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Leadership: Officials to discuss exec's pay

18 December 2006

By Benjamin Spillman and Mike Kalil
and Mike Kalil

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Clark County leaders hope the man in charge of the nation's fifth-busiest airport isn't quite ready to give up his parking spot at McCarran International Airport.

On Wednesday the Clark County Commission will consider whether to increase the potential salary for the director of aviation position, a move that could persuade director Randall Walker to remain at the post.

In November, Walker announced he was resigning from the airport at the end of January to work for the Las Vegas branch of Carter & Burgess, a Fort Worth, Texas-based engineering firm.

In addition to a premium parking spot at the notoriously crowded McCarran airport, Walker will be walking away from a salary of $183,595 plus benefits, according to Clark County records.

An airport spokesman said Walker would not make himself available to comment on whether he would change his decision to step down.

But Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine will ask the County Commission to increase the salary for the post.

"(Valentine) is still working on that," county spokesman Erik Pappa said. "I think she is still gathering information."

Walker is seen as a good manager who has capably guided the airport through major growth and massive expansion projects.

Upon learning of his planned departure for a higher-paying job, gaming industry officials and other community leaders expressed concern about the county's ability to offer a competitive salary for a position seen as very important to the Las Vegas economy.

"We have a $3.5 billion capital program at the airport and a huge operation that seems to be run very well," Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid said. "I think continuity's important in government. If he's willing to stay, we should do what we can to keep him."

The commission's vice chairwoman, Myrna Williams, agreed.

"Airport directors around the country make considerably more and this is the fifth-biggest airport, and it may be fourth-busiest soon," Williams said. "It would be wise if we could to keep the person that's been in charge of running it so well."

Valentine met Wednesday with MGM Mirage Senior Vice President Alan Feldman, Robert Forbuss of Harrah's and other business leaders to review what leaders of similar sized airports in other cities are paid.

Valentine said after the meeting that $240,000 was one potential midpoint of the salary range boost the group discussed.

"If Randy stays or doesn't, this is what we need to do to stay competitive," she said.

On Friday, Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said Valentine had not yet settled on a figure to recommend to the county commission.

"There were other factors that they looked at and other numbers," Kulin said.

Walker oversees McCarran International Airport, which handled more than 44 million passengers last year, as well as the North Las Vegas Airport, Henderson Executive Airport, Jean Sport Aviation Center and the airport in Overton.

The Aviation Department has more than 1,200 employees, and McCarran generates about $324 million annually.

Walker, 53, started as deputy director of aviation in 1990, when McCarran handled about 19 million passengers. He became director in 1997.

Walker was credited with maintaining high levels of customer service at McCarran, keeping costs low for airlines and leading plans for nearly $4 billion in improvements over the next five years.

Walker said when he announced his resignation the upgrades are critical to ensuring that McCarran remains an asset, not an impediment, to the region's tourism-dependent economy. About half of Las Vegas' nearly 40 million annual visitors arrive by air.

"We could not be putting as many people through our facilities today if we did not have these (upgrades)," Walker said in November.

The county is seeking to build a new airport in Ivanpah Valley. Walker was a strong advocate for the airport, which is important because McCarran is expected to reach capacity around 2011. The new airport would ensure hotels and resorts can continue to add rooms that are fuel for the Las Vegas economy.

Walker was also running the airport last year when the Clark County Commission stripped the Aviation Department of its authority to manage public land. The rebuke was the result of a series of land deals in which land broker Scott Gragson, with the help of a county-approved appraiser, acquired and sold McCarran-managed property, reaping millions of dollars in profits.

Walker wasn't implicated in any wrongdoing. But he said the allegations and subsequent changes were a distraction.

If Walker sticks to his decision to walk away from McCarran, he could still work on the Ivanpah airport as a consultant for Carter & Burgess.

If Walker leaves, it is likely his replacement would be found internally.

Valentine and Commissioner Tom Collins have both said they have concerns about doing a national search for a new aviation director because McCarran is unique from other airports in that so many of its passengers are tourists.

"If he won't stay, Rosemary Vassiliadis is the next-best choice," Collins said.

Vassiliadis is now the deputy director of aviation.

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