Friday, October 01, 2010
Start Time: 9:15 PM End Time: 11:20 PM
Word Count: 2,115
IN DEFENSE OF PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT
I am, as many of you know, a civilian employee for what I normally refer to as a large government agency. I'm a network systems analyst and have done so for almost nine years.
As many of you are aware, we are in a fairly deep recession, and Las Vegas has been hit particularly hard. Some of the industries that we were - and somewhat insanely, remain - dependent on include tourism and growth. Every horrible thing that happened to the economy seemed to hit us even harder. Housing bubble? Oh, we were right out at the front of that wave. There was a point where at least eight of Nevada's buildings were going to be among the tallest in the nation, and they were going to be condos, and they were going to make some people very, very rich. They didn't happen. At least five resort projects on the Strip are ghost towns now as the credit market for said structures collapsed.
Then people realized that they didn't have the money to go on vacation any more, so the main industry that we have here, gaming and tourism, lost out to a combination of "staycations" and that lovely Indian casino that's less than 250 miles away from anyplace in the United States. Gaming, sales, and property taxes raced for the floor.
The trouble with that was, we have lots of businesses who were attracted by this sort of business siren song:
"Nevada has no state corporate tax! It also has no franchise tax, estate tax, stock transfer tax, capital gains tax, personal income tax, inventory tax, tax on corporate shares, inheritance tax, estate tax, gift tax or minimum tax!"
So when our major industries, such as gaming (maximum tax rate of 6.75 percent; other jurisdictions it's 50%) and mining (allowed to deduct all expenses and, as a result, paying an effective tax rate of 1.5 percent) were asked by the citizenry (currently paying an 8.1% sales tax rate in Clark County, among the highest in the nation) to, y'know, help out.
Instead, they enlisted the Chamber of Commerce to produce reports that say that our public employees are overpaid. The Greenspun family (owners of the local Cox Cable franchise, two television stations, the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, and American Nevada Developers) was nice enough to produce a report on their CBS station that followed people from each public agency to ask them to justify how much money they were making. As a result, you can Google my name and find out how much I knocked down in OT last year. Requests for the reporters to reveal what they were being paid to read from a TelePrompTer went unheeded.
As for the publication of that number, I understand the rationale of it. I understand that I'm a public employee and my salary is a matter of public record. That's fair. But there are some things about being a public employee that you might not know about. I'm hoping this will help explain things.
America is the greatest country on Earth for a number of reasons, but the primary one is the opportunity for nearly anyone to go out and take a chance at making their fortune. You have a better shot at rolling the dice in this nation than anywhere else.
However, part of a structure's effectiveness is its ability to retain employees. The common saw for this in software is they are running a business where the most important assets walk out the door every night. This is not the case at Boeing, where that 777 Dreamliner will stay right there on the ground, or General Motors, where somewhere in the world, the lines are humming with activity. (That somewhere may be Mexico or India, but you're seeing the value of labor versus materials there.) At Microsoft or Google, the next big idea is merely that, and it's swimming in the head of one of the very smart bodies who populate the place.
A police officer or a sergeant or a lieutenant does not know the ins and outs of his squad or sector or area command the moment he steps on the beat, but through a combination of institutional knowledge and technology, he learns where to look, what to see, who's in charge, et cetera. That knowledge is critical to the overall safety of our community. It is prized, promoted, and paid for. And I, as well as dozens of other people within my specific area of responsibility, am in charge of protecting it.
But the tradeoff I made, and that those dozens of people made as well, is the guarantee that no one is ever going to throw their arm around my shoulder and say, "Someday, all this will be yours." Even if I ascend to the highest levels of management at my position, I'll never own any of the materials I develop. We'll never have profit-sharing. When Sheriff Civil repossesses that airplane on the tarmac and auctions it off for seven figures, we won't see so much as a can of soda proffered in celebration. The work that my coworkers perform - particularly the ones in uniform who are listening to a motorist screech about how they pay our salary after they were caught doing 82 down a residential street while applying makeup - is often thankless, soul-destroying and dangerous. It's also non-profit.
If you think that I and my coworkers make too much money, consider this: I had to pass a background check that has been called as stringent as the CIA's (some of our applicants have Department of Defense clearances and aren't hired), a psychological profile, a polygraph examination, a written exam, a practical exam, an oral board of three panelists and a year's probation. As a result, I'm allowed to access data that most of the population isn't. A lot of work doesn't go home from the office. There's a whole lot I won't talk about. You cannot just drop by my desk without passing at least three checkpoints, and I know damned well how many exits there are from my building (four if you count the roof).
