Highly combustible situation

Firefighter union blocks road to reasonable spending reform

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Thursday, July 30, 2009

Every elementary school in America has a bully. The bully regularly taunts and intimidates his classmates in order to get what he wants. Often, the bully's teacher must display strong leadership and discipline in order to rein the bully in and teach him that the same rules apply to everyone.

In this way, Clark County government is a lot like a second-grade classroom. The county is facing mounting fiscal challenges as tax revenues continue to decline. At the same time, county residents are facing record unemployment levels and cannot be squeezed for higher tax rates. All county departments have been asked to reduce expenditures in order to cope with the economic climate.  But ... there is a bully.

The union representing Clark County firefighters is holding its breath and stomping on the budgets of other departments. To rein in costs, the county has turned to its various public-employee unions and sought concessions in the annual cost-of-living wage increases called for by previously negotiated bargaining agreements.

Civil-service employees have agreed to reduce those wage increases down to 1 percent, from 3 percent. Police officers have agreed to suspend wage increases altogether over the next year.

The firefighters' union insists that, regardless of the sacrifices its actions will impose on other departments, it will not even consider making any meaningful concessions. The union would have firmer ground to stand on if it could reasonably claim that firefighters were somehow already undercompensated. However, Clark County payroll figures clearly reveal that county firefighters already are among the highest paid in the nation.

County officials recently provided 2008 payroll figures to the Nevada Policy Research Institute as a result of a public-records request. They show that, in 2008, the average Clark County firefighter received a total wage of $118,196. This includes a base pay of $78,365 and $26,053 in call-back and overtime pay, with the remainder coming through a variety of other bonuses including longevity and separation pay. In addition, the average firefighter received $38,898 in retirement and other benefits — bringing the total average compensation package to $157,094.

Compare that with what the average non-firefighting county employee received. Excluding day workers, it was $40,254 in salary and $11,497 in retirement and other benefits. To put this in greater context, the average New York City firefighter earned a base pay of $55,086 in 2008 — meaning Clark County firefighters, on average, earn 42 percent more despite a much lower cost of living.

Of the county's 803 firefighters, 559 (70 percent) brought home wages in excess of $100,000 while 209 (26 percent) brought home wages in excess of $150,000. Two firefighters received more than $500,000 in total wages for 2008. In addition, 627 firefighters (78 percent) received more than $30,000 in retirement and other benefits. For the top recipient, it was $81,876.

Systemic abuse of overtime and call-back pay continues to be a major problem facing the fire department. For 2007, NPRI showed that 114 firefighters had received in excess of $50,000 just in overtime and call-back pay. That number remained unchanged in 2008. Several firefighters received more than $90,000 in overtime and call-back pay in 2008. Informed observers say these numbers are the result of firefighters learning to "game the system" by coordinating sick days with each other in order to maximize overtime opportunities.

In 2008, the total cost of overtime and call-back pay approached $21 million for the department — a slight increase from 2007. In 2004, a county audit revealed that the department only spent $9.5 million on overtime in that year and spent less than $1 million on overtime as recently as 2001. Notably, that audit recommended that a separate audit be performed focusing solely on overtime expenditures for the fire department — something Clark County appears to have not yet done.

The combination of economic recession and out-of-control labor costs in the fire department increasingly strains the county's ability to provide other basic services to county residents. The union's insistence that county firefighters be paid ever more — even while private citizens lose their jobs en masse — will inevitably squeeze out other departments' ability to operate. 

The true victims are Clark County taxpayers. They will receive fewer and fewer services in exchange for their tax dollars due to the union's aggression.

County commissioners should realize by now that the bully must be reined in. As stewards of taxpayers' money, they cannot allow citizens to continue being exploited by a narcissistically self-absorbed and thus predatory union.

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

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