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Tale of two cities: Nevada town’s employees paid more than those across Utah border

Updated February 27, 2024 - 5:05 pm

The story of West Wendover, Nevada, is a tale of two cities, one told in part by the pay of its city employees versus those in adjacent Wendover, Utah.

A white line on the main street — and a canyon-sized gap in pay — divide the twin towns.

The city manager in West Wendover, population roughly 4,600, earned $170,000 in 2023, city pay records show. The city administrator in Wendover, population about 1,200, was paid $41,000, according to the Transparent Utah website.

There seem to be no hard feelings. “Whether it’s fair or not, I don’t make that judgment,” said Glenn Wadsworth, the part-time city administrator of Wendover, established in the early 1900s as a railroad town.

“They have legal gambling on the west side, which generates a lot of money” that can be used to pay higher wages, Wadsworth said.

Five hotel-casinos allow the number of people in West Wendover to balloon to 30,000 on weekends, and create a need for 24/7 police protection and other services, said Chris Melville, West Wendover’s city manager.

“We’re a gaming community,” Melville said. “We have marijuana. That is also a factor, where folks come from Utah to use the cannabis. The same with liquor.”

Gambling and nonmedical marijuana are illegal in Utah, and laws surrounding alcohol are more restrictive.

“We depend on that,” Melville said. “If Utah wasn’t doing that, we likely wouldn’t exist.”

The two towns view themselves as one community, but municipal services for the most part are handled separately, Melville said.

He grew up on the Utah side of the border in Wendover, where he went to school with Wadsworth’s son. Business began to flourish on the Nevada side in the 1980s, he recalled. West Wendover was incorporated in 1991.

City ‘takes care of its employees’

The community’s remoteness makes it challenging to recruit employees, Melville said. The city offers pay and benefits more in line with those of Elko, the county seat two hours away with quadruple the population, he said.

“We have to be a little more competitive to keep people here or get them here to start with,” Melville said. “I’m not going to say that our city doesn’t take care of its employees, because we do.”

Among the city’s top-paid employees are police officers, who records show are amassing lucrative overtime. Several times a week, officers need to transport a person who has been arrested to Elko, a four-hour, round-trip trek, Melville said. West Wendover has holding cells but no jail.

In 2023, the top-paid employee in Wendover was in the police department and earned $55,000, records show. In West Wendover, the third-highest paid employee, after Melville and the fire chief, was a police lieutenant who made $117,000, records show.

Melville said it has become harder recently to hire officers, as has been the case in much of the country, because of some negative attitudes about police work. Most officers are recruited from Utah, with some, he acknowledged, being poached from Wendover.

Once in a while, the tide flows the other way, with an officer going from West Wendover to Wendover. The chief of police in Wendover took the position after retiring from the West Wendover force and getting his pension from the state of Nevada, Melville confirmed.

In 2023, nine of West Wendover’s 82 employees — or 11 percent — were paid more than $100,000 during the calendar year. All but two of Wendover’s 26 employees made less than $50,000.

Costs of living expenses for a single adult in West Wendover in 2020 were about 16 percent higher than average for Nevada, according to the financial news website 24/7.

‘It keeps me alive’

The Transparent Nevada website has incomplete pay information for small towns in Nevada. The Transparent Utah site shows that communities of comparable size to West Wendover, albeit without the city’s unique characteristics, pay considerably less.

The top official in Utah’s Elk Ridge, La Verkin and Kanab, earned $128,000, $120,000, and $119,000, respectively.

Melville, who also is the director of community development and heads up the human resources department, said he hasn’t gotten pushback from members of the community about his pay.

“They know me. They know the work I’m doing” and have enjoyed the improvement in the community’s quality of life, said Melville, who has worked for the city for 26 years, 22 of them as its manager.

Wadsworth said he took the job as Wendover city administrator after retiring from the mining industry.

“I was called to this position,” the 80-year-old said. “They needed to have somebody to help the city. It was only supposed to be for a short period of time, and it’s been 23 years now. It keeps me alive, I think. It gives me something to do.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MaryHynes1 on X. Hynes is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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