two years, further bumps to Animal Care Services, 3.1% raises for civilian employees and enhanced spay and neuter services.

The city manager warned the city would need to “make reductions” during the budget process.

“And dependent on the scale and scope, right, those reductions are going to be to city services. And they’re likely to be to employees because 91% of what we do is affecting that,” Walsh told council members.

The city does not expect to change its property tax rate for the year, but staff are proposing $0.50 and $0.75 increases to monthly cart fees for people with medium or large trash cans.

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