From red tape to oversight committees, government agencies often have more challenges than private enterprise when trying to improve or change processes. They are working with taxpayer dollars and fiscal responsibility is an imperative. Recently, executives from government agencies in Nevada met in a virtual roundtable, sponsored by City National Bank, to discuss their challenges and solutions.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
What is the Biggest Challenge Facing Government Agencies?
Dr. Jonathan Moore: One of our biggest challenges has been ensuring equity. Our state is so diverse, and each region is so unique in terms of its strengths and challenges. COVID brought to light many of the exacerbated differences and needs that existed in our communities from technology to infrastructure to community support for parents, families and students.
George Togliatti: Internally, our concerns would be retention and recruitment. We’re down approximately twenty-five percent across the board. When our staffing goes down it’s definitely reflected in various areas of the communities throughout the state and that’s a major concern for us.
Terry Reynolds: We oversee eleven different diverse state agencies, and we have fifteen offices state-wide so we’re a little bit mixed in terms of how we do things. But we’re finding it very difficult for retention of staff. Nothing happened for about fifteen months because of the pandemic, and everybody decided they would look at different opportunities to advance their careers. We’ve had difficulty replacing those individuals and building our staff back up. We also interact with a lot of small businesses within the state trying to get back to normal and they are having retention issues too. We’ve been working with them on everything from grant funding to loans trying to get them back up and going again. That is really an undertow that cuts the cost, both in the private and public sector, within our state.
Bradley Crowell: The biggest challenge facing the department from my perspective are stagnating salaries and the resulting impact on morale. When state public sector salaries aren’t keeping up with the salaries of city and county governments, it becomes almost impossible to recruit and retain employees.
Elisa Cafferata: The biggest challenge for us right now is the huge shift the economy is undergoing. At one point we had about five-hundred thousand people getting unemployment. About thirty percent of our workforce at the beginning of the pandemic was unemployed. We know at least fifty thousand of those jobs are probably never going to come back. That’s about ten percent of our unemployed folks whose jobs are not going to come back. Getting those folks education and training opportunities is a real tough sell for folks who have been in a job for a long time and just want that job to come back. On the staffing issue, we’re [also] having a hard time filling our positions.
Jennifer Ott: One of the things we’re struggling with our staff is the balance between the health and safety of our employees versus the health and safety of the public. [We should be] utilizing virtual tools to be able to assist our staff, not only to provide them some measure of health and safety, but also to provide them some benefit that helps with the recruitment and retention issues. We are still a mostly teleworking agency and we’re going to remain that way for a while. Addressing that balance in our workforce is really important too.
What is the Disparity of Salaries Between State Employees and their Peers?
Crowell: [When considering] the public sector at the state level, compared to the public sector at the city and county level, there is definitely a disparity. The salary and benefits that public sector employees who work for [regional] governments have is much more attractive than it is for the state. For recruitment at the state level, you really only have the uniqueness of the job that is a potential distinguishing factor. In terms of retirement packages, PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) is great if you’re willing and able to stay in the state service for thirty years. Certainly, young people are not looking for a thirty-year job commitment. They’re looking for retirement packages that are transportable, that they can move from state service into county, city or private sector and back again. Until you provide that flexibility, the benefit retirement package from the state is an antiquated model.
Kristina Swallow: [The disparity] varies across classifications, depending on where you are in the system. I think it’s anywhere between twenty and fifty percent higher that the public and county agencies are paying. It does depend on where you are and what your exact role is.
Crowell: And most of the [regional] employees have bargaining power to work out compensation. The state is only just beginning to give employees the ability to collectively bargain for higher salaries.
Togliatti: You also have to take a longer look at PERS. There’s a disparity between how we contribute to PERS as it pertains to the state versus county. Counties can participate more as far as paying toward the retirement of the employee.
Katherine Miller: It’s not just the money. Our staff is getting about thirty percent more in the Las Vegas area than our nurses are making in our nursing homes because the revenue comes to us from federal sources. I could bump up salaries but the process to go and do that is so cumbersome, some of it has to wait for a legislative cycle. The processes make it really difficult to retain staff. Through the pandemic, availability of staff has been a significant challenge.
Reynolds: We need to look at the types of employees we’re hiring and the benefits for, either older workers, or workers coming out of the private sector. The pace is a little bit different, and the benefits are good. We need to look at how we promote and work with our jobs. How can we attract the people to come into the workforce? This is also an opportune time for state agencies to look at diversifying their workforce. There are a lot of employees we can work with and build up our workforce to develop the overall equity we need to have within our departments. You really have to be dynamic today. That’s happening in the private sector but it’s something that has really lagged; we need to pick it up in the public sector.
