Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 | 7:02 a.m.
Top Clark County officials said Tuesday they are working to get a handle on how 65 percent of the county's firefighters earned more than $100,000 last year, many by taking advantage of millions of dollars in overtime.
"We're trying to understand what's causing this," County Manager Virginia Valentine said. "We need to do some analysis to see why some of that overtime is occurring."
Valentine said she came away from a meeting last week with County Fire Chief Steve Smith and some of her top financial officers determined to find ways to reduce overtime costs. The fire department alone shelled out $14.4 million in overtime pay in fiscal 2006.
"I don't want to be satisfied with the status quo," Valentine said. "They've recognized it's a problem. Apparently, it's been a problem for a while."
The overtime review follows a Feb. 18 Sun story that reported 410 of 632 county firefighters made more than $100,000 last year, with 21 of them earning more than Valentine's $180,692 salary.
The Sun story disclosed that nearly 16 percent of the 18,628 full-time public employees in the Las Vegas Valley earned more than $100,000 last year, many because of sizable amounts of overtime.
That percentage - which includes employees in Clark County, the Metro Police Department and 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 six figures.
Both Valentine and Smith said the overtime issue is complicated by a union contract with the firefighters that, among other things, guarantees minimum staffing to operate certain trucks and equipment.
"We're managing overtime with the rules we have in place," Smith said. "We're doing the best we can."
Smith, who plans to discuss the overtime issue with union leaders today, said the goal of the current analysis is to determine the number of new firefighters that could be hired to reduce overtime costs without costing the county additional money. If some of the money now being spent on overtime was used to pay new firefighters, the department's workforce could grow without a budget increase.
"We are still crunching the numbers to see how many vacancies there are and, through the contract, what kind of movement can be made," Smith said. "I would love to have more folks available to us."
County and other municipal officials have defended the use of overtime as the cheapest way to keep up with staff shortages and maintain the high level of public safety demanded by taxpayers.
Some Las Vegas City Council members have questioned whether overtime is getting out of hand. Overtime last year helped more than 20 percent of public employees in the city - including more than 50 percent of the fire department - join the $100,000 salary club.
But city managers throughout the region have not appeared to be as active as Valentine in attempting to determine whether overtime policies are being abused or to search for ways to rein in the costs.
In Henderson, officials have defended the use of overtime - which helped 23 percent of all city employees earn more than $100,000 last year. That included 75 percent of the fire department.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie also has insisted that Metro's $14 million in overtime in 2006 was managed well.
Overall, records obtained by the Sun showed that nearly one-fourth of the department's police and corrections officers earned more than $100,000 last year.
Police officials defended their overtime policies Monday when questioned by Metro Fiscal Affairs Committee members, who referred to the Sun's story during a department budget presentation.
Las Vegas Councilman Larry Brown, who serves on the Metro Fiscal Affairs board, said after that meeting that while he was concerned about the overtime payments, it would be wrong to underpay officers.
"The worst mistake we could make is shortchange the public safety officers," Brown said.