Las Vegas Sun

September 26, 2016

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Jon Ralston:

City of Las Vegas gives raises during a recession

Unlike many of my Fourth Estate pals, I try to give government the benefit of the doubt.

Sure, I have a certain cynicism imbued after a quarter-century of covering politics. But I don’t default to the position that all politicians are inherently corrupt or all public employees are overpaid sloths or all government spending is obviously wasteful.

That’s just so facile, so bereft of nuance or contemplation. So, I try to give politicians, staffers and, yes, government a chance.

But when I learn that a cultural affairs manager at Las Vegas City Hall quietly received a nearly 20 percent raise during this recession to a new salary of $107,000, I fear my goodwill is misplaced. When I learn that four dozen other employees also received pay increases as the city demanded concessions and cut services — a total cost of $265,000 — I wonder if these people have any sense at all. And when I learn that the average salary of those who received raises was — please put down any sharp objects — $77,557 — and that the average salary of those employees is now $82,458, I am almost speechless.

Almost.

City Manager Betsy Fretwell defended the raises on “Face to Face” on Wednesday by saying that those staffers were making less than those they supervise and/or were being paid less than those similarly situated in other governments, according to a comprehensive compensation study.

I won’t even posit the heretical thought that if so, then maybe the underlings should have taken pay cuts during the worst economic downturn in Las Vegas history. But what possible good reason could there be for not holding off on these increases — if indeed they are even merited — until the economy improves? I can only imagine how anyone unemployed or underemployed in the private sector would react to this news. (I have a feeling we will find out.)

If you are wondering what other kinds of employees received these raises, they ran the gamut from secretaries to management analysts to engineers (one received a more than 25 percent increase to $121,000) to jail personnel to executive assistants. (I bet you didn’t know there are nine “special assistants to the council.”)

Benefit of the doubt, where have you gone?

I have posted the full list off employees affected by the study on my blog.

The catalyst for this coming to light was a full-page ad in the weekend newspaper by the Las Vegas Peace Officers Association, whose leaders claimed they only recently learned of these pay increases after they gave concessions that kicked in this July. The group wondered why the city was “crying poverty” as these raises were being awarded.

It must be said that the peace officers haven’t exactly been forced into indentured servitude. City records show members have received three 5.5 percent step increases since 2008.

Nevertheless, the decision to give raises during an economic downturn is a guaranteed public relations nightmare and illuminates why some people think government is tone-deaf. When I asked Geoff Lawrence of the Nevada Policy Research Institute about this Thursday on “Face to Face,” he suggested that supervisors might have an incentive to make sure their subordinates get regular raises, so under the theory of the comp study, they will get higher salaries, too.

Maybe. But it’s clear the city realizes this looks horrific. How do I know? Two ways.

First, a city spokesman tried to spin the raises — he called them “adjustments” made “in the interests of equity.” Really? I would say in the interest of equity, perhaps those salaries should be lowered to equivalent private-sector jobs, which don’t have nearly the same level of benefits (PERS, longevity pay) that those government employees receive.

Benefit of the doubt, I can’t find you.

Second, it took much longer than it should have to get this information — all of it public record and all readily accessible — from the city. Perhaps a special assistant to the council was doing something special at the time.

It was obvious the government knew how the information would look, so it delayed getting us the data for more than 24 hours. More than a day to retrieve simple salary information? I don’t think so.

I understand how difficult it can be to get quality folks for government work, and I don’t begrudge a good living to the mostly talented public employees I know. But it is impossible to justify raises to government employees, especially those with titles such as “Cultural Leader II” and “Senior Graphic Equipment Operator,” during these bleak times.

Benefit of the doubt? After looking at this, I think I want the benefit of a government job.

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