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State and local lawmakers must put an end to public employees' huge accumulations of unused leave time.

The tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars worth of unclaimed vacation, sick, personal and comp time just in Bay Area governments create financial liabilities that erode future budgets when those workers retire.

San Jose, for example, paid out $21.2 million in 2011 for unused leave, enough to fund 120 police officers for a year. Instead, the city laid off 66 cops.

Among those on the list, clockwise from top left: Michael D. Johnson, Gary Kirby, Robert Leland and Brett Muncy.
Among those on the list, clockwise from top left: Michael D. Johnson, Gary Kirby, Robert Leland and Brett Muncy.

The solution is simple: Use it or lose it. Employees should take vacation, personal and comp time within a reasonable period after it's earned. Large buildups must not be allowed. As for sick leave, converting it to cash should be ended. Sick leave should serve as insurance against illness -- not as windfall income at retirement. Moreover, allowing banked sick leave encourages employees to work when ill, spreading disease among their colleagues.

An investigative report by Bay Area News Group writers Thomas Peele, Daniel Willis and John Woolfolk found that more than 370 workers who retired last year took home final paychecks that each included more than $50,000 for unused leave.

The total payout for those workers exceeded $30 million. It's the tip of the iceberg. Those were just the worst cases. And the data included only 296 local agencies. Another 245 have stonewalled in response to our requests for data.

Of those worst cases, firefighters averaged the highest payouts, about $93,000 each, followed by administrators, $87,000, and police, $86,000. We understand cops and firefighters trying to goose their final paychecks; if those are the rules, of course they will take advantage.

It's the top administrators' final cash-outs that are the most insidious. These are often the people in charge, the ones who manage the finances and set the rules -- and then milk the very systems they created or perpetuated.

Some of the worst offenders: Solano County Administrator Michael Johnson, $280,417, and Mountain View City Manager Kevin Duggan, $135,000. And, the biggest abuser: Fairfield Finance Director Robert Leland received an unbelievable $354,000 for unused leave.

Contra Costa's county-level system compounds the problem by illegally counting much of those final leave payouts as compensation when calculating pensions.

And then there's the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, a poster child of pension abuse. There, the value of unused sick leave counts as income when computing pensions and the length of that leave is added to work years in the same calculation, meaning it is double counted. It's unconscionable pension spiking.

If elected officials and top administrators won't put an end to these abuses, they should be replaced. The situation has reached intolerable levels.