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Enduring The Recession And Union Battles, Retiring County Manager Loved It All

Some jobs in the world are just way  harder than others. President of the United States, say, or how about playing quarterback for an NFL team?

And then there is the job of the Clark County Manager.

The county manager’s job might be the biggest in Nevada. He or she deals with endless contract issues related to several thousand unionized employees; keeps track of a $6.25 BILLION annual budget; oversees the court system, University Medical Center, the airport and the Strip. And last but not least, works with seven politicians who are known as Clark County commissioners.

If you’re thinking “herding cats” -- that might not be too far from the truth.

Don Burnette held the job of Clark County Manager since 2011. And if you’ve never heard of him, that’s the way he’s wanted it.

He’s retiring in a few months after shepherding the county through the Great Recession and through endless contract battles with public employee unions.


Did you go into the job knowing what you were getting into?

I had been in the county manager's office at that point for 20 years. I had worked closely with county managers and commissioners for 20 years. Obviously, I understood the job and understood what I was inheriting when Virginia Valentine left in late 2010.

Obviously, it's one thing to understand the job and another to do the job. When she left, it was really at the depths of the recession and a very difficult time in Clark County.

Within three months of taking the job, I was left with unenviable task of having to authorize 9 percent budget reductions across the entire organization. At that point, we had exhausted all the budget measures we were able to take on our own to help reduce our expenditures. That was all that was left at our disposal. It had to be done. It was kind of baptism by fire if you will. 

It seemed like the county weathered the recession pretty well, despite some very public fights with some departments. Is that true, did it weather it well?

We made it. We survived the recession. We came out of the recession a  much leaner organization than what we began the recession with. We lost over 20 percent of our workforce. First through hiring freezes and attrition, and ultimately, it ended with layoffs. 

As an organization we just found a way to make it through a very difficult four or five year process. In that regard, I guess we did survive. 

How has the county government changed since the start of the recession?

Well first and foremost, we're a much smaller organization. When you lose 20 percent of your workforce, people expect us to provide the same services at the same level, acknowledging the fact that the population is roughly the same and service demand hasn't diminished, in fact it's gone up. We find a way to keep up with service demand but it's a very difficult thing for us to do.

Now, eight years since the recession started in earnest have things returned to normal?

No. Sales tax is. Sales tax has absolutely recovered to pre-recession levels. I view it as being a very healthy and fairly stable revenue source right now. Property tax is not. And property tax is a significant portion of our general fund revenue. It's roughly a third of our general fund revenue. And property tax has not recovered, and frankly, that's one of the things that has caused us not to not recover as an organization. 

A lot of government officials we've spoken to say the property tax cap needs to be adjusted. What is the cap and why does it need to change?

So the caps that were instituted by the legislature back in 2005, essentially capped property tax revenue growth at 3 percent for residential and 8 percent for commercial.

The property tax caps worked very well in the years leading up to recession to control property tax revenue. When the Great Recession hit and both property tax values and property tax revenue plummeted. The caps were not so much an issue. When the community emerged from the Great Recession and property values rebounded, property tax revenue has not because of the caps. 

When I say we're not the same organization that we were before the recession that is primarily because of the impact the property tax caps have had. 

What services to you see needing more money?

Public safety first and foremost. But that doesn't mean that there aren't needs across the entire organization. I think there is a case to be made that we need to raise the staffing levels across the board just to be able to keep up with service demand. 

One of the biggest issues you dealt with was overtime by firefighters. Firefighters were accused of gaming the overtime and sick leave system. Has that issue been resolved?

No it's not. We obviously went through a very difficult period in 2010. The bargaining process with the firefighters, where we frankly suspected that there was a degree of sick leave abuse. We studied it. We found patterns that we thought showed sick leave abuse. Unfortunately, we weren't able resolve the issues about changes in the contract that would be needed to address it. So, we went to an arbitrator. Arbitrator ultimately sided with county based on the case we put forward that we thought demonstrated there were issues associated with sick leave abuse.

What we experienced over the following year was about a 57,000 hour reduction in sick leave use. Obviously, that is a huge number. That arbitration saved the county, and ultimately, tax payers millions of dollars. One of the things that helped us get through the recession.

What was your best day on the job?

I don't know if I can pinpoint one particular day, but the early signs that we were emerging out of the recession was a chapter in my time at the county and my time in this position that was one of great relief. The stress that the organization had and obviously the community had and ultimately I had... it was just a bad chapter in my time. So, signs that we were coming out of it were extraordinary relief to me.

What was your worst day?

I would say the worst day was the day I had to testify in federal court at a criminal case involving county commissioners, people I knew and had established relationships with who were the subject of federal criminal charges and that day I spent five hours on the stand. And that was probably the longest five hours of my life.


Don Burnette, Clark County Manager, retiring

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.