Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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COUNTY BUDGET:

Shortfall looms large as fire union holds out

Trim the budget elsewhere, president says, and leave rank and file out of it

County officials hoping to finalize their budget by mid-May are frustrated that they aren’t even close to getting concessions from the firefighters union to help curtail a $114 million shortfall.

Administrators are still shaking their heads over the 10-page March 27 letter they received from Ryan Beaman, president of the county firefighters union, which has about 770 members.

Beaman’s position, which some county officials have called “arrogant,” is summed up in the second sentence: “We are happy to report that the financial health of the County is not as bleak as you have been led to believe.”

Beaman then suggested numerous possible areas for cuts — both in the department and in the county’s overall budget — including travel expenses, money for dinners and gala events, consultant fees, management, conferences, memberships and subscriptions.

Beaman did not offer firefighter concessions, but listed other sacrifices the department could make.

Cutting memberships in various organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, would save a little money but “sends a message to departments that non-customer driven expenses are no longer allowable.” Cutting fire department memberships would save $32,757, he added.

Talking about cutting travel fees, Beaman said he was “alarmed to see the fire department pay for registration fees and lodging for non-employees.”

Beaman also suggested the county scrutinize whether administrators, including the fire chief and all his deputies and assistants, are using their take-home vehicles for personal use. He also criticized the department’s leasing of space for a paramedic school, saying the training had previously taken place at no cost in a fire station.

And the department is overloaded with management, Beaman said.

“I anticipate that you too will be substantially relieved to see the County does not have to ask the working men and women of the County to take extreme steps to limit their pay, reduce staffing levels or otherwise dilute the level of service” they provide, Beaman wrote.

Commissioners this week approved concessions from 9,500 unionized service employees of decreased cost-of-living raises that will save more than $18 million in the coming fiscal year.

But still nothing from the firefighters union, and that has some county officials fed up.

An April 1 letter to Beaman from commission Chairman Rory Reid revealed no such rancor. Reid talked about the county “family” and appealed to firefighters who “care about this community” to assist “in considering alternatives to reducing the county’s financial burden.”

Reid is the good cop.

County Manager Virginia Valentine is the bad cop.

Her April 2 letter is more hard-hitting, less conciliatory and dissects the union letter point by point.

For instance, Valentine replies to Beaman’s critique that the county pays many consultants who “add little, if any, value to the County.” She acknowledged consulting contracts to review Las Vegas Monorail financing, county bond issues and the fiscal effects of policy decisions and legislation. But without commentary, she added that another contract is to assist the fire department “in developing a new fee structure for Fire Prevention.”

In an e-mail, the Sun asked Beaman whether the union would support ending that contract, but Beaman did not reply to that question and several more.

Beaman’s letter noted that the county spends $158,900 for newspaper, periodical and other subscriptions. “In this modern age, hard-copy newspapers are an unnecessary expense,” he added. In total, he counted 28 subscriptions to the Las Vegas Review-Journal at a cost of $6,968 annually.

In reply, Valentine attached a May 2008 memo asking departments to cut unnecessary expenses. She added that as subscriptions expire, renewals will be limited to those that can’t be found online.

Again without commentary, she noted that one of the largest subscriptions is $22,050 to TWL Knowledge Group, “which is for fireman training materials.”

Although calling Beaman’s comments “thorough and thoughtful,” Valentine ripped his analysis of the county’s fiscal health because it used numbers from 2006 to 2008. Those numbers, she said, “are not indicative of the deteriorating financial position of the local economy, and the County, that began in the later part of fiscal year 2008.”

She added that the union’s analysis is “flawed and outdated.”

During a break in Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, Reid would not comment about whether his and Valentine’s written replies have spurred any movement in the talks with the firefighters union.

Then he was asked whether the county might take the same approach as Denver did, when the sheriffs deputies’ union refused to consider concessions to help alleviate that city’s $56 million budget gap.

Denver’s mayor fired 11 deputies, a move that a district court judge upheld. Shortly after, Denver’s police and firefighters unions agreed to concessions.

Could that happen here?

“It would great for me to puff my chest and negotiate in that way, but I don’t think it’s in the public interest,” Reid said. “And I wouldn’t want to because our fire department is already understaffed.”

On a per-capita basis, Clark County still has “fewer firefighters than most places, and that doesn’t even account for the fact that millions come here every year and our firefighters are required to respond to them,” Reid said.

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