Clark County’s investigation into sick leave abuse by its firefighters continued its deliberate march forward with Thursday’s termination of Battalion Chief Renee Dillingham.
The firing of the 24-year veteran is significant because, in addition to abusing sick leave, she was found to have helped others game the system at the expense of taxpayers.
Sick leave abuse within the Clark County Fire Department is not just a rank-and-file problem. It’s a leadership problem. It’s a problem rooted in a department culture of entitlement.
The inquiry started six months ago, when evidence of sick-leave abuse was discovered during a nasty contract impasse between the department’s union and county management. Emails and scheduling irregularities revealed that firefighters were using sick days for personal time or vacations, which is prohibited by the firefighters’ labor contract.
Moreover, firefighters were scheduling these sick days well in advance and coordinating the leave with colleagues. That enabled firefighters to substitute for each other and collect lucrative overtime and callback wages, boosting their pay well beyond their already generous base salaries. Average Clark County firefighter wages totaled $130,000 in 2010 — $180,000 for battalion chiefs — not including pension contributions and benefits.
Las Vegas police and the FBI are investigating the sick-leave abuse as well for possible criminal conduct. One other firefighter has been fired, and a dozen other firefighters are still under investigation by the county.
The county is wise to conduct its inquiry as deliberately and thoroughly as possible. Ms. Dillingham can contest her firing and take her case before an arbitrator. Such hearings are rarely sympathetic to the interests of taxpayers.
And termination is the appropriate punishment for such sick-leave abuse, as well as restitution to taxpayers, as suggested by Commissioner Steve Sisolak. The firefighters’ contract requires the forfeiture of up to six months of sick leave for breaking the rules, but that’s hardly a deterrent against the practice, considering the overtime that can be piled up.
These ongoing investigations are not about a misunderstanding. They are laying bare a “more for us” mentality that hinders the county’s ability to balance its budget. And they are clearly headed in the right direction.