The Clearwater City Manager said an audit discovered 17 firefighters who abused sick time, including one who even took more than three months off and got a second job as a firefighter in Colorado. The abuses cost taxpayers a total of $218,766 over the past five years.

“I’m outraged, I’m embarrassed,” said City Manager Bill Horne. “I owe the public an apology for this sick leave abuse. As a City Manager, I’m ultimately responsible for what our management team does or does not do.”

Horne said management made a series of mistakes that allowed firefighters to abuse sick time. That firefighter who moved to Colorado, Lieutenant Paul Capo, said he got his bosses' permission to use sick time.

Capo began using sick time at Clearwater Fire Rescue on Sept. 30, 2017 and continued to do so all the way through January 5, 2018, according to city records.

Capo joined Estes Valley in October 2017 and lives in Estes Park with his wife and two children, according to the Estes Valley Fire District website.

“Apparently, he relocated to Colorado,” said Horne. “He was able to electronically… indicate that he was sick and he did that every day.”

The collective bargaining agreement states that all members “shall be required to maintain residence within the geographical boundaries of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando Counties.”

The sick leave policy states that days should only be used for personal illness, doctor’s appointments or due to the illness of an immediate family member. Payment for unused sick time upon leaving employment will be paid out at half the amount.

City records show during the more than three months that Capo was out sick, he worked one day in Clearwater, on Jan. 4, 2018. Horne said he believes Capo wanted to work that one day this calendar year because it would allow him to earn all of his 2018 vacation and sick time before resigning.

“The way sick leave is accrued and paid out under the contract for firefighters, he took advantage of that process,” said Horne. “That’s how he was able to take advantage of the system.”

The audit showed Capo received an extra $32,161 in benefits and sick time. But according to Capo, at least two fire chiefs approved of his sick time use.

Capo declined our request for an interview but sent Spectrum Bay News 9 a statement:

“My departure with the Clearwater Fire Department was in full approval from my department head. My notice was given to Chief Ehlers and Chief Pettingill in September 2017 with the understanding that I had to come back and work my last day, which was January 4, 2018. I returned and fulfilled my obligation on January 4, 2018.”

Horne said he doesn’t believe Fire Chief Scott Ehlers knew exactly what was happening with Capo.

“The current Chief, I don’t think was aware of Capo’s arrangement,” he said. “He was aware that he was on sick leave, but I’m sure he assumed that it was being done properly. The staff didn’t help the Chief understand or highlight that it was being done improperly.”

Horne said the City is not likely going to recover much of the money because 13 of the 17 firefighters have already left. The four remaining firefighters are under investigation.

“We’re all committed to making sure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Horne. “I pledge to you, it won’t happen again.”

Horne said the audit covered all Clearwater departments and the only City employees found to be abusing sick time were in the fire department.