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Taxpayers stuck with tab as Pasco fire official quits

The next time Pasco County officials lament the burden of escalating state-required pension fund payments, they should consider the case of their own departing fire training chief. The county allowed Stephen G. Smith, 55, to hang around long enough to vest in the retirement system even though the county never properly vetted his background and then said his recent performance was substandard.

No matter. After asking for and receiving Smith's resignation from his $61,369-a-year training chief's position, the county allowed Smith to go on vacation until July 2, effectively extending his employment for four weeks and accruing enough time to qualify for benefits under the Florida Retirement System.

The public should remember that deal when the TRIM notices arrive in August with an expected property tax increase for fire service. Meanwhile, discussions continue among commissioners about extracting new across-the-board fees for firefighting. A department facing such austerity that it has left more than 30 positions unfilled shouldn't be an accomplice to such a generous parting gift.

More important, the delayed departure and subsequent retirement benefit is a dubious perk to bestow on someone who might not have been hired in 2004 if the county had better scrutinized Smith's resume. The case, as reported by Times staff writer Jodie Tillman, shows the county personnel division did a cursory examination of Smith's job history — checking only with his most recent employer, a private ambulance company — and failed to learn he departed from the Pinellas Park Fire Department in 2002 amid questions about his educational background and allegations he falsified school diplomas and exaggerated his rank as a firefighter in Toronto. (Those circumstances came to light in April when someone forwarded documentation to the fire department anonymously.)

Likewise, Smith's superiors in Pasco Fire Rescue weren't particularly thorough, either. Smith's most recent evaluation characterized him as a dedicated and loyal member of the organization just a month after Smith received a written reprimand for botching the implementation of new agility tests for firefighters.

Smith's application to Pasco County did not repeat the dubious information about degrees from a correspondence school nor did he claim to be a former Toronto Fire Department captain. But his stated reason for resigning in Pinellas Park, "irreconcilable differences,'' should have raised a red flag and at least triggered a phone call for an explanation.

Instead, Smith came on board in 2004 as a fire investigator and was promoted to training chief in January 2008. Chief Anthony Lopinto now says Smith's performance was lacking and sent him a May 2009 memo to not overstep his authority and to refrain from unprofessional commentary. The reprimand for the failed agility testing came in February of this year and last month Smith faced a grievance from a firefighter who said the training chief e-mailed inaccurate information about him to other department members.

Lopinto and personnel director Barbara DeSimone said Smith's June 3 resignation was for job performance only and unrelated to the anonymous documents. They said they are satisfied he did not provide inaccurate information on his Pasco application.

Let's see, an underperforming supervisor with a track record of lying about his professional and academic accomplishments is allowed to qualify for a publicly financed retirement before resigning from a financially strapped department. There is little from which to take satisfaction.

Taxpayers stuck with tab as Pasco fire official quits 06/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 5:51pm]
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