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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

This largesse comes at taxpayer expense

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Politics often has a pig-at-the-trough stench to it. Reminders waft by regularly, especially on Long Island.

Last week was particularly pungent. A Hempstead Town official was arrested after he allegedly stole $59,000 from a political club, apparently because his two public-sector jobs weren't enough. A former aide to ex-Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto pleaded guilty to a more garden-variety charge of corruption, a reminder that Venditto himself pleaded guilty to two corruption charges in July.

Just as olfactorily offensive were the reverberations from a state audit that found that a group of former Long Beach city employees had received separation payments more than $500,000 greater than what they legitimately had coming to them. Most prominent among the beneficiaries was former City Manager Jack Schnirman, now the Nassau County comptroller. Schnirman, who left Long Beach in 2017, was paid for 100 percent of his unused sick time — $73,113 for 878 hours — when he was only entitled to 30 percent of it. He also received a payout for unused vacation days, but it's the sick time that's particularly galling.

Perhaps you did a slow burn of indignation upon learning of this larded largesse (even if Schnirman eventually promised to repay his windfall). Maybe you went directly to white-hot outrage. Either way, ponder this larger philosophical question: Why was he getting paid for unused sick time in the first place?

The answer is appropriately cynical — because many public employees get paid for unused sick time when they leave the job. 

It's also outrageous. 

Sick time is meant to be taken when you're sick. It allows you time to recover, and prevents co-workers from getting exposed. If you didn't use your sick days, congratulations. I mean that sincerely. You were healthy (or acted like you were)! Here's to you! 

Paying people as they walk out the door for sick days they never took is like paying them double for the same number of days they did work. 

To be clear, I'm not faulting individuals. Many public employees do yeoman work and keep our municipalities running. I don't begrudge any of them a good salary. And they don't lack for good benefits, like guaranteed pensions that are tax-free.

It's the system that stinks. Sick-day policies are in contracts negotiated with public employee unions, with the practice extended to nonunion employees, too. It's nonpartisan, done by both major parties at every level of government. And who pays for it?

Taxpayers. Yup, we foot the bill. And most people who work private-sector jobs aren't allowed to cash out sick days when they retire. Use 'em or lose 'em. And because these public employee payouts can top six figures — multiple six figures in some cases —  municipalities often have to bond out the payments. So we're not only paying for the windfall, we're paying interest on it as well.

This cost-of-doing-business is part of what makes Long Island unaffordable. It's part of the push people feel to leave the region. It's also part of what turns people off to government, another card in a deck stacked in favor of someone else. On so many levels, for so many people, it's crippling.

The Nassau County Legislature passed a bill last year to cap payouts for unused sick days. It also applied to unused vacation days, 30 days of each. But only for new, nonunion employees. That's a start.  

The discontent roiling this country has lots of root causes. Unfair treatment is one of them. It's time to shut off the spigot and empty the trough, before it's too late.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

Correction: This column originally misstated how public pensions are taxed. They are taxed at the federal level.

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