On the money

Unionized Clark County employees packed Tuesday’s commission meeting to show solidarity against an advisory report that calls for cuts to their ever-growing wages.

Then George Stevens, the county’s finance chief, told commissioners that next year’s budget will need to be slashed by as much as $200 million — $74 million more than had been previously predicted.

That announcement underscored the overriding theme of the report, officially received by the commission Tuesday after months of meetings and deliberations by a community panel: Everything must be on the table for commissioners to balance their 2010-11 spending plan.

Commissioner Tom Collins didn’t get the message. He played to his audience, clad in yellow T-shirts, in declaring pay cuts off the table. “If they’re not worth what you’re paying them, then you should fire them,” Mr. Collins said.

If the county and its bargaining groups aren’t able to reach an agreement on substantial compensation reductions, that’s exactly what will happen — and Mr. Collins’ flawed concept of “worth” won’t have anything to do with it.

Personnel costs consume about two-thirds of the county’s $1.37 billion general fund. Commissioners can’t attack their growing revenue shortfall and weather this recession without reducing those costs. If employee salaries aren’t reduced, then between 1,000 and 2,000 purportedly “essential” workers will have to be laid off.

That’s a far worse alternative than reducing public-sector salaries. Nevertheless, Mr. Collins insists on whistling past the graveyard while sucking up to his union supporters.

The idea that every county worker is “worth” an average of $90,000 in pay and benefits each year, especially in this economy, is folly. The county’s entire pay structure is set up to reward seniority, not performance. Salaries and benefits have been ratcheted up to unsustainable levels over the past three decades not because taxpayers are getting increasingly superior services, but because of political expedience and quid pro quos between unions and elected Democrats.

The surest way to test Mr. Collins’ philosophy on “worth” is to reduce county employees’ salaries by 15 percent, across the board. How many of these workers would quit their jobs to hunt for work in the battered private sector, when remaining on the county payroll for another five or 10 years would allow them to become fully vested, retire early and collect a lucrative, taxpayer-funded pension for life?

Then, assuming any county employees quit, how many thousands of unemployed Nevadans would stand in line to apply for these positions and their reduced salaries? And what would that say about how much these county positions are “worth”?

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