San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele.
The City is averse to letting the fire union manage its own health coverage. That could be in part because of its history with union President Chris Steele. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In their opening contract negotiation bids, the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association are vastly far apart – not only on wages but on the question of who will run the expensive health care plan provided for firefighters. The City wants to continue running the plan with revisions including, for the first time, that firefighters would pick up some of the costs for their dependents. The union is seeking to run the plan itself, with continued financing by the City through a trust fund.

Union officials apparently believe they can run the insurance program better than the City, which contracts with Blue Cross to administer the plan. City officials see the issue in basic insurance terms: as a matter of risk.

Simply put, if the union mismanages the plan, the City will be forced to bail it out. City negotiators cited a number of cases in which such arrangements with unions had led to bailouts. Union negotiators pointed to about 20 successful health insurance trusts run by firefighter unions and noted that most of the failures cited by the City involved teacher unions.

“With teachers, you’re dealing with a female population which is going to be having children and then later on in life are going to have significant health care concerns as compared to even their male counterparts,” said Ricky Poole, negotiator for the firefighters union. He said firefighters are younger and healthier and should be less expensive to insure.

Even if that’s true, it isn’t clear how it means the union would more efficiently or inexpensively insure the same firefighters the City is now insuring.

Attorney Michael Bernard of the City of San Antonio speaks with chief negotiator for the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Ricky Poole.
(left) Attorney Michael Bernard of the City of San Antonio speaks with chief negotiator for the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Ricky Poole. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But while risk may be the primary reason the City is resisting the change, its officials could also have some history in mind as well.

Most recent is the case of fire union President Chris Steele, who seven years ago boldly instructed his members to ignore a request from the City to submit documentation verifying the eligibility of dependents on their health insurance plans.

Steele called the request “an unfair and illegal labor practice under Texas law,” adding, “If the City has failed to maintain adequate records regarding the City’s employees, perhaps that is a matter that should be resolved internally.”

Neither civilian employees nor the police union objected to the same request. The result was that 200 dependents of civilian employees were removed from coverage and 59 dependents of police officers, resulting in an estimated $1.02 million in savings to the City.

But Steele followed up his instructions to his members with a brash grievance against the City.

The matter ended in arbitration, with the arbitrator finding in 2015 that the City not only had the right to seek such information from employees but had the responsibility to taxpayers to conduct “due diligence.”

What Steele didn’t tell his members, as disclosed in a series of columns by Brian Chasnoff of the Express-News shortly before the arbitrator issued her ruling, was that he personally had something at stake.

A few days after sending the memo to his members, Steele would finalize the divorce of his wife with an agreement to provide her health insurance for 10 years. In exchange, she gave up any claim to his pension or retirement investment accounts. She remained on his insurance for years. (They have since remarried.)

Steele said his wife had insurance from her own employer and that he had notified the City of the divorce. City officials said they had no record of such a notice, and it is unclear why Steele would commit to provide coverage to her as part of the divorce decree if she had other insurance and he had notified the City.

Even if Steele did notify the City of the divorce, it is outrageous that he would take the position that his members did not have to respond to the City’s inquiry and could simply claim the City had lost the notices they had sent. It was not the sort of action that would inspire confidence in the union’s fitness to be stewards of a multimillion-dollar insurance program.

The other bit of history that may tickle the brains of City Hall veterans is a provision in the 1988 police and firefighter contracts in which the City agreed to pay $30 a month to provide a kind of legal insurance for uniformed employees. It would cover wills, simple divorces and other legal matters unrelated to their official duties. At the time the going rate for such programs on the open market was about $15 a month.

The City turned over administration of the program to an outside group associated with the police union. A few years later Harold Flammia, the sergeant who had been president of the police union at the time the contract was negotiated, pleaded guilty in federal court to receiving more than $500,000 in bribes from the law firm that had been selected to provide the services.

Both Flammia and the head of the law firm served prison time.

A footnote: When the police union agreed to a contract two and a half years ago, they agreed to end that legal services program – if the firefighters also agree to end it, since a joint trust was set up to fund the program for both groups.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.