How do you Handle the Challenges of Burdensome Processes?
Moore: We’ve seen the bureaucracy rise to the surface in education recently from the federal government. The state of Nevada has received over a billion dollars in rescue funding in response to COVID [from the government] to support our five-hundred thousand students across seventeen districts and our state public charter schools. As a department, now we have a billion dollars we need to manage and allocate to schools in a period of two to three years. We’ve found we don’t have the capacity in our current staffing to be able to do that. The idea of requesting additional support in the form of contractors has proven to be arduous. All of our stakeholders have been very supportive in helping us to meet our objectives. But it still has been a challenge with regard to the amount of time we have versus the processes that are in place that would allow us to, not only build our capacity, but to do so in a way that’s most constructive to supporting schools and districts.
Swallow: I came in hot two and half years ago [wanting to] get things done. The team quickly learned that patience is a virtue, but it’s not one of mine. We have a project we started talking about and then a decade later we’re starting to deliver on it. But I appreciate the fact that we are deliberate about our processes. The fact that we’re taking our time to have conversations with the people who will be impacted is critical. Once we get through that process then it’s a matter of trying to figure out how to fund it. A critical challenge for us moving forward is [funding].
Ott: Patience is also not my greatest virtue, especially when you’re presented with something that you know you can fix. You know you can help make something better and you just can’t get to it quick enough. Always in my mind, and in our team’s mindset, is the realization that we are spending public dollars. The public should have a say in how those dollars are spent. It is really important to get stakeholder input and deliver the kind of transparency needed for government projects. We are trying to do projects that help Nevadans and so having that mindset is really important. We wish we could move faster, of course, but we’re spending public dollars and it’s important we do that properly.
Is there Enough Transparency?
Reynolds: We’re regulators so when we regulate, we have to publish administrative rules and have commentary on it. We are very transparent from that end. There are other things, though, that we could be more transparent on. Instead of just publishing things on the web, basically in areas where people have to go find it, there needs to be more [effort in] getting the word out, in terms of the things we’re doing, to the general public. We have to use non-traditional methods of doing that. We can’t just put it on a website. We need to get out and speak to groups and be more visible. We have to be really aware of how we get our message out. Even though we think we’re being fairly transparent, we need to be out and meeting face to face with groups. It’s time consuming and it’s difficult to do because you can’t be at all places at once, but we need to do that.
Crowell: I agree, it’s not the level of transparency it’s that it’s not necessarily being applied in the correct way. Connecting with constituents is a huge part of transparency. That doesn’t happen, either because there is not sufficient workforce to get out there and communicate, or there is antiquated technology at the state level. It looks like there’s not enough transparency in the system, but it really is just the inability of the state to keep up with modern needs and technologies that will allow greater transparency. A lot of this comes back to funding. If Nevada wants to move out of last place in many categories, they are going to need to fund personnel to implement programs. We need to communicate with the public to take advantage of programs we have that are being underutilized.
Cafferata: Partners in the media can provide needed context. The entirety of Nevada’s state budget is online. If you have the persistence you can go in and get down to the gnat’s eyelash on everything we budget, spend and how much money we all make. But all that huge mountain of information is not very helpful without the context.
Are Nevada’s Agencies Funded Properly?
Togliatti: Honestly, you never have enough money. I learned that a long time ago. We struggle to get our fair share and I think all of the departments would agree with that. We have all these plans and dreams coming in to state government, but you’ve got to keep things in perspective. I’ve been in and out of Nevada government and it has frustrations and challenges, but that’s what makes it a fun job. I wish I could have all the money in the world so that I could do all of the wonderful things we should be able to do. You win some and you lose some. If you’re not successful in a certain area to get some funding, then you look for other areas and become creative. I wish we had more but we’re providing a level of public safety with the money we have.
Swallow: We all have our own challenges with funding. One of our challenges right now within the transportation fund is that the actual revenue coming into the transportation fund hasn’t been adjusted since the early 1990s. That’s the revenue [from] what we pay per gallon and at the pump when we fill up our cars. What has changed since the 1990s is, costs have gone up and cars have become increasingly full efficient, so our funding is actually being eroded. It’s really good that we’re seeing increased full efficiency because that is one of the paths to achieving our climate goals, but we are underfunded by over five hundred million dollars annually. That is bigger than our current capital program based off of current needs as expressed by our local communities. Fortunately, our legislature has recognized that this is a challenge and, if we all want to get to where we want to go, then we need roads that function. We’re going to be taking a deep dive look at how we fund the program. It is going to take all of us thinking critically about what we want from our transportation system. I’m excited to have that conversation.