A cash-strapped fire authority's decision to pay £3,000 of taxpayer's money to cover a chief officer's private surgery has been criticised by the firefighters' union.
The chief fire officer of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service Mark Yates claimed the payment towards a £5,090 operation on his back, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed.
The fire authority's chairman Derek Prodger said it had approved a partial reimbursement because it cost less than paying somebody else to cover Mr Yates' role while he was off work.
The fire service is currently faced with having to find £4 million worth of budget savings over the next three years, and recently agreed to raise its council tax precept by 1.94%.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the brigade could not operate a "one-rule-for-the-chief" policy, adding a precedent had now been set.
Mr Yates, who earns £120,000 a year, reportedly underwent surgery in October, with the payment approved the following month in a closed doors meeting by the fire authority, according to the
Mr Prodger said a key factor in the decision was a potential 12-week wait for the NHS to carry out Mr Yates' operation which would have led to higher costs for the taxpayer, down the line.
He added the fire service had also been running a "very detailed public consultation" to help determine where future cuts might have to fall on the brigade, and it was therefore "necessary to have the chief fire officer back to work as quickly as possible".
However, the FBU's branch secretary Steve Gould said the decision made the brigade look "out of touch with reality" at a time when it was looking at proposals to cut fire engine numbers.
He added some good may come of the decision if the same policy was rolled out to all firefighters.
"The fire service can't operate on the principle of one rule for the chief and another for everyone else," said Mr Gould.
"Mark Yates earns £120,000 a year, and yet when we've asked for financial assistance to help firefighters overcome injury we've always been knocked back.
"If the brigade is serious about changing that policy now this has been exposed, then perhaps some good will come of this, but it's pretty hard to take at a time when we're facing £4 million cuts and firefighters have even had their meal allowances cut."
In a statement accompanying the FOI request, the fire authority said: "The Chief Fire Officer (CFO) required surgery to his back in 2013.
"He was likely to be off work for up to 12 weeks whilst waiting for an NHS operation.
"Where NHS waiting lists are lengthy, the fire service has previously paid for staff members to be referred privately for consultant appointments.
"In addition, we also fund other services for counselling and physiotherapy through occupational health.
"Each instance is reviewed on a case by case basis and all options are considered where it is deemed to be cost effective in progressing a diagnosis/treatment to enable an earlier return to work and shown to be in the best interests of the service.
"Elected members considered it was in the authority's best interests that the CFO was able to return to work as soon as possible and therefore agreed to contribute £3,000 towards the total £5,090 cost of having the operation privately.
"This contribution was less than the estimated £8,500 cost of additional payments to other officers if the CFO had been absent for a prolonged period.
"In addition the service paid £240 for physiotherapy costs."
Mr Prodger said: "The fire authority took the decision to make a payment towards the cost of the Chief Fire Officer's back operation as it was at a time when the authority was running a very detailed public consultation which affected the future of Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.
"As such a significant piece of work was taking place we felt it necessary to have the CFO back to work and fully fit as quickly as possible.
"We believe the NHS waiting list for the operation was around 12 weeks and if this had been the case the authority would have needed to pay for another chief officer to cover the role, which would have been very costly to the authority."
In 2010, the fire service had to settle out of court with its previous chief fire officer Paul Hayden after wrongly advising him he could take a tax-free lump sum on early retirement.
That decision cost the taxpayer more than £300,000, and also meant the brigade was paying two chief fire officers while the matter was settled.
At the time, the Audit Commission criticised the fire authority's then treasurer and deputy monitoring officer for failing to correctly apply pension scheme rules, and for not seeking advice on the matter.
There is no suggestion that the recent payment to cover Mr Yates' surgery broke any fire authority rules.