Days after health care cost negotiations broke down between the city of San Antonio and police, the president of the officers' union said the group believes VIA Metropolitan Transit's controversial downtown streetcar should go to a vote -- a move that follows a similar decision by the firefighters' union to aggressively target the rail project.
Reached by a reporter Tuesday, San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle said the group's board hasn't voted on streetcar but that membership "has already been leaning toward that conclusion anyway." They wanted to focus on contract talks instead.
But those talks took a nosedive last week when the city rejected the police union's latest proposal to help reduce their health care costs. After that, Helle said, the tone of the conversation changed.
"In light of the way the city manager has been drilling down, especially on our (collective bargaining agreement) ... if we're going to run things bare-boned, then we don't have the luxury to have streetcars," Helle said. "We'd rather have police cars."
Police, like the firefighters union, have said the city shouldn't cut funding for "core services" when it's spending money on streetcar. The city has committed $32 million for construction of the streetcar, a one-time cost. It would not pay any operating costs; those come of out of VIA's pocket.
Charlie Gonzalez, VIA's senior vice president of public engagement, said he wasn't surprised by Helle's stance based on Helle's past statements.
"We've had an open invitation that was extended many weeks ago that we would welcome the opportunity to sit down with them and go over the streetcar project to demonstrate why it (streetcar) is a good investment by the city" and that the economic return from streetcar "would obviously boost revenues in the city coffers in order to pay firefighters and police officers," Gonzalez said. He added that VIA will not get in the middle of police negotiations.
As part of a compromise with the city, the police union has proposed cutting $5.5 million from next year's projected police health care budget and ensuring police officers pay some kind of premium, said police negotiator Ron DeLord. The premium could go up, or else benefits could be adjusted, if health costs increase beyond a certain limit.
But, the city has indicated it will only consider proposals that reduce the per capita spending on uniformed personnel's health care costs to about $7,000 a person; currently, it's $12,500. Uniformed employees also don't pay a monthly health care premium.
Firefighters have not yet started negotiations with the city, but they can expect a similar fight over health care costs.
Helle's announcement about streetcar comes almost two months after the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association declared its opposition to the 5.9-mile, $280 million streetcar project. Firefighters have played a major role in helping to gather signatures for an anti-streetcar petition that supports amending the city charter, so no streetcar or light-rail project could be built in city-owned rights-of-way without the public's consent.
But, VIA has said the agency has state-granted powers that give it the authority to build on city streets, without the city's permission.
Helle indicated the police union might not take the firefighters' same hands-on approach about the streetcar issue, but he supports the right for people to vote on it.
As a show of solidarity, the police union's political action committee donated $10,000 to the firefighters' union PAC last month.
The money wasn't earmarked for streetcar petition efforts exclusively, but the police union "had offered assistance for food, water, supplies" for those gathering or verifying the signatures, "more for a support for their brothers in uniform," said Greg Brockhouse, a spokesman for the firefighters union who works for a marketing firm, Public Alliance, that has contracts with both unions.
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