Firefighter unions versus the public

Danger inherent in giving public servants too much power

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If ever there were a case study in the dangers of unionization for public employees, it is the case of firefighters in Southern Nevada. Week after week, firefighter issues adorn the news headlines.

In the aftermath of revelations that the North Las Vegas Fire Department paid John Oceguera while he served as speaker of the Nevada Assembly, Fire Chief Al Gillespie admitted that the department's staffing records are completely inaccurate for top officials. The department's payroll has been so poorly managed that even Oceguera himself has admitted confusion over why he was paid so much during the 2011 legislative session.

Within the Clark County Fire Department, an FBI investigation has been launched to examine what appears to have been systemic abuse of sick time, wherein some firefighters would coordinate sick days with each other months ahead of time in order to maximize overtime opportunities. The "sick time game" led to some firefighters receiving as much as $102,000 in overtime and call-back pay alone in 2009 — even as county finances were squeezed by the impact of recession.

And yet, in spite of these scandals, the unions representing firefighters across the valley have brazenly fought against changes to their outrageous contracts that would help local governments to balance their books and ensure that taxpayers get value for their money.

U.S. Census data shows that firefighters in the Silver State are the highest paid in the nation, and likely the world. The Nevada Policy Research Institute compiles earnings data for public employees in Nevada at a much more detailed level than those published by the Census Bureau. Each year, NPRI files hundreds of public-records requests with state and local governments across Nevada seeking official payroll files. The Institute publishes those figures online at

The official payroll files obtained by NPRI reveal some startling trends about public-employee pay generally and about firefighter pay specifically. In particular, they reveal the cumulative impact exerted by narcissistic firefighter unions in the Las Vegas Valley that constantly play off of each other to incorporate new incentives and pay raises into their contracts — progressively elevating the so-called regional "market" for firefighters.

In 2010, as the average, full-time firefighter in Reno collected a compensation package worth $124,000, his counterparts in Southern Nevada received an additional $40,000 to $50,000 in pay and benefits.

Some firefighters received far more than the average. Among Clark County firefighters, overtime and call-back earnings still ranged as high as $93,000, even though county commissioners have enacted new rules to try to curb abuse of sick leave. In Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, firefighters earned as much as $69,000, $83,000 and $40,000, respectively, for call-back and overtime pay. To emphasize, these figures are for overtime and call back earnings alone.

Total 2010 wages ranged as high as $422,000 in the Henderson Fire Department and $226,000, $227,000 and $292,000 in fire departments of Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, respectively.

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Firefighters also received generous benefit packages, ranging as high as $94,000 in Las Vegas, $85,000 in North Las Vegas and $81,000 in Clark County. The largest component of these benefit packages is employer contributions to firefighters' retirement accounts, which accounts for as much as $63,000 annually. These large retirement contributions allow a firefighter who joins at age 20 to retire by age 45 while drawing retirement benefits equal to 90 percent of his pay for the rest of his life.

Certainly, firefighting is a necessary and, at times, noble profession. However, in Southern Nevada the spirit of public service has disappeared from this once laudable profession. Firefighters have used their union power to loot the public at an ever increasing rate. Today, the average Clark County firefighter takes home more pay than a full colonel (O-6) with 36 years' experience in the U.S. Military.

Even pro-labor icon President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed that unionization should be restricted to the private sector, where consumers would ultimately enforce a ceiling on wage demands. As seen in Southern Nevada, when unions are able to bind taxpayers behind closed doors, there is no limit to what they can wring out of private families.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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