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October 22, 2014

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County budget cuts expected, but how much?

Furloughs, buyouts and a hiring freeze aren’t likely to be enough to fill county’s budget gap

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SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION / ISTOCK.COM PHOTO

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Chris Giunchigliani

Chris Giunchigliani

County budget-crunchers delivered a prediction Tuesday that might spur department chiefs to look harder for ways to save money.

The county’s eye-opener was a projected budget deficit of $129 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

To underscore the gravity of that number, budget staff added the human element: With the average county employee earning about $90,000 annually in salary and benefits, the county would have to lay off about 1,400 of its 12,000 employees to reach $129 million.

“We are just letting them know the depth of our problem,” Don Burnette, the county’s chief administrative officer, explained after the presentation.

A few months ago County Manager Virginia Valentine had asked 38 department directors to find cuts equaling 5 percent of their budgets — and they came back in early October with an average cut of only 2.6 percent.

“They didn’t reach deep enough,” County Commission Chairman Rory Reid said at the time. “Now we’ll have to be more creative or more draconian.”

A few weeks later administrators rolled out the first cost-cutting plan to include the possible layoffs of managers. Burnette had said the county would review management jobs to see which ones can be cut, while another buyout package was offered to employees with five or more years of county employment.

None of those moves, nor the furloughs, voluntary layoffs or the current freezing of more than 600 job openings is considered to be enough to offset the ongoing decline in tax revenue. Though no one expects 1,400 or more people to lose their jobs, without a fast economic turnaround, some county employees will be laid off.

The number of layoffs, however, might be reduced if other measures, such as across-the-board salary cuts or involuntary furloughs, are instituted.

Those were some of the ideas County Commissioner Steve Sisolak tossed around Wednesday.

“I’d rather have a salary cut than my colleague lose their job,” he said.

In response to a Sun request, county staff determined that all salary increases for county employees this fiscal year will total $17.4 million by June 30, 2010, equal to about 195 jobs at the $90,000 annual salary and benefits average.

If people were afraid for their colleagues’ jobs, wouldn’t the unions have given up all salary increases when they made concessions to the county?

“In times like these,” Sisolak replied, “people’s true character comes out and we need to have some long, hard discussions about what we’re going to do.”

Sisolak plans to ask the county staff “what effect a 10 percent across-the-board cut would have.”

“And what if we furloughed everybody for two to three days a month?” he asked. “I’d like to explore those opportunities.”

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani noted that the county can’t force the unions, which have collective bargaining agreements, to do anything.

She also said talking about upcoming deficits eight months before the start of the next fiscal year is premature. She’s a little more optimistic, saying the economy will not slide as far as some predict.

Nevada is among the 10 states in the nation in the deepest financial hole, however, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Center on the States. And the managing director of that nonprofit Philadelphia-based think tank predicted Nevada will be the state that suffers the longest from the recession.

Giunchigliani said the county has “a lot of numbers yet to bring in and look at.”

Amber Lopez Lasater, spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which represents 9,500 county employees, including 3,500 at University Medical Center, said, “With the economy in the shape it currently is, we will continue to talk with the county to reduce overhead.”

But a motion that county prosecutors filed in court on the same day the budget-crunchers were giving department heads their wake-up call exemplified the continuing difficulty the county has in getting employees to agree to concessions. Senior prosecutors won a 3 percent salary increase in court last month, but lost 4 percent raises for newer prosecutors. County administrators believe the motion is meant to get those 4 percent raises back.

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