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FIREFIGHTER'S PENSION QUESTIONED

Jack D. Sixt Jr. never took a sick day in 26 years with the Buffalo Fire Department, but he's retiring with a disability pension that gives him $71,000 a year tax free.

His devotion to the job explains why he never took a day off for his injuries, even when he slid down an icy aerial truck ladder several years ago and aggravated old back injuries, his supporters say.

"He refused to go to the hospital or home. He'd go back to the firehouse," Fire Commissioner Cornelius J. "Neil" Keane said. "He was injured twice when he was deputy commissioner."

That kind of dedication, Keane said, was the reason he appointed Sixt as a deputy commissioner in charge of the department's Internal Affairs Office, which investigates fake sick leaves and other alleged wrongdoings by firefighters.

Some City Hall officials, however, question whether the 51-year-old deputy is conning the system, using techniques he may have picked up on from the malingerers he investigated in order to cash in on the full disability pension, which includes pay hikes that will continue until he is 70.

At that point, the pension reverts to what he would have normally received under state pension benefits, depending upon the number of years of service with the department.

In the meantime, the state retirement system pays three-quarters of the disability pension and the city pays the balance. At 70, the state picks up the entire tab, though the city continues paying full medical insurance benefits for life.

"We have a number of firefighters injured in the line of duty and according to state law, they're entitled to full pay until they turn 70," said Keane said, a staunch supporter of Sixt.

"I picked him to head Internal Affairs because he's got a tremendous work ethic," the commissioner said. "I attribute it to his upbringing, a strong family background and his Marine Corps experience in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice."

Keane says he wishes he had more firefighters with the "great sense of duty" Sixt exhibited, unlike "a handful of firefighters whom I believe abuse the system."

City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra spoke highly of Sixt, but reiterated a frequent theme of his that state disability pension guidelines "need to be looked at closely by the State Legislature."

Giambra added that over the years, the city has sought pension reforms and "it appears that opportunities still exist for abuses to take place."

James Jarvis, the city's director of labor relations, said in the past, the city has tried without success to challenge state-granted disability pensions.

"I don't know the facts surrounding Deputy Sixt's circumstances, but there have been cases where we have contested and we've been told by the state that there is no procedure for that," Jarvis said.

A mechanism to contest those pensions, the director said, would be helpful for the city.

Sixt, who has been decorated three times for bravery, said he was able to function until a year ago when his back injuries became almost unbearable.

"Just to get into work, I had to do an hour-and-a-half of exercises every morning," Sixt said. "I have two injured discs and an arthritic spine. I know I'm never going to be better and that eventually I will have to have surgery."

Sixt says he is not surprised that questions have been raised about his disability pension.

"We fired 40 people out of my office over the last four years, mostly all of them for drugs," said Sixt, who plans to spend his retirement "trying to get myself back in shape."

Keane says Sixt has left his mark on the department, making it more accountable in several areas, including curtailment of sick leave abuses.

"We knew we had an absentee problem in 1994 when I started as commissioner. We were averaging 50 firefighters out sick or injured per day in our 900-member department," Keane said. "Jack was able to reduce that sick-leave figure to an average of 22 a day."

A plain-speaking individual, Sixt said most firefighters he encountered were dependable, good workers, though "sometimes a guy needed a kick in the butt to get back."

Sixt's other duties included the mandatory drug testing of firefighters. The tests revealed that a number of firefighters used illegal drugs, including cocaine and marijuana.

As a result of the drug tests, Sixt said he and fire union officials were able to provide firefighters with rehabilitation and counseling to help them on the road to recovery, though some were fired.

Sixt said his saddest moments on the job occurred when firefighters were killed in the line of duty.

His happiest moment at work occurred three years ago when his son, Jack D. Sixt III, joined the fire department.

"I gave my son my firefighter badge that was given to me when I came on the job," Sixt said.

His son, he said, continues the family tradition of firefighting, which was started by his grandfather, John A. Sixt, who served about 30 years with the city.

Buffalo News Reporter Thomas J. Dolan also contributed to this report.

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