Sunday, April 15, 2007 | 7:23 a.m.
Even in a city where astronomical dollar figures are the norm - the $7 billion CityCenter project, $200,000-per-hand blackjack whales, $300 bottles of vodka - you still can do a lot with $17.2 million.
Last year, the city of Las Vegas spent that much on overtime for city employees, a choice unlikely to be the first pick of anyone - except for the workers who benefited from it.
Since fiscal 2001, Las Vegas' overtime costs have risen 449 percent, more than twice the percentage increase of any other Nevada government during that period.
Although that jump causes the city's numbers to stand out, other municipal budgets in Southern Nevada also have seen overtime pay rise sharply.
During the six-year period from fiscal 2001 through fiscal 2006, which ended last June, taxpayers paid almost $300 million in overtime , according to figures provided by local governments. Last year alone, the tab was $79.6 million.
Since 2001, the amount that North Las Vegas spent on overtime grew by 171 percent. In Henderson, it rose by 104 percent, while at Metro Police, which is funded by Las Vegas and Clark County, it increased by 98 percent. Boulder City, the smallest of the local municipalities, saw a 38 percent increase in overtime.
In Clark County, the largest public employer in Southern Nevada, overtime has risen by 140 percent since fiscal 2002. (The county did not provide 2001 figures.)
"These are alarming numbers," said Andrew Matthews, a spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank in Las Vegas. "If a private company engaged in this type of spending and waste, there would be serious consequences."
The Sun reported in February that largely because of hefty overtime, 16 percent of the valley's public employees earned more than $100,000 last year.
Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a government watchdog group based in Washington, said he was astounded by the large spike in overtime in Nevada.
"It seems pretty bizarre," Sepp said. "I just can't see the need for that kind of increase."
Las Vegas city officials say they are at a loss to understand why overtime increased from $3.1 million in fiscal 2001 to $17.2 million last year.
"There is an answer to it. I don't know what that is," said Mark Vincent, the city's finance director. "We have been looking at it and studying patterns of overtime and callback."
Though he acknowledged that the 449 percent increase in overtime is a "big number," Vincent argued that it's not unreasonable considering that the city's population has grown by 30 percent over the past six years. In that period, the number of public employees has increased by only 16 percent, which he said meant more work per employee.
More than 80 percent of the city's overtime last year went to firefighters, who staffed five new stations, and to corrections officers, who manned the city's crowded detention center, Vincent said.
"The reality is there are a lot more demands that are being placed on a staff that is not growing fast enough to meet those demands," he said.
Management experts told the Sun, however, that huge amounts of overtime often indicate operational inefficiencies, including chronic understaffing and poor planning to cover shortages because of vacations and other factors.
William Robinson, an economics professor at UNLV, said the high percentages are a sign that local governments have gotten into the habit of paying overtime rather than filling vacant positions and creating new ones.
"We shouldn't be seeing 450 percent increases in overtime, or even 100 percent increases," he said. "It's just too big. It means they probably should be hiring more full-time people."
For Clark County, overtime increased from $11.8 million in fiscal 2002 to $28.2 million last year.
Half of the county's overtime in 2006 went to firefighters, who were among the county's highest paid employees. Last year, 410 of 632 county firefighters made more than $100,000, with 21 of them topping the $180,692 salary of County Manager Virginia Valentine.
Top county officials have vowed to make reducing overtime a priority.
"There are some legitimate reasons for overtime," Valentine said. "But when the numbers get that big, we have an obligation to review it."
Valentine said financial analysts are trying to determine whether the county would be better off hiring more firefighters rather than continuing to pay large amounts of overtime .
Some public administrators say overtime can save municipalities money by avoiding the cost of recruiting and training new employees and the attendant health, retirement and other benefits.
Used sparingly , overtime can benefit local governments in that way. However, the tens of millions of dollars now being spent annually on overtime by valley governments and agencies easily could be used to hire dozens of new employees, giving them bigger, more rested staffs.
In Metro, for example, the $19.1 million paid in overtime last year would cover more than 300 new officers in a department where the starting salary is $46,030. (This analysis allows for the cost of benefits, which add as much as one-third of base salary per employee.)
Although Metro's overtime has nearly doubled from $9.7 million in fiscal 2001, Sheriff Doug Gillespie insists his department is doing a good job of monitoring the extra pay. Moreover, nearly $4 million of last year's $19.1 million in overtime was reimbursed by special event promoters.
"This is something we track on a regular basis," Gillespie said. "We've always done well as an organization living within the budget that was approved for us."
Gillespie said the department has been forced to pay higher amounts of overtime at its detention center and communications and records bureaus because of difficulties in hiring enough staff to keep pace with growth.
Nearly one-fourth of Metro's 98 percent increase in overtime over the past six years is attributable to labor agreements with corrections and police officers, he said.
At the same time, Gillespie said, the department's workload in the post-9/11 era has steadily risen, with extra emphasis on homeland security. The department, he said, also has had to spend more resources policing large special events, including the growing New Year's Eve celebration, the Las Vegas Marathon and the annual NASCAR weekend. This year, the department added the NBA All-Star game to its special events portfolio.
In many circumstances, paying overtime is the only way to meet the public's demands for protection, he said.
"We can't just stop doing what we do because overtime is coming in a bit higher than it has in the past," Gillespie said. "When your job is providing public safety to the community, you don't scale back the level of service you're providing ."
In North Las Vegas and Henderson, officials defended rising overtime as a way to keep up with their fast-paced growth. But like their counterparts in Las Vegas and the county, they said they are taking steps to lower the costs.
Since fiscal 2001, the cost of overtime in North Las Vegas, the nation's second-fastest growing city, has risen from $2.1 million to $5.7 million.
"We're making an effort to hire additional staff," said North Las Vegas City Manager Gregory Rose. "We are recommending hiring 16 firefighters." This year, Rose added, the city has hired 10 new corrections officers.
Officials in Henderson, where overtime has jumped from $4.3 million to $8.9 million since 2001, said their city has faced similar challenges as it struggles to hire new firefighters and police officers.
"It's something we're working on," said Richard Derrick, the city's budget director.
Derrick said the fire and police departments are hiring and training new recruits, which should lower overtime costs.
Like other local officials, County Commission Chairman Rory Reid says the high overtime bill is a strong motivation for reassessing the way government does business.
"When overtime rises this much, we have to wonder whether it's the most efficient use of taxpayer resources," Reid said.