Do county leaders really want contract talks public?


Clark County commissioners appear to be pinching every penny -- asking their unions for give-backs, negotiating with a sharp pencil, trimming costs where possible and dreading what the Legislature might do to the bottom line in terms of distributing future revenue.

They bemoan the secrecy of ongoing arbitration with the firefighters union.

Over the years, growth in the wages and benefits for public-sector employees in Nevada have far outstripped inflation. The secretly negotiated contracts each year granted more and richer pay, perks and benefits. If any elected official dared to question such largesse, the union coffers would pour money into the election campaigns of opponents, and members clad in union T-shirts would be marshalled to knock on doors.

But the commissioners also can find ways to be generous with your money to those in management, too.

Without so much as a peep of discussion, on Dec. 21, as County Manager Virginia Valentine was about to depart for another job, there appeared on the commission's agenda item No. 54. That was one of more than 50 items on the so-called "consent agenda," slated for wholesale vote as routine actions not worthy of wasting anyone's time with bothersome discussion in front of the voters and taxpayers. The whole consent agenda packet passed on a unanimous vote -- no nays, no abstentions, no absences.

No. 54 gave the county's longtime chief financial officer, George Stevens, then serving as an at-will management employee who supposedly could be fired for any reason or no reason at anytime, a three-year contract.

Don Burnette, who has since taken the reins as county manager, said he couldn't speak for Valentine but concluded it was important to her and the board of commissioners to assure Stevens' continued employ during financially tough times ahead. He also noted that Stevens is not the first to be afforded such job security -- he believed both Randy Walker, the chief of McCarran International Airport, and Kathy Silver, who heads the University Medical Center, also are contractually bound.

Burnette said it would be a major loss if Stevens were to depart, taking with him a vast institutional knowledge of the county's finances at this critical junction.

In a memo to commissioners urging approval of the contract, Valentine listed no fiscal impact because Stevens would be entitled to a base salary and benefits consistent with the current management package. She noted that Stevens has been with the county since 1997 and has more than 25 years of experience in public finance.

"As the Board is well aware," Valentine wrote, "Clark County along with virtually every other governmental unit in the State, is experiencing its most challenging economic environment in decades. The County's financial condition has deteriorated significantly in the past two years, and is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future."

She concludes that the contract will ensure stability for a critical function.

Now, I've been in numerous editorial board meetings with George Stevens over the years, and he has always demonstrated a firm grasp of the county's finances and the impact various actions would have on them.

The terms of his new contract call for its renewal for consecutive two-year terms unless either he or the county gives written notice. Should the county wish to terminate the contract early or Stevens becomes unable to work, he would get severance of 12 months worth of pay and benefits.

Whoever drafted the contract had the good sense to make an exception should Stevens abscond with funds or engage in moral turpitude constituting malfeasance or nonfeasance. But in that unlikely event, he still would be entitled to the same severance as other managers.

The county also will pay all of his Public Employees' Retirement System contributions and match any payment he makes into a deferred compensation program, which at his salary could amount to several thousand dollars a year. According to the Nevada Policy Research Institute's website "Transparent Nevada," his total pay in 2009 was $229,647.98, and his benefits cost $54,730.55.

In the grand scheme of things, this job security contract costs the taxpayers chump change. Arguably, Stevens' expertise, knowledge and experience are worth every penny.

But for the sake of those providing the chump change, the taxpayers, it might have been instructive for one of the commissioners to actually make the argument -- in an open meeting with video rolling.

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at (702) 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

 

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