Photo By Dennis Myers Henderson’s gain, state government’s loss: Librarian Joan Kerschner

Five years ago Joan Kerschner had a job many people would envy. She was the director of the Nevada Cultural Affairs Department, which includes the Nevada Historical Society, Nevada State Archives, Nevada State Library and the State Museum.

She left the job to become director of the Henderson public library system.

This kind of a seemingly reverse progression is common in Nevada. Local government, not state government, is the most tempting lure for public administrators. For years the state has served as a training ground where people get experience and then move on to local governments, which pay better and have better working conditions.

In Washoe County, for instance, Chief Deputy Attorney General William Isaeff gave up his job to be an assistant city attorney in Reno and then, later, assistant city manager in Sparks. Before that, Chief Deputy Secretary of State Robin Bogich quit that post, which he called “the best job I ever had,” to become Washoe County’s registrar of voters because it paid far more.

One of the areas where this is of greatest concern is penology. It is common for people to get their feet wet as prison guards in state prisons and then go to work for county jails, with the result that the state prisons experience constant turnover and retraining.

“Prisons is not an area where you want a lack of experience,” says one state lawmaker.

While money is one of the factors, it is not the only one, and in fact, some (like Kerschner) can lose pension benefits by making the switch. Better working conditions can make the switch attractive, though.

While public employees are often stereotyped as lazy feeders at the public trough, conditions in state workplaces can be grim, and they often fluctuate wildly with the state’s unstable tax base, causing incessant rounds of cutbacks. Kerschner left the cultural affairs post because in one round of cutbacks she found herself doing her old job of state librarian along with her new job of cultural affairs director. The work was so grueling that, until the Henderson opportunity came along, she was planning to leave public service altogether.

“One reason [for the switch to local government] is that I was planning to retire from the state earlier due to the fact that I was doing two jobs. I was very tired, so I didn’t think that I could take it. I was putting in so many hours, at least 68 to 70 hours a week. Then the Henderson job came along and it would allow me to work one job and have a life at the same time.”

While Kerschner took a pension hit, she also started making substantially more money and had to work only one job.

“The amount they were paying versus the scope of responsibility was very attractive,” she said. “I ended up making approximately $20,000 a year more than the state was paying.”

Another factor is the resources given to public employees to do their jobs. At the state level, keeping office supplies stocked is sometimes difficult, to say nothing of more serious needs, and this becomes a constant source of on-the-job stress.

“Do you know what it’s like to be unable to do your job because the cupboard is bare?” one state worker says. “People complain when they see someone sitting at a desk not doing something, but they don’t know we don’t have the tools.” At the local-government level, the problem exists but is less severe.

“There was a budget to actually do something in developing programs,” Kerschner say of her Henderson position. “You can accomplish something instead of just working hard and spinning wheels.”

State workers hope that Gov. Kenny Guinn’s ambitious 2003 revenue program will ease the problems state government faces in holding on to its people and make state government less of a farm team for local governments. Some already report a lessening of workplace tension. Many agency chiefs are hoping that the improvements made possible by Guinn’s program will reduce the constant retraining costs agencies experience because of turnover.

The problem of prison guards (“correctional officers,” in bureaucratic parlance) is serious. Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bernie Anderson of Sparks sits on the Northern Nevada Correctional Advisory Council and had just attended one of its meetings.

“Prison director Jackie Crawford is alarmed at the fact that their pay differential between state and county is so dramatic,” he says. “We lost four or five just this month.”

Anderson says both money and location are factors.

“The quality of the people we’re able to get for the amount of money we’re willing to pay is a problem,” he said. “It’s not a very glamorous job to be a prison guard, unfortunately. We’re spending a lot of money to get these people trained, and then we lose them to the county sheriffs.”

He says the anxiety of a prison guard’s job can’t be overestimated. “You’re dealing with a stressful situation. … These [prisoners] are people who have nothing to lose.”

In addition, getting guards willing to live at some of the state’s prison locations, such as Lovelock and Ely, is a chronic problem. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s the Nevada Legislature used prisons as economic development to support remote communities like Ely that were in decline, and that policy is now coming back to bite the state.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...