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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Tucson spent nearly $5 million buying back unused sick days from police officers and firefighters the past two years.

The city also shelled out another $2 million in what the city attorney now says were illegal pension contributions for those unworked days, the Arizona Daily Star reported Monday.

Tucson expects to spend another $2.6 million buying back sick days this year.

City policy allows police and fire personnel to cash in up to 208 hours of unused sick hours annually as a way to reward long-time officers.

Police employees can get full pay for their sick time if they've worked for the city for 15 years and have at least 480 hours banked.

Other city employees also can cash in unused sick days, but only when they retire. Even then, they only get 25 percent to 50 percent of the value of those hours.

Fire employees can start cashing in after five years if they have a minimum of 360 hours.

The Star reported that in 2012, Tucson paid $2.4 million to 520 police and fire employees for unused sick time, 158 of whom cashed in hours with $6,000 or more.

The following year, the city paid $2.5 million to 547 employees with 178 employees taking home $6,000 or more.

Two of the biggest beneficiaries of the policy over the past two years were Police Chief Roberto Villasenor, who collected almost $32,000, and Fire Chief James Critchley at $30,000, the newspaper said.

Villasenor defended the program and said it's integral to attracting quality officers and keeping them from leaving for higher paying cities such as Phoenix or Mesa.

City Attorney Mike Rankin concluded in a legal opinion late last month that state law prohibits Tucson from counting unused sick-time dollars toward an employees' pension.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com

Associated Press,

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