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November 26, 2014

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County, firefighters’ union spar over contract negotiations

Stopping short of saying the firefighters’ union is lying, Rory Reid fired back at the union’s latest allegation that the county has ignored some $10 million in firefighter concessions.

In fact, Reid said Tuesday afternoon, the union’s proposals — purportedly offered during closed-door sessions with county contract negotiators — does nothing to reduce firefighter salaries but would greatly endanger the public.

The union says its ideas would result in an average hit of $8,600 in concessions per union member. Union chief Ryan Beaman could not be reached for comment.

One of the union’s suggestions—from a press release stating that contract talks with the county were at an impasse — is to discontinue the fire department’s paramedic “school,” which trains county firefighters as well as firefighters from neighboring jurisdictions.

“It is pretty hypocritical to accuse me of being unconcerned about public safety while at the same time proposing we suspend our paramedic program,” Reid said.

A week ago the union accused him of endangering the public because county administrators took a piece of heavy rescue equipment out of service, relying upon a mutual aid agreement with Las Vegas Fire and Rescue to take over those heavy rescue calls.

County firefighters, in fact, respond to relatively few fires. In 2009, 83 percent of their calls were paramedic or emergency medical system calls; 7 percent were fires; and 10 percent were “other.”

In response to the union’s press release, County Manager Virginia Valentine sent a memo to all seven county commissioners, saying the union’s “statements about the cost savings of their proposal are factually inaccurate.”

“The truth is,” she wrote, “aside from two relatively small concessions, the union’s proposal offers only temporary and one-time deferrals to certain wage and benefit components of the contract that are a fraction of the savings claimed in the press release.”

Here are the union points, and the county’s counterpoint:

* Freezing step increases one year would save $1.65 million. The county said 70 percent of the county’s firefighters have already reached their maximum step level, so it would only effect newer firefighters. And it would only be for one year.

* Suspending the paramedic school would save $1.4 million. Doing this would endanger the public because 83 percent of the county’s calls are paramedic related.

* Deviating from the engineer exam schedule would save $1.2 million. The union threatened legal action earlier this year when the county said it wanted to do this. The county backed down and did things administratively to increase the number of engineers available, which will decrease overtime payments. Because of those moves, the county said it can now wait until next year to do the engineer exam.

* The union said it would define “extensive sick leave to result in potential loss of sick leave,” saving $757,399. The county said that means the union is admitting it has a problem with firefighter abuse of the sick-leave system. Commissioner Steve Sisolak has already said that when negotiations end, he wants an audit of firefighter sick leave, because he believes they are “gaming” the sick-leave system to collect more overtime payments.

* A one-year reduction in contributions to the union’s health insurance trust would save the county $747,000. The county points out that the county currently contributes $14,616 per year on average to each firefighter for health insurance. A reduction of about $900 would drop that to $13,716. That compares to the police officer average of $8,572; and the regular county employee average of $7,800.

“None of these are long-term savings, which is what we have to have,” Sisolak said Tuesday. “And none of these are concessions, in my mind. Concessions cost you something, you give up something. What are they giving up here? Where do they come up with this $8,600?”

Reid said he wants the union to “step up to the plate” like other county unions have done. The county has laid off hundreds and well over 1,000 positions remain unfilled as it works to balance its budget in lieu of still-decreasing tax revenues.

“And all we’re asking is for simple fairness, to do what other unions have done and what other employees have done,” Reid said. “We’ve frozen positions, demoted employees and reduced wages. In that context, I think firefighters should participate as well.”

If negotiations go to an arbitration, a new contract might not be ratified until as late as January 2011, Sisolak estimated.

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