Get restitution: County looking at firefighter sick-leave abuses

Friday's news that Clark County has launched its own investigation into sick leave abuse by firefighters was somewhat reassuring to taxpayers, who are tired of seeing government employees game compensation rules to enrich themselves at the public's expense.

Las Vegas police and the FBI already were investigating the allegations. If the county hadn't bothered to more deeply examine its own personnel problems, well, that certainly would have been a bigger story.

After all, while the justice system looks into potential criminal acts, the county can take its own punitive action much more quickly if it's determined that firefighters violated county policies and the terms of their own labor contract.

The question is what punishments the county might impose if wrongdoing is proved, as expected. And we think Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has criticized extravagant firefighter compensation for years and demanded investigations into sick leave claims, has exactly the right idea.

"I think restitution is an important issue," he said, "repaying the county, the taxpayers, for money they took illegally."

The county already has examined sick leave practices within the Fire Department, the findings of which were presented to the arbitrator who earlier this year settled a contract dispute by siding with management. That inquiry found firefighters apparently scheduling sick time months in advance, using sick leave for vacations and coordinating sick days with colleagues so fill-ins could collect overtime wages. For firefighters near retirement, those overtime wages can pad pension payments.

If the county needs more time to firm up their evidence, that's fine. Whatever action the county takes against offending firefighters -- a source told the Review-Journal's Scott Wyland that at least one firefighter could be fired and others could be demoted -- will certainly be appealed by the firefighters union. Plenty of county employees who've been fired in the past for very good cause have been reinstated by arbitrators -- and given back pay to boot.

But full restitution to taxpayers should be at the core of any discipline doled out to the Fire Department -- not just for the improper sick leave taken by firefighters, but for the resulting overtime and pension obligations as well.