Report reveals fiscal waste

CARSON CITY -- Still think government is on your side?

You might question that viewpoint after reading the Nevada Policy Research Institute's latest "Nevada Piglet Book."

For example, did you know about the Clark County gasoline credit card abuses?

Auditors found that the same employee's gasoline card was used 88 times in an hour in 2009 for $6,106 in gasoline purchases.

Employees used such cards another 273 times to fuel their vehicles on days they were absent from work.

How about Clark County firefighters?

The average county firefighter in 2009 earned $172,898 in wages and benefits. Las Vegas firefighters fared even better, with an average compensation of $174,261.

How about a sweetheart land deal?

Former Las Vegas City Councilman Michael McDonald bought 3.9 acres from the city in April 2009 for $1.3 million. He immediately sold it to a supermarket chain for $3.1 million.

McDonald later defended the purchase, contending the money he made would go toward improvements on a senior project he is building on other city land he also purchased.

These and dozens of other bits of information about seemingly wasteful state and local government spending can be found on the conservative Las Vegas think tank's website. The institute compiled a similar report two years ago.

Institute officials hope the report will rile up residents so much that they'll impress upon their elected officials that they should do better.

Geoffrey Lawrence, the fiscal analyst who authored the report, said wasteful spending must end, particularly at a time when the revenue that feeds government is declining.

Lawrence believes wasteful spending by government in Nevada occurs primarily for two reasons: public apathy and a history of public corruption.

"People expect this kind of thing to happen," said Lawrence, noting that in recent years, four former Clark County commissioners spent time in prison. "You would hope there will be a public outcry."

Much of the information gleaned by the institute is not new. It came from state and local government audits, news stories and requests for government information. But it is the first time all of it has been put together in one place.

County spokesman Erik Pappa said the county has taken corrective action and fired several people involved in the credit card abuse. Now, credit cards cannot be used without personal identification numbers and they cannot be shared.

"We have tightened up the parameters on the fuel cards to limit how often purchases can be made and how much fuel can be purchased," Pappa said.

The revelation came from an audit. He said all county audits are public information available on the county website.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has been trying to limit firefighter pay since he was elected. Past commissions allowed huge pay packages, he says, and he wants to implement reforms.

"The firefighters have found ways to take advantage of the system," Sisolak said. "They call in sick so that another firefighter gets callback pay."

Typically, firefighters now earn three times their base pay, according to Sisolak, and he would prefer hiring more firefighters rather than paying overtime as long as ways are found to prevent them from abusing the system.

The issues surrounding firefighter compensation go into arbitration in November.

Ryan Beaman, the head of the county firefighters union, said the only $170,000 firefighters he knows are those credited by the county with all the overtime. The county opened two new fire stations last year without adding one firefighter, he added.

Beaman said the average pay for a firefighter in Clark County is $23.80 per hour and that is not unreasonable. If there is wasteful spending, then it is due to the reluctance of the county to hire more firefighters and instead let firefighters pile up overtime, he said.

Lawrence said the worst example of wasteful spending he found was by the city of Las Vegas in 2008 when it sought to rename Union Park, the site of a new development.

For $110,000, the city hired a New Jersey firm that sent five employees to Las Vegas for six weeks. Learning grass and trees would be planted in the center of the development and that the smaller area would be called Symphony Park, the consultants decided to call the entire area Symphony Park.

City Manager Elizabeth Fretwell said the Union Park rebranding was complicated since the city was taking 61 acres of blighted property and marketing it for development.

"Everybody likes the Symphony Park logo," Fretwell said, since it fits in with the coming opening of the $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts and "sends a clear message of the kind of development we want."

Then there was the Clark County School District.

In 2008, it hired Dale Erquiaga, a former state official, to describe the personality types of School Board members in blue, green, red or yellow colors. He received $84,000, along with $2,000 in travel expenses.

How about public golf courses? Cities such as Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks operate golf courses, which under law must be operated like businesses.

Yet in fiscal year 2009, taxpayers subsidized the courses at a combined cost of $4.7 million, according to the report.

Golfers have average household incomes of $91,000 a year, considerably less than local firefighters but $35,000 more than the average Nevada household, the report states.

In 2008, the city of Las Vegas spent more than $400,000 to provide tennis lessons and $658,000 to prepare for an event for the Tennis Channel.

City Manager Fretwell, however, said the Tennis Channel expenditure was made in conjunction with the opening of the city's new tennis center.

A public records request by the Nevada Policy Research Institute also found the city in 2008 spent $3,510 to hire "face painters" and "sparkle tattoo artists," along with $2,340 for a "balloonologist" and $680 for balloons.

While the city since has curtailed spending at grand openings and special events, Fretwell said children still like balloons and "bouncy houses," a $1,150 city expenditure.

"We still need fun in the community," Fretwell said.

But she said the city does not dismiss the institute's findings and she encourages people who spot wasteful spending to contact city officials.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.