Tuition perk: No need for taxpayers to cover classes for firefighters

Companies have had to cut back to survive the Great Recession, and one of the casualties has been tuition reimbursement for employees. A 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management showed a gradual, five-year decline in the number of companies that pay for workers' graduate and undergraduate course work.

A lot of public employees, however, have such perks written into their union contracts, making them difficult to pare back. Clark County's firefighters, who collect an average of $130,000 per year in salary, enjoy a generous tuition reimbursement perk that requires taxpayers to cover all class costs for bachelor's or master's degrees in fire science, criminal justice, public administration and fire administration.

The Review-Journal's Kristi Jourdan reported Monday that taxpayers have since 2008 covered more than $100,000 per year in tuition reimbursements for out-of-state, online classes because Nevada institutions haven't offered course schedules that fit with local firefighters' 24-hour shifts. Elected officials expressed concern that those tax dollars were leaving Nevada, so local higher education leaders are taking steps to make more classes available online and better promote their programs to firefighters.

A better response would have been to question why taxpayers need to keep paying for such classes at all.

Firefighters get the training they need through the department and its academy, at public expense. College courses aren't required for prospective firefighters, either - and there is no shortage of applicants when firefighting positions open up. The promise of a generous pension ensures that firefighters stay in their jobs until they retire at a relatively young age, so tuition reimbursement isn't necessary to prevent them from leaving for jobs in other jurisdictions.

The suggestion that having firefighters take in-state classes will save taxpayers money ignores the fact that Nevadans heavily subsidize such courses to begin with. In fact, the development of so many fire science and fire administration courses has been one long exercise in featherbedding, creating more paychecks for current and retired firefighters at tremendous expense to the public. The program director for the College of Southern Nevada's fire science courses is former Las Vegas Fire Chief Greg Gammon.

Perhaps the greatest boondoggle in the history of the Nevada System of Higher Education was its failed Fire Science Academy in rural Carlin. The $27 million campus opened in 1999 with the promise of drawing thousands of firefighters from around the country every year for training opportunities and creating a $150 million economic impact in northeast Nevada. Enrollment projections never materialized, the facility created groundwater contamination, and the result was millions of dollars in operational losses every year and tens of millions of dollars in capital debt. UNR students pay an immensely unpopular $6.50-per-credit fee to cover that debt. Mercifully, the academy finally was closed five months ago.

But the Clark County Fire Department's tuition reimbursement benefit lives on. When the next contract expires in 2015, management should extinguish the tuition reimbursement benefit. It has burned the public long enough.