Tax dollars up in smoke

Firefighter pay is on fire

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Wednesday, May 26, 2010

At a time when local governments across Nevada are reducing service levels and laying off employees, salaries for unionized firefighters throughout the Las Vegas Valley are continuing to sizzle.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute annually receives public employee payroll records from local governments across the state in response to public-records requests. The data NPRI has received for 2009 — which will soon be available for viewing online at — reveals that an alarming trend continues. Firefighter pay in the Las Vegas Valley is exorbitant and far out of line with any reasonable benchmarking metric.

The Clark County Fire Department employed 739 full-time firefighters in 2009. Of that number, 565 (76.5 percent) received total wages in excess of $100,000. While the $63,433 in base pay that the average firefighter received might be reasonable, the average firefighter was able to more than double that amount on the final paycheck — receiving pay for longevity, paramedic training and other allowances, as well as $25,688 in call back and overtime — to collect $129,476 in total pay.  Including the $43,422 in benefits, the average firefighter received a total compensation package of $172,898.

Some firefighters took home amounts far greater than the average. Two firefighters took home wages in excess of $400,000. Several firefighters approached $100,000 in call back and overtime alone. Two firefighters received more than $90,000 in benefits alone — each had more than $80,000 deposited by the county into his retirement account.

The situation is similar at the other fire departments within the Las Vegas Valley. The City of Las Vegas employed 553 full-time firefighters in 2009, of whom 420 (75.9 percent) received wages in excess of $100,000. The average Las Vegas firefighter earned $123,427 in total wages, including $82,592 in base pay and $26,057 in overtime.  Combined with $50,834 in benefits, the total compensation package was $174,261.

Of the 227 firefighters in Henderson, 156 (68.7 percent) were paid more than $100,000.  The average Henderson firefighter received $115,963 in total wages, including $79,863 in base pay and $21,112 in call back and overtime.

Yet, the average firefighter in the Reno Fire Department received only $93,780 in total pay, including $72,525 in base pay and $6,482 in overtime and call back. The average firefighter in Carson City earned only $79,472 in 2009 and $46,395 in benefits. In Boulder City — only 20 miles from Las Vegas — the average firefighter received $74,142 in total pay and $34,616 in benefits.

The $50,000 difference in average pay between Clark County or Las Vegas firefighters and Boulder City firefighters has little to do with a difference in conditions or the cost of living. It is likely more reflective of the political leverage that the county's firefighter union has exerted over the years, as well as the willingness of county commissioners and Las Vegas city council members to accede to union demands.

Now that local tax revenues in Southern Nevada have plummeted with economic recession, county commissioners and city council members are finding themselves caught with their fiscal pants down. Had they exercised greater restraint with the unions during the boom years, they would not find themselves in the uncomfortable position of asking for salary reductions today. Indeed, as County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly recently said, "We're paying for a lot of what's been done in the past."

Yet, while county commissioners have offset a $138.5 million budget "shortfall" primarily through a series of accounting gimmicks, such as raiding the capital improvements fund and reserve funds, achieving long-term stability will require standing up to union bosses. If the recent claim by Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani that the commission has been "very prudent" is any indication, the commission still has a long way to go before developing the backbone required to deal with narcissistic unions.

Union boss Ryan Beaman insists that "firefighters are about solutions." Yet, he has adamantly refused to offer any meaningful salary concessions while negotiating with the county for the union's next collective bargaining contract — even though current firefighter pay is demonstrably excessive. Apparently, his solution is simply for taxpayers to fork over more money for his bank account.

Wake up, county commission, and take a hard line. Boulder City's making you look bad.

Geoffrey Lawrence is a fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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