Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: labor:

Firefighters feeling budget backlash

Once upheld as selfless, county firefighters are now being called selfish by some.

Clark County government workers and administrators say that’s the word they’re hearing from taxpayers, and some firefighters say they are hearing it, too.

So how long might it take to rebuild the county firefighters’ public image?

One high-ranking county official said the damage won’t be repaired soon. “They could take 10 percent pay cuts and it won’t help restore their reputations.”

If the tarnish is long-term, the repercussions could be significant because Clark County voters eventually will decide whether to renew a tax specifically meant to help pay for the fire department.

Over the past couple of years, reports about how much money county firefighters make have snowballed — with benefits and overtime, the median is about $123,000 — and these days such reports resonate with Las Vegas Valley residents struggling to find or hold onto living wages in the private sector.

But the tarnish really began to stick a few months ago. Even as police and service employee unions gave up salary to help the county save money, the county firefighters union refused.

“People are losing their jobs and they look at these firefighters and think they don’t care,” the same high-ranking county official said. “People think they are out of touch.”

The president of the county firefighters union, Ryan Beaman, in March said he had done his own budget analysis and determined that “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.

But when he wrote that, the county had frozen hiring for 400 unfilled positions. About two months later, that number is up to about 450, a staff reduction projected to save the county about $32 million. At the county-funded University Medical Center, administrators last week said they have frozen 260 jobs, which will save about $9.1 million.

None of this, however, is expected to prevent layoffs and service cuts to balance the county’s budget. Those decisions are likely to come in June because a new budget goes into effect July 1.

Beaman has said he tried to help. He told a legislative committee two weeks ago that he offered concessions, but conditioned them on the county using the savings to reopen UMC’s outpatient oncology unit.

County officials, however, said Beaman never made that offer. And it wouldn’t have mattered if he had, because the county cannot legally shift that savings to UMC, officials said.

These conflicts don’t happen in a vacuum. This one has been aired in public. That’s where the danger lies.

Voters have more control over the county fire department budget than most of them — and many firefighters — realize.

In 1995 voters agreed to levy an extra property tax upon themselves for the next 22 years to support county firefighters. Generally for every $100,000 of taxable property value, the tax means the owner pays an additional $18.45 a year.

The county says that tax revenue covers about 16 percent of the department’s budget.

Voters are to decide in June 2017 whether they want to continue paying that tax.

And sure, “that’s a long time off,” as County Commissioner Tom Collins put it.

He figures that “by then, another big fire” will have occurred, putting firefighters back in voters’ good graces.

Maybe. But do firefighters want to count on tragedy to save them?

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