Wyandotte County has come so far in recent years, making economic strides and improving its image. So, it’s a shock when the county suddenly reverts back to old ways.
The latest fiasco involving firefighters is a stark reminder that the county still has a long way to go. That, in essence, is the conclusion of a bombshell report by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
Bob Wing, the president of the Kansas City, Kan., firefighters’ union, has come out swinging. He says he sees nothing wrong with firefighters being paid $920,000 for work they didn’t do last year. Many were paid for shifts they did not work and then made under-the-table deals for others to cover those shifts.
Wing claims that fire districts in nearby communities, including Overland Park, do shift trading. That implies Overland Park does what his union members do. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Wing forgot to tell the rest of the story, or maybe he did not know. He did not return several phone messages, nor did anyone else at union headquarters.
Trade-for-cash is not how the game generally is played in Johnson County. Although there is, indeed, shift trading, no money is supposed to change hands. Every fire district that I contacted in Johnson County has a similar policy. No firefighters are permitted to buy or sell shifts. If you trade shifts with another firefighter — who must be of equal rank — the swapped shift must be worked by the one who initiated the trade in the first place. The battalion commanders must approve all shift trading.
That is how an enlightened system works. There is no money paid under the table. And there is no fudging on the requirement of trading with equal rank. In Wyandotte County, the stated policy of trading with equal rank is ignored frequently, according to the report.
The union argues this is all “revenue neutral” and does not impact taxpayers because the total budget does not change. The transactions all occur among firefighters, with no direct taxes supplementing the pay-for-trade practice. But taxpayers certainly do not assume they are paying the salaries for firefighters who are regularly deciding not to work their shifts.
It has been suggested to me by a tax expert that the firefighters who have been receiving income from other firefighters should consult their accountants. They may have some income to declare on their tax filing.
And then there is the critically important safety issue. Bleary-eyed firefighters working extremely long hours to cover their own shift and someone else’s may not be totally alert when called on for action.
The question that remains is simple: Why don’t firefighters in Kansas City, Kan., trade like they do in Johnson County? No one is allowed to pay anyone. A trade is a trade.
The new Unified Government Mayor, David Alvey, was just elected with the help of the firefighters. He is saying nothing publicly at this time about the apparent abuse, other than to compliment the firefighters and agree to look further into the matter. (Wink, wink?)
Meanwhile, former Mayor Mark Holland, who lost in part because of lack of support from firefighters, made this red-hot report public on his way out the door. He has been harassed, even threatened, since he endorsed the report, called the pay-for-trade practice corrupt and said taxpayers were being harmed.
This abuse is so obvious, so immoral, and so rampant, it seems unlikely even a powerful union can convince the public that firefighters should go back to the pay-for-shift-trading system, with so much money changing hands.
The better way is right next door in Johnson County, if only the firefighters cared or dared to look.