Las Vegas Sun

December 17, 2014

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LV budget numbers foretell many layoffs

Hundreds could lose jobs if city can’t make other significant spending cuts

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Oscar Goodman

The hints began dropping at the Nov. 18 City Council meeting: The announced layoffs of a few Las Vegas city workers likely won’t be the last.

“This is just a drop in the ocean as to many more cuts,” Councilman Ricki Barlow said.

As city managers look ahead to a projected $430 million budget shortfall over the next five years, top officials and union leaders who represent city workers agree there’s more pain to come — potentially a lot more. This is likely to come through a combination of layoffs and pressure on the unions to come back to the table to talk about wage and benefit cuts.

During a recent radio interview, City Manager Betsy Fretwell said the city and its workers’ unions might not have any choice but to reopen talks — negotiations that appeared resolved just months ago.

“We have to strike a balance, I think, between job preservation and the preservation of compensation for the individual — wages and benefits,” Fretwell said on KNPR’s “State of Nevada.”

Fretwell said the city needs to keep paying its workers “fair wages,” but that they can’t be out of sync with the realities of the local economy. “And I think our labor leaders understand that,” she said.

Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which bargains for city marshals, said, “There certainly are going to have to be talks about this, but we just don’t know where they are going to lead.”

“Are there going to be cuts in personnel? I’d venture to say yes,” said Collins. “How deep, we don’t know.”

Don King, the new president of the Las Vegas City Employees’ Association, said he’s expecting another round of layoffs as soon as March. King’s union represents 1,550 of the city’s 2,700 employees.

The city’s budget numbers, King said, are potentially devastating. Each city worker costs $100,000 per year in salary and benefits, he estimates. And the city is predicting a $60 million budget cut in fiscal year 2011 alone. That means that if the city decides to erase the shortfall just through layoffs, 600 jobs could be at risk, he said.

At the Nov. 18 council meeting, city officials announced the city was eliminating 74 positions, including 54 that are vacant. The remaining 20 include one worker who will transfer to another job, two part-time workers and 17 full-timers.

Though 19 layoffs were announced, the process has been complicated by all the “bumping” going on, King said. Bumping is the union practice that has allowed eight of the 19 workers to shift the layoff to someone with less seniority. In turn, the more-senior worker has taken the laid-off worker’s position.

In addition to the job cuts, officials said the remaining vacancies will be frozen until March, including public safety jobs; travel and training programs are being suspended; and construction projects that are paid for out of the city’s general fund will be delayed if they haven’t already been contracted.

The construction freeze would not affect the proposed new city hall, which would not be paid for out of the general fund.

The cause of the budget shortfall is sharply declining sales tax revenues the city receives from the state.

The head of another of the four unions that bargain with the city, Dean Fletcher, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1285, said it was difficult to judge exactly what his union would agree to, in large part because the union had to base its position on the city’s projections, which could be off-base.

“All we have are (City Finance Director) Mark Vincent’s projections,” Fletcher said. “We don’t have any real numbers to look at. It’s definitely a concern.”

Union leaders are irritated because each agreed to cost-of-living freezes or reduced raises and other benefit cuts in negotiations this year.

As a result of this uncertainty, city workforce morale is near an all-time low. Even Mayor Oscar Goodman, a relentless optimist about the city’s prospects, has conceded this.

“Morale can’t be good,” Goodman said at his most recent news conference. “Nobody’s happy that the guy they’ve had a cup of coffee with or a martini with is not going to be here.”

The mayor followed that up with one of his patented, not-so-veiled threats. Everybody, he said — meaning the unions — “is going to work together and pull the oar in the same way.” Otherwise, “everybody’s on their own and we do what we have to do.”

As might be expected, this hasn’t been lost on city workers. Of several employees interviewed by the Sun, most were reluctant to be quoted or identified. But all expressed roughly the same thought: They’re anxious, and not just about what might happen a year or two from now. For the first time, they’re scared about what the next several months might hold.

“There’s a lot of fear, and I think that’s normal, because we don’t know what’s happening and if it’s going to affect us personally. It’s a very rough time for all of us,” said one employee who has worked for the city for more than a decade.

“I came here in boom times,” the employee said. “It just seemed like it would never end.”

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