Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2014

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ANSWERS: CLARK COUNTY:

State may add to cost of firefighters

Bill would hike workers’ comp benefits for cancer detection, treatment, at county’s expense

Clark County firefighters have not given back any pay raises to help offset a $123 million county budget hole. Yet state lawmakers took a step last week to reward them with a new benefit for cancer treatment.

What did the Legislature do to help the 700 unionized men and women who like to remind elected officials that they risk their lives every day they put on a uniform?

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted Wednesday to make firefighters who have been with the department two years eligible for workers’ compensation benefits for a variety of cancers. Currently, firefighters have to be with the force for five years.

Would the bill also increase the types of cancers that are covered?

It would. The current list is: colon, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney, liver and lymphatic. The new bill would add melanoma, prostate, testicular and thyroid to the list.

Is there proof that fire fighting leads to cancer?

That’s what union representatives told lawmakers. Nevada is one of 24 states that makes the presumption that these cancers, if contracted by firefighters, are job-related. However, at least one new study found insufficient research has been done to determine a link.

What study?

Released in April 2009, the study by TriData Corp. — a fire and EMS research consulting business — said thousands of cancers from 1995 to 2008 were examined but nothing was found to show firefighters face a higher risk of getting cancer than the general population.

If the bill gets the governor’s signature, what will it cost Clark County?

Just to test firefighters in the first two years will cost about $1 million. In a fiscal note to the state, the county did not estimate the cost of paying for treatment of the additional cancers.

•••

How well is the county doing with other cost-saving measures, such as overtime reductions, voluntary furloughs and the new voluntary separation, or layoff, program?

A report on all three was recently completed for commissioners. After instituting overtime restrictions in May 2008, the county has seen a whopping 24.34 percent drop in overtime expenses.

Wow. That must mean millions of dollars in savings?

Here’s the thing: That’s “staff” savings. When overtime for firefighters is included the amount saved drops considerably. The savings drop again because of last year’s elections. The Elections Department is due to spend 30 times more in overtime by June 30 than it did a year ago.

How much money is saved then?

Overtime savings as of June 30, 2009, are projected at $1.6 million, a 7.2 percent reduction. The overtime budget will be about $20.5 million. Of that, firefighter overtime will be about $14 million. Elections Department overtime is about $731,000.

Why is firefighter overtime so high?

Several reasons. Staffing standards force the county to have a certain number of firefighters on duty, and firefighters’ base salaries are relatively high.

How high?

In February 2009, Salary.com released a report showing median firefighter pay in the United States was $40,197. In fiscal year 2007, the median base salary for Clark County firefighters was about $60,000. That does not include premium pay, longevity pay, overtime pay, holiday pay, vacation pay, sick pay, clothing allowances and linen allowances. With those additions, the Clark County median jumps to about $123,000.

Why is it so much higher here?

That’s what the county is contractually obligated to pay.

Doesn’t the county want to reduce salaries, especially in a bad economy? It seems that even a small reduction in pay would enable the county to hire more full-timers.

True, but remember that overtime currently costs the county less than hiring full-time firefighters. Why? Because the benefits package for firefighters, including retirement payments, is equal to about 55 percent of their base salary. Hiring more firefighters is a good idea fiscally if benefits are cut to 50 percent or less of base salaries.

Could that ever happen?

Contract negotiations begin anew in less than a year. During previous negotiations, the county’s “ability to pay” has played a large part in driving up salaries — the county had the money. In this economy, and with layoffs likely to come in other county departments, that ability has decreased. So the answer is: Maybe.

•••

How much is being saved in the other areas such as voluntary furloughs and separations?

The furlough program allows employees, through Sept. 4, to take one to four days off, up to 40 hours, without pay as long as it does not result in overtime increases. The county continues insurance contributions but not retirement credits during that time. Police and firefighters are excluded.

Through May 1, the county has saved $888,000 through this program.

Voluntary separations took effect March 31 and continues through Friday. How is that going?

As of May 8, 63 county staff and 40 University Medical Center employees have applied. Of the 63, 48 were approved and the others are being reviewed. The saving is $1.8 million.

Of the UMC employees, 13 have been approved and three are being reviewed. The saving from the 13 vacant positions is $227,376.

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