Playing with fire

Getting burned by the firefighter union

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Thursday, November 13, 2008

Residents of Clark County who want to invest in the future of their children should take away their schoolbooks and buy them a box of matches.


Because in Clark County, knowledge of fire and fire suppression is apparently of more value than is knowledge in specialized academic fields such as law. The evidence: The county routinely pays its unionized firefighters more than its attorneys.

Clark County's highest paid firefighter made $232,033 in 2007. Meanwhile, the county's highest paid attorney made only $215,406. Including overtime and call-back pay, 523 of the county's 770 firefighters (68 percent) made more than $100,000 in 2007. Only 63 percent (144) of the county's 228 attorneys managed to top that amount. Given the incentive structure offered by local government, perhaps UNLV should consider reassigning its Boyd School of Law to become the Boyd School of Fire Suppression.

The facts are that Clark County firefighters are among the highest paid in the country and that this largely results from pervasive and systemic abuse of overtime and call-back pay. In 2007 the average Clark County firefighter received $24,000 in overtime and $6,000 in call-back pay. Three firefighters topped $100,000 just in overtime and call-back pay - in each case exceeding their regular pay. One hundred fourteen firefighters topped $50,000 in overtime and call-back combined.

Excessive use of overtime and call-back pay within the Clark County Fire Department in 2007 cost county taxpayers a total of more than $20 million. This is a tremendous increase from just 2004, when a county audit showed that the fire department spent $9.5 million on overtime. The same audit revealed that the fire department had spent only about $5 million on overtime in 2002 and less than $1 million in each of 2000 and 2001.

The audit made several specific recommendations to help the county control its ballooning overtime costs, but most of these recommendations were subsequently ignored by county commissioners.

Among the auditor's recommendations:

  • Simply follow official county policy by requiring that all overtime hours be pre-approved;
  • Commission an independent audit for the fire department due to its significance and complexity; and
  • Change the county's annual budgeting process to include a detailed analysis of the overtime for the prior year for each department.

None of these recommendations have been implemented. In the private sector, firms are generally required to implement any and all recommendations from an audit within a short time span.

Clark County commissioners need to act now to control rampant overtime spending within the fire department.

Payroll records suggest that as few as 24 of the fire department's 770 employees are on salary. Thus, one way to control overtime spending could simply be to so classify more employees. Also, informed observers say that hourly compensated workers can and do "game the system" by coordinating sick days with colleagues to increase the amount of call-back and overtime hours available - forcing taxpayers to pay two and a half times the rate of pay in order to have a single firefighter on duty.

Because control of overtime spending within the fire department itself appears minimal, managerial oversight most likely would need to be imposed at the county level. A likely obstacle would be pressures from the politically powerful firefighter union, which no doubt has a vested interest in the current overtime and call-back structures.

Nevada taxpayers are facing rising unemployment and economic uncertainty, however, and the burden placed on them by the Clark County Fire Department is growing increasingly onerous. The county itself is facing a potential budget shortfall, and the excessive remuneration in the fire department is starving out other public services.

Clearly, change must come now. The present situation is not tenable over the long term, and county commissioners have a fiduciary duty to their citizens that can no longer be ignored.

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

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