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Distortions, insults don’t solve problems

Have you heard about the rich cops?

You know, the ones who make so much, they can pay the bad guys to turn themselves in.

Or at least, that’s the impression you’d get from reading an op-ed published in Wednesday’s Review-Journal by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative “think tank” that frequently targets public employees and their collective bargaining rights.

But that impression would be flat wrong, because the erstwhile folks at NPRI have stretched the truth like saltwater taffy to create tasty-but-misleading info-chews, full of empty calories for the body politic. If truth is the first casualty of war, intellectual honesty buys it second. And this op-ed shatters any pretense of intellectual honesty by hurling numbers and invective at cops in the hopes of killing a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase now pending in the Nevada Legislature.

According to NPRI’s president, Andy Matthews, more than 149 Las Vegas police employees made at least $200,000 in “total compensation” in 2012. Oh, really?

It turns out that “total compensation” means salaries and benefits, which NPRI often combines to give the public an inflated sense of public salaries. When you hear somebody made $200,000, you think of fat paychecks. But when somebody asks you what you make in your job, you don’t add the cost of your benefits to your salary. (Most of us don’t even know how much those benefits cost.)

When the Review-Journal’s Mike Blasky asked the follow-up question, he got the real answer: Just 17 employees made more than $200,000 in salary alone in 2012.

Yes, it’s true taxpayers cover the cost of salary and benefits for public employees, and yes, the “think tank” does break out those costs on its website, dubbed Transparent Nevada. (Ironically, NPRI — a 501(c)3 charity — keeps its salaries and donors secret.)

But it doesn’t end there. Another favorite NPRI trick is to report the compensation of a retiring public employee — including base pay, benefits and a final payment for all unused vacation and sick time accumulated over careers that can span decades — and imply the guy is getting rich off the taxpayers.

“One lieutenant cashed in for more than $354,000, and an assistant sheriff received more than $294,000,” Matthews wrote Wednesday. He also says a police captain was “raking in more than $585,000 in total earnings.”

Of course, those were all retiring officers. Blasky reports the lieutenant’s base pay was $91,000 and the captain’s $140,000.

I didn’t know either of those officers, but I do know the assistant sheriff, Ray Flynn. I met Flynn when I was a cops reporter for the Las Vegas Sun and he was the sergeant on the department’s SWAT team. I covered more than one SWAT event alongside Flynn back in the day, and I can testify he worked for his money.

But to Matthews, cops are less good guys and more drunken mobsters. No, really.

“Just as you wouldn’t give more alcohol to a drunk, you shouldn’t give more money to a government agency with a spending problem enabled by a bad collective bargaining law,” Matthews said in Tuesday’s news release.

In Wednesday’s op-ed, Matthews compared cops to protection-seeking mobsters by raising the possibility that crime might increase if the department can’t hire more officers, a relatively uncomplicated equation expressed by Sheriff Doug Gillespie and Deputy Chief Kevin McMahill. “Your favorite mob boss couldn’t have said it better,” Matthews quips.

But far from being a mob boss, Gillespie is an elected official struggling with a situation not of his making. He cut Metro police spending as government revenues fell during the recession. He’s used department reserve funds to stave off asking for a tax increase. And he’s now exploring the idea of commissioning reserve police officers, volunteers who will receive about half the training as a regular cop, but work 20 hours a week for no pay with full police powers and equipment.

What’s next, a bake sale? Cupcakes for cops?

And how’s this for irony: NPRI complains about six-figure salaries augmented in many cases by overtime pay. But if we were to pass the quarter-cent sales tax and hire more officers, we wouldn’t need to pay so much overtime.

NPRI wants to cast cops as the bad guys for joining a union and negotiating a contract, but they didn’t use their sidearms to negotiate their contracts. City and county officials approved every single one, except those decided by an arbitrator. (And arbitrators often side with the union.) No cop gets a penny more than was agreed to by the elected officials we all put in office.

Does the system need reform? Is the base pay for officers right (it starts at $45,500 per year)? Should officers who aren’t suffering a medical disability have to wait until age 62 to receive their taxpayer pensions? Should they contribute more to their retirement? Should the pension system be replaced with a 401(k)-style retirement plan for future retirees? Should we switch to a use-it-or-lose-it vacation/sick day policy in local government? And should we eliminate binding arbitration and make elected officials finally and fully accountable for approving each contract? These are all perfectly legitimate questions.

But let’s ask them without impugning the integrity of hardworking public servants, without distorting the numbers and without comparing them to drunks and criminals. It’s a thankless enough job as it is.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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