A Divine Mission, Terrorists And City Budgeting

San Antonio police and fire union members meet after City Council passed a budget Thursday morning. Photo by Alexa Garcia-Ditta.

Members of the fire and police unions on Thursday morning booed just about every person who supported changing uniformed employee health care and pension costs.

The City Council unanimously passed a Fiscal Year 2015 budget that limits dollars allotted for police and fire health care to $10,000 per employee. And during the public comment period, the conversation got heated.

Both San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez, and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Council Chairman Joseph Bray, spoke to council members in front of a sea of firefighters and police to say they both supported reduced health care dollars for uniformed employees.

They were met with raucous boos, which Mayor Ivy Taylor said were inappropriate.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele told council members and the audience that what the “chamber and business guys are saying is not fair and not accurate.”

Perez and Bray said the $10,000 number for health care is in line with Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston. They also said they supported better aligning civilian and uniform health care costs. According to Perez and Bray, these moves will help San Antonio’s long-term financial health.

However, Steele was having none of that, saying that San Antonio's health care model for uniformed professionals is one of the best in the nation.

And Steele said he is also tired of hearing council members and city employees saying they love and support firefighters, but actions (money, we think) speak louder than words.

“For a whole year, one year, it’s been nothing but these guys are greedy. These guys just take money. That’s all we’ve been hearing. How would you feel if your boss, who I have a signed contract with, a signed agreement that we agreed to—everything that’s in that package—but then when she (City Manager Sheryl Scully) has a problem with that package she goes to the public. She berates us in the public. How would anybody feel if someone’s boss did that,” Steele asked, before accusing Scully of creating fear and hysteria that San Antonio would lose its Triple A Bond rating if it didn’t lower health care costs for uniformed employees.

To be certain, Steele was impassioned and even chided District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg because Steele didn’t think he was paying close enough attention.

“When we talk about health care as firefighters and police officers, we suffer greater risk.

Even a businessman should understand total compensation theory,” Steele said. “We have given up raises for the best health care. Now you want to change it. We say, ‘Well, give me all the money that I gave up’.”

And to be sure, Steele’s mission is divine.

“We’re going to do this and we are doing God’s work,” Steele said, before receiving a standing ovation.

As for San Antonio Police Officer Association President Mike Helle, he was far more toned down than Steele. Helle has also agreed to return to the collective bargaining negotiating table, unlike Steele, who said firefighters don’t even negotiate until after October.

However, before thanking Taylor for resetting the button on negotiations, he made a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). For those who don't know, ISIL is made up of completely insane religious fundamentalists who crucify children and behead journalists in Iraq and Syria. There's been a running theory that ISIL members are in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and are planning to attack El Paso. The theory mostly appears in right-wing publications.

“On the way in this morning we heard on the talk radio that there’s a new threat of terrorism that’s going to be on our homeland,” Helle said. “We hope it’s not going to come here.”

But if it does, the police department will protect San Antonio, Helle said. And to clarify, that's all Helle said and didn't mention the terrorist organization by name, but that's who we think he is talking about.

Either way, the City Council did pass the budget that includes $10,000 per uniformed employee for health care. However, District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez made a comment during the hearing that $10,000 was just a placeholder that could change during negotiations.

“We reserve the right to move on any one of these items, specifically, the budget placeholder we have in there for health care,” Lopez said.

So while the Alamo City now has an operating budget for 2015, the fire and police health care cost debate is far from over.

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