Burning down the firehouse

As a child, a field trip to the local fire station was a special treat. If you were a good student, perhaps you could sit in the shiny red fire engine or try on one of the helmets and proudly model it for your classmates. Respect was the order, and it made you proud of your community.

As an adult, I find that respect waning. Not a little, a lot. It has recently come to light that at least 40 percent of the Clark County Fire Department from the battalion chiefs on down have been egregiously abusing the overtime and sick pay policies to grossly bloat their paychecks and their retirements on the backs of the taxpayers, the majority of whom make only a fraction of a firefighter’s salary.

In just one example of many brought to light in a recent Clark County Commission meeting by Assistant County Manager Ed Finger, a single firefighter took four and half months worth of sick leave last year and worked more than 2,200 hours of overtime. What did that cost the Nevada taxpayer? Over $200,000.

Wow. What kind of person can take four months of sick leave and still manage to shoehorn 2,200 hours of overtime into a measly 365 days? A corrupt one, if you ask me, and that’s putting it lightly. There are some serious issues here, and there should be an immediate hiring freeze, wage freeze and a top down audit with harsh punishments for those who have gamed the system.

Many have cried that these firefighters put their lives on the line every day for our safety. Sure, I get it. They work really hard! So do washing machines. I also get the fact that over 90 percent of Clark County employees earning more than $200,000 a year in 2009 are firefighters, and last time I checked our police get shot at more than firefighters rush into burning buildings. I’m going to add a little more perspective here—our brave men and women stationed overseas are dodging rocket propelled grenades and driving over roadside bombs every day, and they do it for around $50,000 a year. They don’t have state-of-the-art workout rooms in their barracks, and they certainly don’t have the luxury of manipulating the attendance policy to take multiple weeks off work while tremendously inflating their paychecks.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate the fire department. I have a healthy dose of respect for someone who will rush up the stairs when others are rushing down them. Firefighters are an essential part of our community, and many of them are fine upstanding people who take pride in protecting us, but nothing excuses these horrific abuses of the system. The people responsible for these atrocities deserve to be punished and held up as examples of what not to do.

I’m sure there will be firefighters who read this column and think, “Hey, that’s not me!” To that I say, good. I’m glad to hear you aren’t defrauding our state. But know this: If you knew what was happening and didn’t say anything, then you are just as guilty. In an age where elementary school teachers with a master’s degree make a third of the salary and buy their school supplies out of their own pockets, this is a problem that simply must be addressed by the state. A 20-year-old firefighter with a high school diploma should not make more money than the superintendent of the school district. Period.

The jig is up, ladies and gentlemen. These abuses are undoubtedly happening statewide, and not just with the firefighters. They must be rooted out and eliminated, especially before raising taxes. In 1981, President Reagan took the necessary steps to solve a problem like this. Perhaps Gov. Sandoval should follow suit.