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September 16, 2014

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Fire union resists move to increase its ranks, reduce overtime costs

Overtime at issue

More than 20 Clark County fire engineers are eligible for retirement this year. The county proposes to offer an exam to firefighters who seek promotion. Those retirements, if not replaced, would add to the department’s multimillion-dollar overtime tab. The union objects, saying offering the exam would be a contract violation.
Rory Reid

Rory Reid

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Clark County commissioners said this week that the firefighters union is opposing efforts that would reduce the department’s ballooning overtime costs.

The union has long argued that Fire Department overtime — which totaled $14.1 million last year — is the direct result of the county’s refusal to hire more firefighters.

But commissioners said recent messages from the union’s chief to county staff undercut that claim.

E-mails sent in early April, and obtained by the Sun, show firefighters union President Ryan Beaman threatening to file a legal grievance if the county offers exams this year for rank-and-file firefighters pursuing a promotion to fire engineer.

Beaman was responding to a “heads up” from the county’s Human Resources Department, which said it planned to start the exams to find replacements for the more than 20 engineers eligible for retirement or promotion in the next 12 months. Another five engineer positions are vacant.

Delaying the exam until next year, commissioners said, would leave fewer of the higher-paid engineers on staff, forcing the county to pay them more in overtime as they work extra to cover one anothers’ absences.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid said he was “dumbfounded” by Beaman’s reply, especially given that the union chief has said publicly that he has no control over overtime costs.

“I don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Reid said. “If ... they don’t want to cooperate to balance the budget, we’ll have to figure out other ways to do that.”

In an April 6 e-mail to county Human Resources Director Jesse Hoskins, Beaman, who is an engineer, said holding exams this year would violate the union’s contract, which states the test is offered every other year. The last time was in 2009.

That every-other-year timetable is in the collective bargaining agreement “to prevent surprises to candidates, to make sure that all applicants were aware of the eligibility cutoff dates and allow for those qualifications needed to be met prior to the test,” Beaman wrote.

Firefighters are responsible for the lifesaving duties most people associate with the title, while an engineer drives firefighters to incidents and is responsible for the function of fire equipment. In 2009, engineers’ average compensation, including overtime, was about $131,000, while compensation for a Firefighter I was $55,307 and a Firefighter II was $90,084.

Beaman refused to discuss the e-mails with the Sun on Thursday. They are part of negotiations and should not have been released, he said.

County staff and the firefighters union are negotiating a new contract.

Rusty McAllister, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Nevada, said Beaman’s reluctance to budge on the tests is warranted because it is in the union contract. If the county wanted to allow engineer testing this year, it should have made that part of its contract proposal when negotiations began this year, McAllister added.

“My question is, ‘Why didn’t the county’s negotiating team put that in?’ ” McAllister said, adding that he is not involved in the county-union negotiations. “It seems like an error on their part.”

But something could still be worked out, he noted. “Anything is negotiable. I’d say tit for tat. If I’ve got something you want, we can barter.”

Commissioner Steve Sisolak was outraged at the suggestion that the county should barter “for something that would be in the best interest of the taxpayer and the union’s own members.”

“Why do they always have to get something for helping the taxpayer save money or helping out their own members?” Sisolak said. “This isn’t asking to cut their vacation days. It’s to add an exam so we can have some firefighters ready to become engineers.”

The “hard line” Beaman took in his e-mail, Sisolak said, will benefit existing engineers because they’ll collect more overtime until a new round of engineers is ready to fill vacancies. But it will hurt younger firefighters who have to wait another year to take the test to pursue the promotion.

“Not only isn’t this going to reduce overtime, it’s going to increase it,” he said.

County Manager Virginia Valentine reported this week that although the county expects to reduce overtime by 11 percent overall this year, Fire Department overtime is on pace to rise 6.2 percent — from $14.1 million in fiscal year 2009 to $15 million in the fiscal year that ends July 31. If the Fire Department were excluded from that calculation, the county would spend about $2.7 million on overtime this year.

Reid wrote an e-mail to Valentine on Monday after seeing the latest county overtime projections and seeing Beaman’s e-mail.

“Not hiring people has been the thing (the union has) pointed to for a long time, and now that we’ve agreed to hire more people, they say no,” Reid stated. “Their actions are completely contrary to their recent public statements that they have no control over overtime and that they have no opportunity to provide input into how the county staffs fire positions.”

That discord could play into cost-cutting measures the county must take to meet a projected $57 million budget gap in the coming year.

“I think we have no choice but to consider whatever equipment and resource utilization decisions are necessary to reduce our costs and get us closer to solving our budget deficit,” Reid wrote. “Let me know what the next steps are.”

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