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Officials respond to report finding Las Vegas corrections officers among highest paid in nation

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Posted at 9:27 AM, Mar 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-22 16:01:04-04

Corrections officers in Las Vegas have been ranked among the highest nationwide, according to the latest survey of public employee salaries by TransparentNevada.com.

A total of 7 corrections officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department received overtime payouts over $100,000 last year.

Corrections officer Jason Scott collected $146,747 just in overtime and an additional $146,216 in overtime pay boosted corrections officer Duane Jensen's annual salary to $306,605 in total compensation.

"Having overtime that eclipses your salary suggests a 70-80-hour work week depending on how overtime is allocated," said Nevada Policy Research Institute Transparency Director Robert. "It's pretty hard to conceive of and if it is all legitimate, it is likely to be unsafe."

In fact, 8 of the top 10 highest OT payout statewide went to corrections officers for LVMPD.

The average LVMPD corrections officer received a regular salary of $77,286 and $153,526 in total compensation, while the average LVMPD correctional supervisor received a $101,351 base salary and $192,323 in total compensation.

It's not just LVMPD correction officers though. The survey also revealed that corrections officers for Henderson, North Las Vegas and Mesquite have almost identical compensation packages.

"This wasn't one or two outliers," Fellner said. "This was pervasive, system-wide, really local government-wide where Nevada local government correctional officers are making some of the highest wages nationwide."

By comparison, the average wage for correctional officers and jailers nationwide was just $45,320 in 2015, with supervisors of correctional officers earning $59,720, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition to the state's highest OT payouts, LVMPD also has the largest payout for unused leave statewide with former assistant sheriff Kirk Primas collecting $369,445 from unused leave immediately before drawing an $183,000 annual retirement allowance.

And outgoing deputy chief James Owens collected a grand total of $576,222 in salary and benefits -- the largest of any LVMPD employee.

The next highest paid LVMPD employee is a police captain. His total pay and benefits equaled $460,486.76 for 2016. 18 LVMPD employees made more than $300,000 in salary and benefits in 2016.

Most of the employees who made more than $300,000 were police captains or sergeants, although there is one "officer" listed. Assistant sheriff Kirk Primas and Undersheriff Kevin Mcmahill are also in that group and one corrections lieutenant is also in the top 18 with a grand total of $370,007.93 in salary and benefits.

In comparison, the sheriff of Las Vegas received $178,175.69 and the mayor of Las Vegas collected just under $200,000 for 2016 in pay and benefits. The governor of Nevada made just under $149,000.

"Everyone deserves as much money as possible," said Fellner. "I wish everyone could make $300,000 a year like the one corrections officer did. So it's not an issue of these people don't deserve it or fairness, it's affordability."

Both LVMPD and Clark County officials agree it's not affordable or sustainable. But for now, they say it's unavoidable.

"It's a difficult situation and you're absolutely right, people are going to have sticker shock when an individual can have $150,000 or virtually $200,000 worth of overtime in a year and that's way out of line," said County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

LVMPD Deputy Chief Richard Suey oversees county corrections officers. He said part of the issue is the recently-opened North Valley Correctional Complex, which holds 1,080 people and is already full.

"We've never hired for that facility," Suey said. "So if you took that facility in general, just for commissioned staff, you'd have to hire 143 full-time employees to operate it. So right now basically we're back filling with overtime."

Suey said 36 new officers just completed their first full pay period on the job, which will start impacting overtime. He says they want to hire 18 more this year, but the budget has yet to be approved.

Plus, they're trying to stick to a four-year hiring plan which would fully staff the NVCC, if all goes as planned.

Suey said other factors driving overtime include a sicker inmate population.

"A lot more drug use. A lot more cardiac issues. Sick inmates who have to be moved to hospitals require constant guarding. Right now, there are eight inmates who have to be guarded around the clock in the hospital.

LVMPD would like the county to work with them on a medical unit where all sick inmates can be in one area so it's not so manpower intensive. But right now, that doesn't exist.

Another overtime factor?

Suey said, "We've had a substantial increase in suicide attempts, which basically means an officer will sit and watch those inmates to make sure they're not self-mutilating or trying to hurt themselves."

But all involved said the biggest problem is chronic under-staffing.

Clark County corrections officers have police powers, so those doing the hiring are competing for qualified candidates with LVMPD's police force as well as Henderson and North Las Vegas.

LVMPD corrections officers are also used as reinforcements at special events like the Electric Daisy Carnival and during protests, which Suey said also drives up overtime costs.

Suey said under-staffing is a nationwide problem. 

For example, he said LVMPD has collected information from Maricopa County, Arizona and San Antonio, Texas showing hundreds of corrections officer vacancies. 

Here in Las Vegas, despite offering almost $80,000 as an average annual salary -- which is nearly the highest in the country for corrections officers -- LVMPD can't find people who want the job.

"So when people say, well, you know the money is great -- and it is -- it's a great career, I love it -- but it's hard to convince people that for the next 30 years you're going to be locked up in a module for 12 hours with, say, 72-88 felons," Suey said.

They weren't even able to fill their most recent academy.

"We started it eight weeks ago and I already have 20 vacancies."

Vacancies that can't be left vacant.

"It's not like we can just say we've got a module of 72 people and we're just not gonna fill it tonight," Suey said. "There has to be somebody there."

"You have to have bodies filling those positions," Sisolak said. "And until you get more bodies, this is what they're gonna have to do. They're gonna have to be working on an overtime basis."

Suey said the officers making the exorbitant overtime amounts volunteer for the extra hours, but Sisolak worries about that, too.

"You're virtually working people 16-18 hours a day in order to accumulate that much overtime. It's such a massive number," Sisolak said.

It looks like that's just way too much work.

"Um, I don't like it," Suey responded. "But we actually have department policy as far as how much rest they have to get between each shift. We monitor their overtime to make sure they're following policy."

Sisolak said, "They've got to be basically walking zombies when they're in the detention center. And that's not good for the inmates, that's not good for the officer, that's not good for any of the staff, that's not good for the taxpayer."

So what should taxpayers think when they see these staggering numbers?

"I'm thinking they should go to lvmpd.com or protectthecity.com -- and I'm giving my recruiting plug right now -- and join the force!" Suey declared.