County study: Most raises beat inflation

Cost-of-living raises for most local government workers outpaced inflation in the past decade, some by a wide margin, according to a wage report that Clark County released Monday.

The 15-page report compares the county’s wages and pay raises with the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and six regional entities.

One of the clearest trends to emerge from the collection of tables, charts and salary comparisons is the upward spiral of cost-of-living raises.

Among 29 employee groups, the Southern Nevada Health District and county firefighters enjoyed the highest cost-of-living bumps in a 10-year stretch.

These raises elevated health district employees’ wages by more than 50 percent and county firefighters by 46 percent since 2001.

Rounding out the top five groups with the highest cost-living percentage increases are the Las Vegas Police Officers Association with 45 percent, Henderson police with 44 percent and Henderson police supervisors with 44 percent.

The consumer price index, which measures inflation, rose by 31 percent during that period.

"It’s way out of line. It clearly exceeded the cost of living," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who requested the wage report to see how the county’s compensation stacks up to other local governments.

The report notes that step increases and other raises weren’t included. Otherwise, the local governments’ wages would’ve jumped by even more during the decade.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District and management at the county, the Water Reclamation District and University Medical Center were the only entities to keep their cost-of-living raises below the inflation rate, reporting increases of about 29 percent.

County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the report today .

Other regional entities in the report are the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Water Reclamation District, the Regional Transportation Commission and the Regional Flood Control District.

Stephanie Bethel, a health district spokeswoman, acknowledged that the district’s cost-of-living raises climbed steeply during the decade.

Most of that increase happened in the first five years because of a labor contract, Bethel said. In the past five years, cost-of-living raises have averaged 3 percent a year, putting the health district on par with most local governments, she said.

Sisolak said he was struck by how the various agencies pay employees so differently to do the same job.

County firefighters were the best paid in nearly every category, even when overtime wasn’t counted, the report showed. That includes battalion chiefs, fire captains, engineers, paramedics and regular firefighters.

Rank-and-file firefighters’ yearly pay without overtime averaged almost $85,000, slightly higher than Las Vegas firefighters’ $83,000 but well above Henderson’s $73,000 and North Las Vegas’ $62,000.

The county is wrangling with its firefighters’ union in what some describe as tense bargaining.

"For two years now the personnel costs of the Clark County Fire Department are not sustainable," said Commissioner Rory Reid, who’s running for governor.

"If Clark County is going to be on a firm financial footing in the long term, we need to reduce those costs," he said.

The head of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908 didn’t respond to phone calls Monday.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said that county workers more often ended up toward the bottom of the wage list than the top.

Police and firefighters rack up more overtime in large part because the county chose to keep a leaner force, she said. That practice is in line with research that found local government employees are paid more than the national average but make do with a smaller work force, she said.

The regional report showed another curious disparity: County Manager Virginia Valentine, who’s in charge of the biggest government on the list, was third from last in pay.

Valentine earned $214,000 last year to oversee 8,300 full-time employees. In contrast, Jacob Snow, the regional transportation manager, was paid $285,000 to run an agency that employs 277 people.

The top earner was Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the visitors authority, who made $322,000 to head a 572-employee agency.

"How is Rossi worth 50 percent more than Virginia?" Sisolak said.

Don Burnette, the county’s chief administrative officer, noted that Valentine hasn’t taken a pay raise in a few years and doesn’t plan to accept one this year.

The report revealed other disparities.

A health district electrician made $82,000 in 2009, versus a county electrician who earned $59,000. A Henderson building maintenance technician was paid $69,000 last year, compared with a county "maintenance worker II" who got $46,000.

Bethel said the electrician is the one example of a health district job topping the pay list. Most of the district’s jobs fall toward the middle or the average, she said.

Kathy Blaha, Henderson spokeswoman, said workers can’t always be neatly categorized.

The report doesn’t factor in how long workers have been at their jobs and how seniority could affect their pay, she said. Also, a Henderson maintenance technician might require more skills and certification than a county maintenance worker, she said.

"You have to look at their job duties," Blaha said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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