The perks of public service

Louis Dezseran

While public employees deserve a quality compensation package, many of them receive excessive pay and perks at taxpayer expense. 

Last year, 162 Washoe County employees each cost taxpayers more than $100,000, while 61 Clark County employees each cost taxpayers more than $200,000. One Clark County official made $266,562 – almost double the salary set by law for Nevada's governor. 

One of the reasons public employees cost the taxpayers so dearly is the plentiful overtime doled out, with some local governments allocating more than 10 percent of their salary budgets to OT.  An open records request found that the City of Las Vegas paid more than $21 million for overtime, the State of Nevada spent over $29 million, and Clark County paid the most at more than $32 million in one year.  One Vegas city employee made more in overtime than he made in base salary. Multiple Clark County fire officials made close to $100,000 each in overtime.  Nevada has hundreds of well-trained volunteer firefighters, so why are taxpayers compelled to pay regular employees millions in overtime to do work that a volunteer would like to do for free?

Further, state and county audits found that some public employees received overtime pay despite it not being approved in advance by supervisors, that several law enforcement personnel received more overtime than their contracts allow, that some law enforcement officials were paid for overtime they did not work, and that some Laughlin police officers received both regular salary and overtime pay for the same shifts.  (Upon identification by auditors, these oversights were corrected. But because audits are often only partial, similar oversights could have occurred unnoticed).

Excessive overtime pay isn't the only perk of public service.  An open records request found that some Clark County employees can qualify for up to $2,275 per year as a clothing allowance and up to $7,200 per year as a car allowance.  Public employees in some counties receive extra holiday pay for working on such faux holidays as "Family Day," "Nevada Day" or the employee's birthday.  Some public employees enjoy inappropriate round-the-clock use of taxpayer-funded vehicles.  While emergency employees may certainly need county vehicles for after-hour emergencies, non-emergency employees, such as the county assessor, are allowed round-the-clock use of government vehicles unnecessarily.  Finally, some county employees taking college classes are fronted the entire cost of tuition and books, then are paid time-and-a-half for hours spent in class.  Very few private-sector employees get comparable benefits.

It is commonly argued that police and firefighters have jobs that are more dangerous than the average citizen's, so higher pay is appropriate.  But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, law enforcement and firefighting actually do not rank in the country's top ten most dangerous occupations. Lower-paying occupations in construction, mining, fishing, roofing, farming, trash collection, manufacturing and the military see more deaths and injuries on the job than do either law enforcement or fire fighting.  It should also be noted that private-sector jobs in related fields pay much less: Private-sector security guards and fire employees generally earn close to minimum wage. 

Not only do Nevada public employees receive disproportionately generous compensation packages, the momentum to increase their pay persists regardless of whether or not they even want raises.  Last year, Las Vegas City Manager Doug Selby reportedly asked that his pay remain at $196,252 in the interest of fiscal responsibility, but the mayor and City Council insisted he receive a bonus and pay increase to $214,307. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the same City Council voted itself a 48 percent pay raise, effective in 2009 or 2011, depending on council ward. 

Such behavior by elected leaders has created our current situation, where health care and pension costs for public employees could bankrupt Nevada governments in coming years.  In order to relieve current and future pressure on taxpayers, reforms must be implemented to curb government spending.  Public employees should not receive overtime pay unless their overtime work is approved in advance by supervisors. Employees should not be able to work more overtime than allowed by their contracts.  Also, supervisors should limit overtime approved, especially when quality volunteers can provide support for free.  No public officials should be able to vote themselves a raise – decisions on pay raises for politicians should have to be approved by the voters.  Finally, all extra perks given to public employees should be reassessed for their necessity. 

At a time when private-sector workers in Nevada face economic difficulty, state unemployment is rising to 6.2 percent, business activity is declining, tourism numbers are falling, and foreclosure rates are at historic highs, Nevada governments must find every way possible to curb their spending and leave more money in the hands of taxpayers.  Raising some public employee salaries by as much as 48 percent and handing out as much as $100,000 in overtime pay to given public employees is no way to show respect for Nevada taxpayers. 

Louis Dezseran is fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.