Report dissects government spending


• $14,000 for cell phones that sat unused.

• $3,000 for trinkets bearing the names of Las Vegas City Council members.

• $800 for four 100-pound pigs.

That's a handful of the numbers -- some of which are quite large -- thrown around in the "Nevada Piglet Book 2008," which takes readers on a whirlwind tour of some of the greatest complaints about government spending in the past few years.

"We wanted to impact the environment in which government decisions are made," said Steven Miller, vice president of policy for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which published the report.

"Effectively, much of what government does and spends is hidden from people because it's such a hassle for them to track down where in state government the budget can be found, and once you get there, the quality of the reporting that the state does."

State Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said he wanted to "caution against anyone characterizing this as hating government in any way. That's not what this is about."

"Government uncovered more than half of the problems here," he said. "Waste is not a thing. It is an ongoing process. It needs to be carefully guarded against at all times, and forever, and that's really a big piece of what government managers and management is supposed to do."

Those remarks, at a news conference announcing the report's release, are more nuanced than the report itself, which refers to public sector employees as the "ruling class" and features whimsical drawings of pigs reaching into a cookie jar or wallowing in a Nevada-shaped tub of cash.

The report draws on audits, public records requests and news reports, and criticizes everything from overpayments made by the state Department of Health and Human Services to a $105,000 expenditure by Clark County for a skateboard park.

The Nevada College Savings Program gets a mention because of possible overspending on its marketing budget -- concerns that led to state officials to ask for an investigation last year. The report also rehashes concerns, and possible solutions, on the subject of expensive public employee retirement benefits.

Miller acknowledged that his group hadn't checked to see whether the misspending and other concerns have been addressed, saying that instead they're focused on ensuring public agencies make financial data more available to constituents.

He and Beers also said that not everyone will agree that all the items in the report are frivolous.

"The universe of good things is infinite," Miller said. "If government is always going to do anything that somebody believes is good, then there will be no limit to government. We will end up with essentially totalitarian government."

The report is available at NPRI's Web site: www.npri.org.

Among other items, it takes aim at overtime for emergency services workers, noting that some firefighters make in the low six figures, including benefits, because of overtime costs.

Examples can be found at both Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, although officials would say the issue is not that clear cut. Fire protection services must be provided, and there are times when it's less expensive to pay a firefighter overtime than to hire additional employees and have to pay their benefits.

If senior firefighters rack up enough overtime, their yearly salaries will exceed six figures, said Clark County Fire Department spokesman Scott Allison. But they often work 24-hour shifts, put their lives in danger and suffer ill health from the physical and emotional demands, as well as from breathing toxic fumes from fires, he said.

"It really tears you up because it's a strenuous job," he said.

In many other cases, the report trumpets problems that were found but not the work that has been done to correct them.

Some of the largest problem expenditures were found in the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, including $19 million in overpayments, payment errors and problems with record-keeping and the overprescribing of some drugs.

Those findings came from a legislative audit that looked at 2004 to 2006 and was requested by the department. Since then, the agency has recouped most of the overbilled money and put stricter billing procedures in place, and the rest of the audit recommendations will be in place by year's end, said Health and Human Services official Chuck Duarte in an e-mail.

The report also explores a 2006 federal audit finding that the Las Vegas Housing Authority in 2004 and 2005 improperly awarded three consulting contracts without open and fair competition, "in violation of federal requirements and its own policies."

Those contracts, which totaled $473,499, included a $250,000 contract mentioned in the Piglet Book.

Former housing authority director Parvis Ghadiri resigned shortly after the audit was released, and the current director says the agency pays much more attention to its procurement policies now.

Still another audit uncovered the cell phone problems at the city of Las Vegas, including payments for unused phones and surcharges for employees going over the allotted minutes.

Tighter policies have been put in place to control costs, city spokesman Jace Radke said, adding that one item in the Piglet Book -- the city covering charges for employees' personal phone calls -- isn't accurate. The personal calls logged in the audit were identified by employees, who had money deducted from their paychecks to pay for them, although the audit found that the rate charged wasn't enough to cover the costs of the calls.

And then there's those 100-pound pigs.

Neither the Piglet Book nor NPRI spokesman Andy Matthews had the details of that expenditure. County spokesman Dan Kulin did, though. The police department used them for forensic training.

Staff writers Lynnette Curtis, Scott Wyland and Sean Whaley contributed to this report. Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

 

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