Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007 | 7:03 a.m.
Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine, hoping to rein in millions of dollars in payroll costs, plans to review overtime policies that resulted in 65 percent of the county's firefighters earning more than $100,000 last year.
Valentine said Tuesday she intends to meet this week with Fire Chief Steve Smith and top county financial officials to look for ways to "better manage our overtime costs," which in fiscal 2006 totaled $14.4 million in the fire department. Valentine also plans to meet with union leaders.
"We need to make sure that we're doing this as well as we can," Valentine said. "We have an obligation to do that."
Valentine's review follows a Sun story Sunday that found that 2,920 of 18,628 full-time public employees - 15.7 percent - in the Las Vegas Valley earned more than $100,000 last year, many with the help of hefty amounts of taxpayer-funded overtime.
That percentage - which includes employees in Clark County, Metro Police, Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City - is more than three times the 5 percent national average of all workers in the public and private sectors earning more than $100,000.
Records show that roughly two-thirds of the area's six-figure public salaries last year belonged to firefighters, corrections officers and police officers. Local officials and union leaders have defended the extensive use of overtime as necessary to keep up with staff shortages and maintain the high level of public safety demanded by taxpayers.
In Clark County alone, however, 21 firefighters, captains and battalion chiefs earned more than Valentine's $180,692 salary last year. One emergency medical services supervisor, 30-year veteran Carl Nelson, earned $232,791 with the help of 2,400 hours of overtime. Overall, 410 of 632 firefighters made the $100,000-plus club last year.
County Commission Chairman Rory Reid said he has asked Valentine for an explanation of how overtime is handled in the county.
"Somebody has made the judgment that we should pay overtime instead of hiring additional people," Reid said, "I want to make sure it's the right judgment."
The millions of dollars now being spent on overtime could be used to hire dozens of new public employees, resulting in a larger, more rested workforce. For example, in Metro, where the starting salary is $46,030, the department's top four overtime earners alone received a total of $346,686 in extra pay last year.
Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tempore Gary Reese and City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian echoed Reid's sentiment, saying they are requesting information about overtime use in that city.
Records show 577 of 2,848 full-time Las Vegas employees - 20.3 percent - earned more than $100,000 last year. That includes 347 firefighters, more than half of the department.
"Every year I've been on the council, I've been concerned about this," Reese said. "It seems like there's always an explanation why the need is there. I'm going to check into it."
Tarkanian added: "They tell me the city saves money using overtime rather than hiring new individuals. I'd just like to see a breakdown of the figures."
Former County Manager Thom Reilly, who retired last summer to take a job at UNLV and is now a vice president at Harrah's Entertainment, said recent studies show that public spending in Nevada is out of sync with the state's growth.
"We're at the top of the nation in salaries and at the bottom of the nation in the amount of employees serving the public," Reilly said. "The role of government is to provide services - not necessarily to have the best salaries in the nation."
Because of the high salaries - negotiated over a period of years in contract talks with politically powerful unions - the number of public employees per capita in the county and the rest of Southern Nevada has declined while the population has grown dramatically, Reilly said.
Rather than challenge the unions and restrict wage increases, he explained, local governments prefer to eliminate jobs through attrition and impose hiring freezes.
"It's always more politically expedient to negotiate higher salaries and pass off that cost to future generations," Reilly said. "We need to look at the long-term impact going into negotiations. There has to be more transparency."
Sheriff Doug Gillespie said the Metro Police Department, which spent nearly $14 million of its $600 million budget last year on overtime, watches out for abuse. (Another $4 million in overtime was funded with reimbursements from private event organizers.)
Even so, one corrections officer, Cecil Dyer, made more than $100,000 alone in overtime - and $194,877 overall - last year. And more than 18 percent of the department, including 815 police and corrections officers and administrators, earned more than $100,000.
"This is something that you continually watch," Gillespie said. "The public expects us to use the money that has been allocated for us to efficiently run this police department. I believe that we are doing a good job of monitoring overtime usage."
In Henderson, officials did not appear overly concerned that 23.2 percent of its public employees - the highest percentage of any local government - made more than $100,000 last year.
City Councilwoman Amanda Cyphers said she did not think that overtime, particularly among firefighters, was out of line. Records show 121 of 162 firefighters - nearly 75 percent - topped the $100,000 threshold last year.
"One of my jobs for the past 12 years has been to be a watchdog for the public," Cyphers said. "I don't see this as abuse. It's a need we have to meet."
Henderson City Manager Philip Speight attributed a large portion of the overtime to the city's effort to keep up with growth.
"Will we ever catch up?," Speight said. "I'm not sure we will."
Cyphers said Henderson has tried to walk a fine line between hiring more employees and paying overtime. And although public pay has increased, so, too, has the cost of living in the valley, she added.
"If there is overtime, you take it because you need it to get by these days," she said.
North Las Vegas officials said they are more concerned about fully staffing public safety positions than the amount of overtime paid.
"Our concern has always been maintaining appropriate staffing," North Las Vegas City Manager Gregory Rose said. This year, the city plans to add 10 corrections officers to the 110-member staff, he added.
Of 1,833 full-time employees in North Las Vegas, 247 - 13.5 percent - made more than $100,000 last year. Corrections Lt. Robin Simpson was the city's highest paid employee, earning $192,121.
"Our problem is finding good qualified applicants," North Las Vegas Councilwoman Shari Buck said.