Awareness changes the public discussion of government employee salaries in Nevada

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Our outreach to open government activists is spreading nationwide. This time our guest blogger is Eric Davis. Davis is a transparency researcher with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank based in Las Vegas, Nev. He specializes in using technology to make government more open.  Also a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he spends his free time watching movies and reading about politics.

Transparency advocates know that without constant scrutiny, corruption and abuse fester in government. And for years, this is what happened in Clark County, Nev., which includes the city of Las Vegas. However, since the creation of TransparentNevada, the flagship transparency project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, public employee salaries have been subjected to more oversight and scrutiny, which has led to more responsible use of taxpayer money.  Our efforts have been particularly useful in shining a light on firefighter salaries.

TransparentNevada launched in late 2008 with the goal of shining a light on public employee salaries all across the state of Nevada. State law designates public employee salary information as a public record and requires government agencies to make it available when requested. Although some jurisdictions — including the counties of Storey, Pershing, Lincoln, Mineral and Nye — refused to comply with our requests or demanded exorbitant fees for the public information, we launched TransparentNevada with 43,321 employee records from 13 cities and counties in Nevada.

The information revealed that firefighters dominated the ranks of highest paid government employees.  Outranking the governor, judges, top lawyers, county administrators and firefighters enjoyed a Croesus-like existence in Southern Nevada. As we dug deeper into the numbers, we found that firefighters not only enjoyed high salaries but that there were also policies in place that allowed some firefighters to game the system to additionally earn extremely generous overtime and retirement pay.

As NPRI fiscal analyst Geoffrey Lawrence found, firefighters in Clark County are some of the highest paid in the nation. In 2009, the Clark County Fire Department employed 739 full-time firefighters of which 565 (76.5 percent) received total wages in excess of $100,000. Including $43,422 in benefits, the average firefighter received a total compensation package of $172,898. Two firefighters took home wages in excess of $400,000. Several firefighters approached $100,000 in call-back and overtime pay alone. If TransparentNevada had not requested and exposed these exorbitant salaries, the public likely would have never learned how much it was paying.

The information on TransparentNevada also exposed potential abuses of the overtime system. For example, there was a policy in Clark County that, of the nine fire battalion chiefs, three had to be active and on duty at any given time. If one called in sick, another was called in and paid either overtime or call-back pay for covering the shift. On May 26, 2010, the County Commission changed the policy and allowed two battalion chiefs to be on duty. The results were remarkable. During a 12-week period after the policy was changed, officials found sick leave had dropped by 80 percent. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a leading advocate for transparency and accountability in local government, alleged that prior to the policy change, the battalion chiefs gamed the system by coordinating with one another and arranging their sick leave to increase call-back and overtime pay.

Finally, there is the case of the Laughlin fire department. A little over 90 miles south of Las Vegas, this 7,000-person town has some of the lightest workloads in all of Clark County. Yet despite responding to only 41 fires — and only 13 structure fires — in 2009, Laughlin firefighters accrued $1.5 million dollars in overtime last year. Commissioner Sisolak believes that firefighters nearing retirement seek to finish their last few years in the relatively quiet Laughlin department so they can boost their retirement package by earning high amounts of supplemental pay in their last few years on the job.

The reaction to TransparentNevada and our efforts to help the public see how its money is being spent has been overwhelming. Many local government officials, including those in Clark County, regularly turn to TransparentNevada for accurate and easy-to-access salary information. Numerous journalists, including those at Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, routinely use and cite information from TransparentNevada. Las Vegas’ CBS affiliate, KLAS, also ran a week-long series examining public employee pay following TransparentNevada’s launch.

As of today, TransparentNevada contains just under 200,000 employee records from 2007 to 2009. In our most recent update, we added salary information from the Nevada System of Higher Education, the Clark County School District and various governmental agencies. We’ve also included disbursements made by Nevada’s House delegation, a searchable interface to examine contracts awarded by the state as well as the results of our transparency survey we sent out to every candidate that ran in last month’s elections for a state legislative or executive office.

Because sunlight is the best disinfectant, TransparentNevada will release 2010 salary data for Nevada public employees early in 2011.

Also make sure to read the TransparentNevada Blog and follow us at @TransparentNV.

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