I-Team: Public Trust: Water Authority Salaries - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Public Trust: Water Authority Salaries

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LAS VEGAS -- Environmentalists like Launce Rake have griped for years about the Southern Nevada Water Authority's seemingly bottomless wallet, especially in connection with the proposed rural pipeline project. "We beat up on the firefighters and police officers and teachers for making too much money, and here we have this agency that apparently has an unlimited budget for hiring folks to basically facilitate the water grab."

The pipeline project could easily cost $5 billion to $10 billion. Tens of millions of dollars have also been spent on a string of failing ranches, fat consulting contracts for lawyers, public relations firms, media ads, lobbyists, not to mention millions more for a celebrity chef. Elected officials, for the most part, tread lightly when discussing the politically powerful SNWA.

"There are some big numbers over there," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. "The same thing has happened with water that has happened with fire." Commissioner Sisolak has not only taken on firefighter salaries, but has dared to question water agency spending, which he characterizes as out of control. That includes salaries. "That simply cannot be allowed to continue. When you talk about the water salaries, those are paid when you turn on your tap to turn water on, and do your dishes, and water your lawn. That is ultimately where the revenue comes from to pay those salaries," Sisolak said.

Water Authority Human Resources Director Pat Maxwell wasn't thrilled about being assigned to grant an interview with the I-Team regarding salaries. She said as much. But, she stuck to what seemed like the official mantra: salaries aren't out of line. "They are earning their money every day," she said. "The objective of our compensation plan is to attract and retain the best skilled employees we can. We are not excessive, but we do want to be competitive. Their salaries are comparable for other similarly sized systems for potable water."

So, is she right? The Water Authority, Water District, and Springs Preserve have a combined total of about 1,600 employees with a total payroll of $125 million per year. If you do the math, it comes out to $77,000 per employee. That is not a bad average. "We compare with Denver, (and) other large systems in California," Maxwell said.

Maxwell herself earns well, pulling in $177,000 last year. Her example of Denver is apt. The average salary in that agency is $17,000 below the average salary at SNWA. As for Phoenix, the water employees there average $57,000 a year, a difference of $20,000 from the SNWA. In Albuquerque, the average salary is $58,000 and their Pat Maxwell earns $76,000 a year less than our Pat Maxwell. The closest comparison the I-Team found was Los Angeles, the second largest city in the nation, with an average water salary a bit less than Las Vegas.

Water pay here is demonstrably top heavy. Of the 1,600 employees, 496 of them or nearly 30%, earn $90,000 or more. At the very top, the amounts are considerable. SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy has the highest base salary of any employee in any public agency, earning a hefty $290,000. Maxwell points out that Mulroy is the boss of both the Water Authority and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. But while she carries two titles, it still comes down to one job.

Even her critics think Mulroy is a highly capable manager, but she also surrounds herself with other top-dollar honchos. Her general counsel Charles Houser earned $270,000 last year. That is also what her two deputies, Kay Brothers and Thomas Minwegen, took home. Another deputy, Dick Wimmer, earned that as well, but retired at the end of last year. His replacement, Phil Speight, is getting $200,000 this year while also drawing a public retirement based on his years at Henderson City Hall.

Pat Maxwell, for one, is unfazed by the numbers. "I don't think we have a lot of people making half of a half million dollars. We have five out of 1,500. That's not a lot. I don't think it's more than any other water agency (that's) similarly sized."

But, it is. The I-Team couldn't find any other water agency with five managers earning these figures. Mulroy's counterpart in Albuquerque earns $152,000. That is $140,000 less than Mulroy. She makes $100,000 more than the San Diego water boss ($195,000) and $40,000 more than the one in Denver ($252,000). The only one who earns more than Mulroy heads the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. That water boss makes $344,000 per year. None of these other agencies pays four deputies $250,000 or more. Our water czar makes $100,000 more than the manager of the entire county government, more than the airport director and far more than the sheriff or the district attorney.

Some say Pat Mulroy's salary is justified, since she is considered indispensable in fighting Southern Nevada's water wars. As for the rest of the top heavy salary averages, that may be another story. 

All this week, the I-Team will be looking at government salaries. We've compiled a comprehensive list from several governments and agencies and you can see it here.

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