Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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ANSWERS: CLARK COUNTY:

Fire service could suffer from latest cuts

Clark County administrators say there is a real possibility the county Fire Department will suggest rolling “brownouts” as a way of coping with the county’s budget woes.

Is that like the brownouts in California, with lights snapping off because there’s not enough electricity to keep them on?

No, it’s more like the brownouts in California where one fire vehicle is taken out of service from a different firehouse each day to save several hundred thousand dollars a year.

What’s the effect of rolling brownouts?

From what’s happened in Sacramento: service delays. Sacramento began a system of fire unit brownouts in 2008 to save money. When the city was considering taking another vehicle out of service in March, the fire department reported that response times as a result of taking just one vehicle out of service had increased. The Sacramento Bee reported that “response times in city neighborhoods where engines are already on the rotation have increased by 1 minute, 34 seconds on days when their fire engine is offline.”

At the same time, “rolling brownouts have not led to a significant increase in injuries to firefighters or residents,” the newspaper reported. Sacramento city officials voted against taking another vehicle out of service.

How does a brownout save money?

Brownouts are being used or proposed in different ways across the country. In Boston, starting Wednesday, officials will begin pulling ladder trucks used for training out of service for a day to cut overtime costs.

Sacramento’s brownout meant closing a firehouse for a designated period of time. The targeted firehouses were rotated so that the same firehouse wasn’t closed several times in a row.

How would it work in Clark County?

Clark County Fire Chief Steve Smith could not be reached for comment. And a county administrator told the Sun details of how brownouts would work are still being considered. But, the administrator said, the idea is for the county to save by reducing overtime payments.

How would that work?

When heavy pieces of equipment such as fire engines are taken out of service, the five or so firefighters assigned to that truck can be used to fill open shifts in other firehouses. They would get paid straight time instead of time-and-a-half, which is what the county would pay in overtime to fill those shifts.

The administrator said the Fire Department would have to calculate the changes so that fire coverage “meets certain response time requirements.”

Rolling brownouts of entire firehouses are also being considered, the administrator said. Savings would come then from not having to pay salaries at that firehouse on that day.

Why does the county need to make more cuts? It seems like all we ever hear about is hiring freezes over there.

Though it’s true that Clark County has more than 600 jobs that will remain unfilled between University Medical Center and the county’s 38 departments, the state Legislature this year put a serious hurt on the county’s wallet. The backlash from the Legislature hasn’t been felt completely, but the county knows so far that it must cut $11 million more to balance its budget. That means a 5 percent cut in every department, and about $7 million from the Fire Department.

Suggested cuts are supposed to be completed by July 12.

•••

A court hearing between Clark County and its unionized district attorneys has been delayed yet again.

What’s this hearing about?

The Clark County Prosecutors Association wants a judge to rescind a County Commission resolution that lowered prosecutors’ pay raises from 3 percent to 1 percent. The union contends it has a collective bargaining agreement that cannot be altered without the union’s approval. The county disagrees.

The initial hearing scheduled for June 11 in front of District Judge Abbi Silver was moved to June 24 in District Judge Douglas Herndon’s courtroom after Silver recused herself. She is a former deputy district attorney who often deals with the prosecutors who are members of the union in her courtroom.

Then the county asked for a judge other than Herndon because he, too, is a former deputy district attorney who also hears criminal cases in his court.

Now the hearing is set for July 24 before District Judge Valorie Vega. She is also a former prosecutor, but Don Burnette, chief administrative officer for the county, said court rules allow parties to seek only one change of judge.

The new fiscal year begins Wednesday, so what is going to happen to the salaries of the county’s prosecutors?

They will receive the 1 percent salary increase instead of 3 percent. If the judge decides that the union is correct, however, she could force the county to retroactively honor the 3 percent salary increase, Burnette said.

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