Considering the nature of the information that I have access to, would it make sense to pay me so little that I could be susceptible to bribery or blackmail? The New Orleans Police Department paid so poorly for years that their officers took side jobs as bouncers and bartenders, and theirs is a sordid history of murder, blackmail, graft, and corruption. It's a sad comment on human nature that you get the honesty and secrecy that you're willing to pay for, but it's true.
The Chamber and other groups love to point out that there's a huge disparity, a veritable chasm, between the average public employee salary and the average private sector worker. Of course. There's also a world of difference between the handicaps of the golfer who works in the pro shop and the guy who maybe gets to play every other weekend, too.
Let me see if I can explain the analogy. When I first started with the large government agency, I had been working in this field full time, 40 hours a week, for nearly eight and a half years. I had a binder full of professional certifications, references going back a decade, and exposure to the latest technology in a management role. I had just enough to get my foot in the door, and the starting salary for my position was lower than the job I currently had.
Now the guy in the pro shop isn't Tiger Woods. (This week, anyway.) But he doesn't get hired right off of the street to offer any sort of advice to a club's members if he's not sure which end of the golf club is the one you try to hit the ball with. He's going to be a very skilled golfer or he's not going to be hired in the first place. So if you don't have the bare minimum of qualifications, which excludes a whole lot of people who would be cheerfully hired at many private-sector organizations, your application is rejected. The eligible pool of candidates for my job is very small. Combine that with the fact that the background investigative process can be tortuously slow, and you won't find many talented people who can cool their heels for six months while waiting to walk through the door. I've been a subject matter expert for some of the positions we hire for, and it's not uncommon for us to look at 400 applications, reject 250 for testing, watch another 120 fail to pass the written exam, watch 10 more flunk the practical, lose 15 more by the end of oral boards and have a list of 5 people for the position, then watch them drop out as their backgrounds have problems.
We're selective. Much more so than the general public is subjected to before they're hired on to a private sector position. And I speak from experience; those first eight and a half years were in the private sector. I did very well until 9/11 happened, and I realized that job security and a pension were nice things to have - and I had the luxury of already having a job while the 8-month-long interview and background process took place. If you want to argue about my compensation, realize that I was smart enough to understand a stable retirement was more possible with a public agency than by taking a flier with an internet start-up in 2000, or by rooting for my 401k to not be underwater come 2009.
I work for the most fickle group of carbon-based life forms on the planet, people that believe that prescription drugs can be given away at a discount, where their mandated cost is pennies on the development dollar for those who aren't already suing the manufacturer for side effects and false claims. A group of people that believe you can ask for more things, demand electorally that they be provided, and then scream about the cost when the bill arrives. (Do they do this everywhere? The grocery store? Red Lobster?) That's right, my boss is the American voter.
Of course, as an employee for that large government agency, this is also my customer, who's more than willing to provide me with the verbal reminder that they pay my salary. As a professional, I have to agree to every single one of the tenets in our employee manual, which proffers that officers are not allowed to take a warning shot or refuse a direct order, such as an order to go investigate the burglary of that aspiring manicurist and knee-steering circus performer who felt I was insufficiently reminded of who's paying my salary. If I don't, I'll lose my job. Quickly. Think about the story of this man. Now, if he has a heart attack and needs medical attention, I guarantee you that the fire and EMS workers of Oak Brook are professional enough to avoid trying to put the blood pressure cuff around his neck. We send police officers and firefighters into situations that we wouldn't tackle on a bet - and part of my job is to make sure that the officer gets the computer record that says what's behind that door.
Up until three years ago, you didn't even have to be accredited in law enforcement to be the Clark County Sheriff. They changed it after we almost elected a con artist. One year an art student ran and was bounced out in the primary. I joked that the law enforcement side would go straight to hell, but the courtroom sketches would be top notch. I'm grateful that there's a provision that I can't be fired for political support of either side, and I try to honor that policy by not having any public or even semi-private opinions on the leadership of my department.
I don't deny or brag about my position or salary. I realize that I'm very fortunate to be in a position to serve the community and be well-compensated for doing it. There's not going to be an IPO, I'm not going to get stock ownership, and even if I have the greatest occupational year of my life it won't get me a raise, but I know that what I do makes this community safer, saving the lives of both victims and the accused. I'll never make anyone happy to pay their taxes, but I do hope that I could make you think. Thank you for your time.
at 11:31 PM