HARLINGEN — It looks like the city and police officers’ union are headed to mediation.
After about four months, collective bargaining negotiations broke down earlier this month.
That means the two parties have failed to reach a contract for the second straight year.
Meanwhile, the firefighters’ union has entered into a three-year contract offering pay increases totaling about$385,500.
Earlier this week, city commissioners approved the first reading of an ordinance that would keep police officers’ salaries and benefits through the upcoming fiscal year.
“We are at impasse,” Sgt. Tanya Sandoval, president of the Harlingen Police Officer & Law Enforcement Association, stated in a text message yesterday. “The next step is mediation.”
It is the second time in two years the city and union have failed to reach an agreement on a contract.
This year, the city’s police officers have worked under their contracts’ so-called evergreen clause, which expires Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
About four months of negotiations bogged down after the city rejected the union’s request to return to a state retirement system.
What police wanted
The union had proposed a three-year contract in which officers would forgo pay increases for the first two years in exchange for a return to the Texas Municipal Retirement System, or TMRS, which would cover all city employees.
Under that proposal, employees would contribute 7 percent, which the city would match two-to-one.
However, city officials denied that request, making it clear the city would hold on to its current retirement plan.
In 2007, the city scrapped the state retirement plan in favor of the private Texas Capital Group’s plan, in which the city matches employees’ 5 percent contributions one-to-one.
What the city offered
At City Hall, officials said the TMRS retirement plan currently carries an unfunded liability of about $6 million.
But if the city returned to the plan, that liability would climb to $10.7 million.
Officials were concerned the city might have to pay any unfunded liability, which appear in annual financial reports as debits, to pay out employee retirement benefits.
During negotiations, the city offered the union a three-year contract that included a $450,000 pay package focusing on officers with five or more years of experience.
The union had requested pay increases for officers with five or more years of experience, arguing the department was losing those officers to higher-paying jobs with state and federal agencies as well as some cities in the Rio Grande Valley.
However, officials argued the city offers salaries competitive with those of like-sized cities.
In the past two years, more than 30 officers have left the department for higher-paying jobs, Sandoval said.
Now, the city is proposing the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service conduct mediation services, City Attorney Alan Ozuna said.
During a mediation process, he said, the mediator helps the two parties reach an agreement.
“It’s negotiation with a third-party mediator who works with the parties to try to reach a resolution,” Ozuna said. “The person does not make a decision. He just helps facilitate discussions to try to reach a resolution.”
If the proposed mediation process fails to reach an agreement on a contract, the union can request negotiations continue the next fiscal year, Ozuna said.
Ozuna said the parties could also request arbitration.
During an arbitration process, the impartial third-party arbitrator decides on a resolution the contending parties agree to accept.
Firefighters-city reach agreement
After about four months of negotiations, the city and the firefighters’ union have entered into an agreement for a three-year contract that includes a pay increase totaling more than $385,500.
Like the city’s police officers, firefighters have also worked under their contracts’ so-called evergreen clause, which expires Sept. 30.
“It was a good mid-point,” Julio Zetina, president of the Harlingen Professional Firefighters Association, said yesterday.
“It’s not where we want to be but it’s a good starting point. It’s a starting-off point for future negotiations. We want a good relationship with the city and I think we’ve demonstrated that.”
Harlingen firefighters contract
– Three-year contract
– $385,500 salary package