In January, City Manager Eric Walsh and his team start negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officers Association to replace the labor contract expiring Sept. 30, 2021.
Expect some fireworks. Discussions and public posturing, on both sides, are likely to be protracted. Not so long ago, former City Manager Sheryl Sculley took a strong stand to trim skyrocketing benefit costs in police and fire accords, which led to years of headlines, court fights and name-calling.
Firefighters union President Chris Steele once accused Sculley of treating members like “greedy bastards.” She said it wasn’t her intent, but the description provided her memoir’s title, “Greedy Bastards: One City’s Texas-Size Struggle to Avoid a Financial Crisis.”
Talks with the fire union dragged on for years; renegotiation isn’t until 2025.
The crisis of Sculley’s title is what could have happened without the contract changes the city team finally won: By 2031, the rising cost of police and fire benefits, particularly health care, was projected to consume 100% of the city’s general fund.
The new agreement, Sculley wrote, “will result in estimated savings of more than $100 million over the five-year term of the contract.”
That’s good news. And, it still leaves the union members with far better benefits than most civilian city employees enjoy.
So, what’s the “Defund the Police” movement? How will it affect contract negotiations? (I think “Defund the Police” is a misleading slogan. Most folks who use it actually mean shifting money in police budgets to other services such as mental health, domestic violence, homelessness and other things officers are called to handle.)
But, have no fear. The city definitely is not defunding the San Antonio Police Department. In fact, in spite of an expected $120 million loss in revenue due to the pandemic, the police budget City Council approved for the coming year includes an $8 million increase.
There’s another movement afoot in town, with a less divisive name – Fix SAPD.
If you voted this year, you might’ve encountered their volunteers at the polls collecting signatures on two petitions for proposals they hope to get on ballots during May elections. The petitions call for repealing two chapters of the Texas Local Government Code involving collective bargaining rights of police and fire unions, transparency of records, and hiring, firing and disciplinary issues.
As fine as the force is today, a few bad apples – officers charged with drunk driving, domestic violence and assault – can tarnish the badge. Union-backed laws allowing even a few to hang onto their jobs via arbitration after being fired do the rest no favors. Many folks seem to agree — Fix SAPD reports thousands have signed the petitions.
There are positive changes already. While boosting funds for police, the latest budget moves 20 SAPD civilians who work with victims of domestic violence to the Metropolitan Health District and assigns more officers to domestic-violence prevention. Chief William McManus has banned no-knock warrants and chokeholds, plus beefed up SAPD’s protocol for mental-health calls involving violence or weapons. No sweeping change, but moving in the right direction.
We need to keep taking steps. Forget defunding the police. Let’s ask our leaders to focus on fixing what’s broken – for the good of the men and women who wear the badge, and all the rest of us.