Unsustainable salaries become unsustainable: Reno edition

Chantal Lovell

Thirty-five Reno firefighters and their families, as well as all city residents, are about to experience the pain that is the inevitable result of unsustainable salary and benefit increases.

Today, the Reno Gazette-Journal reports that the City of Reno is preparing to lay off 35 firefighters and begin part-time closures of three fire stations because it did not receive a federal grant that would have covered its burgeoning costs.

In response, City Manager Andrew Clinger said, "We knew this was a possibility, and we've been working on a restructuring plan for some time to ensure the continued safety of our citizens."

Unfortunately, Nevada’s collective bargaining law makes the most obvious restructuring plan, reducing inflated compensation, difficult to impossible. And firefighter compensation is quite high in Reno.

In 2012, the last year for which data is available, 12 of the 286 people employed by the department took home over $200,000 in salary and benefits. Sixty-three made over $150,000, and nearly everyone made over $100,000.

All compensation data can be found at TransparentNevada.com, but here’s a snapshot of what some of the department’s brass received in total compensation in 2012:

  • Paul Keckley, a fire battalion chief, took home $280,358.08.
  • Frederick Kajans, fire battalion chief, took home $278,006.88.
  • William Munns, fire battalion chief, took home $259,973.88.
  • Timothy O’Brien, fire battalion chief, took home $257,120.78.
  • Dana Tucker, fire battalion chief, took home $251,971.72.

Considering the median combined household income in Reno is $47,814, the salaries — even the $100,000-plus ones — are extravagant.

Public employee compensation packages are severely inequitable with the private sector, and as made evident by Reno’s latest move, are unsustainable. If the department’s unions refuse to compromise and the legislature fails to modify or eliminate the collective bargaining law, the only thing residents and employees have to look forward to in the future are similar cuts to city services. 

The 35 firefighters who will be laid off didn’t create the glaring systemic problems within the department’s budget — collective bargaining had the biggest role in that — but they and the citizens who experience slower response times and lesser service will be its victims.

Let’s hope state lawmakers are learning from Reno and North Las Vegas and will make changes next session that allow cities to make significant long-term changes to their employee costs.