Getting a handle on firefighters and sick-leave abuse

The appropriate response to the maddening sick-leave abuse carried out by Clark County firefighters is not better oversight.

The county needs to reduce the number of sick days firefighters receive, if not eliminate the benefit.

If a senior firefighter can take the equivalent of four months off from work because of “illness” (wink, wink), the main problem isn’t weak, unaccountable supervision and a department culture of entitlement. It’s that firefighters each year get more paid leave than they can possibly need, and that over time they can bank enough to collect payouts worth a year’s salary.

If you take away the sick leave and firefighters’ ability to use it as a savings account, you take away their ability to abuse it.

A county review determined that one-third of the department’s firefighters were abusing sick leave, either by using it for vacations, scheduling it months in advance or coordinating sick calls with other firefighters to drive up overtime wages.

When an arbitrator recently sided with county management on a new, cost-saving firefighter contract, much was made of a provision that authorizes the fire chief to demand a doctor’s note if a firefighter takes five sick days in a single year. Previously, such a demand could be made only if more than three consecutive sick days were claimed.

But nothing was done to roll back the amount of paid leave firefighters receive. They still get 12 days of sick leave each year. They still get between eight and 15 days of vacation each year, depending on seniority. Considering county firefighters are supposed to work 10 24-hour shifts per month, they’re getting the equivalent of two to three months of paid leave each year, with cash-out options and opportunities to earn bonus leave to boot.

These practices — the sick-leave abuse, the paid-leave buy backs, the ginned-up overtime — cost taxpayers millions of dollars per year. A year and a half ago, the county had $16 million in sick leave and vacation liabilities for fire personnel.

A business would fire the abusers and get rid of perks that threatened to bankrupt the company. Benefit reductions are a fact of life in the battered private sector.

Clark County has a long way to go before it gets a grip on its out-of-control personnel costs. It can start by using future contract negotiations to combine sick and vacation days under a “paid leave” umbrella, then slashing the amount of leave by at least half.

A billion here …

Earlier this month, unemployed construction workers appealed to lawmakers to put them back to work on public works projects.

The Building Jobs Coalition, an alliance of labor and management organizations, wants the Legislature to pass a $1 billion bond for infrastructure by imposing either a 0.25 percentage-point increase in the sales tax rate or a property tax hike of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. The coalition says the bill would create 100,000 jobs.

I don’t know what kind of multiplier they’re using in their projections, but $1 billion doesn’t go far these days when you’re talking about large-scale construction projects.

The Cosmopolitan, which just opened on the Strip, cost $3.9 billion. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, being built in downtown Las Vegas, will cost about $470 million.

The badly needed Boulder City bypass highway would cost about $500 million. Project Neon, a Nevada Department of Transportation plan to widen and improve Interstate 15 just south of the U.S. Highway 95 interchange, in addition to other downtown roads, would cost at least $1.1 billion. The Las Vegas National Sports Center, the ballpark, stadium and arena plan for downtown, would cost $1.57 billion.

A hundred thousand jobs? For a $1 billion bond? Perhaps a few thousand, depending on the chosen project, but no more.

Titus on the air

My Jan. 16 column, “Return of the reluctant professor,” detailed Democrat Dina Titus’ soft landing at UNLV after her November election loss to Republican Joe Heck in the 3rd Congressional District race.

Despite serving just three semesters as a political science professor over the past five years, and despite her obvious interest in running for Congress again in 2012, Titus got her old job back in a heartbeat. She even received a 6.5 percent pay raise from the cash-strapped university, upping her annual salary to $107,855 — and she has to teach only one class this semester.

Titus soon will have an additional responsibility I didn’t report last month. Starting sometime in March, she will host a half-hour public affairs show on KUNV-FM, 91.5, the university’s radio station. The schedule for the show, to be called “Nexus,” has not been determined, according to university spokeswoman Afsha Bawany, but it will air between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Titus wrote on her blog that the show would air Tuesdays and Thursdays, and “will feature interviews with local policy makers, trend setters, and university scholars, and will focus on the nexus between ‘town and gown.’ ”

That’s some mighty fine, taxpayer-funded publicity for a former and aspiring politician. Will Titus have to claim it as an in-kind contribution?

She also found time to speak at a Monday union rally in Las Vegas, and recently returned from Washington after her first meeting as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Where does she find the time to be, you know, a professor?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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