Clark County officials have been banging the tin cup for months, urging lawmakers to let them raise property taxes. “We’re seeing an increased level of services needed from our taxpayers, but the revenue that is used to provide those services to the taxpayers isn’t keeping up,” County Manager Yolanda King said in January while unveiling her legislative priorities.
No doubt, the appetite for more government “services” grows exponentially in some quarters. But what Ms. King neglects to reveal is that the county is drowning in personnel costs thanks to generous wages and benefits.
In fact, the high price of satisfying those ever-increasing commitments — not the property tax formula — represents the biggest threat to the county’s ability to deliver “services.”
The Review-Journal’s Michael Scott Davidson reported Wednesday that nearly one in five full-time county employees — 1,193 workers — pulled in more than $100,000 last year. County salaries and benefits cost taxpayers nearly $765 million in 2016, up 12 percent from 2011. Meanwhile, Mr. Davidson noted, tax revenue has grown 16.7 percent since fiscal year 2011-12.
The median income for a full-time county worker — the figure at which half the workers earn above and half below — was $62,400 last year. That’s 67 percent higher than in Southern Nevada’s private sector.
While attorneys who toil as county prosecutors and public defenders account for about 16 percent of the high earners, the six-figure club also includes employees in a dozen different county departments. But firefighters are the big winners. More than 70 percent of the department — 537 men and women — took home at least $100,000 last year.
County officials blame overtime costs for the firefighter salaries. A more accurate culprit is the department’s outsized political clout.
Over the past four decades the number of career firefighters in the United States has increased 40 percent while the number of fires they’re sent to douse has dropped by almost the same amount, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In response, firefighters in many jurisdictions now pad their call numbers by responding to routine traffic accidents and medical incidents.
The situation in Clark County reflects these national trends. Yet timid politicians — worried about alienating a powerful and popular special interest — prefer to ignore this inconvenient reality when it comes to firefighter staffing and salary demands.
Senate Bill 425, which would tinker with the state property tax cap to the benefit of local governments, remains alive in Carson City. It should be quickly euthanized. It’s long past time that Clark County and other jurisdictions get a handle on their personnel costs instead of constantly bloodletting the beleaguered private-sector taxpayer.