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October 21, 2014

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county government:

Firefighter seeks contract for his side business

Public employee who made nearly $200,000 in ’09 co-owns a mortuary

Image

emily morrow / special to the sun

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

For as much money as county firefighters make, Clark County commissioners are now being asked by one of them to send business prospects to the mortuary he co-owns.

Firefighter Christopher Blackburn and his business partner want their La Paloma Funeral and Cremation Services to be added to the six mortuaries that rotate taking bodies from the coroner’s office when the family of the deceased has no preference where to send the corpse.

Accepting a body from the coroner does not, in and of itself, make money for a mortuary. The family can ask that the body be transferred to another mortuary to handle services or funeral arrangements.

But the family may decide to do business with the mortuary that has the body.

The Nevada Ethics Commission doesn’t have a problem with Blackburn’s mortuary getting bodies from the coroner’s office.

Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Tom Collins do have a problem with it, though.

“It appears to be a conflict, unless (La Paloma) is the only funeral home in town,” Collins wrote in an e-mail.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” Sisolak said. “If you work in the police department, should you be the owners of a company that processes traffic tickets? You get into the question of an arms-length transaction.”

If the mortuary business is so important to Blackburn, “then he should resign as a fireman,” Sisolak added. “This is going to impact other mortuaries.”

According to county records, Blackburn, who has been with the department since 1993, earned $194,238 in total compensation in 2009, including a base pay of $96,765 and $51,156 in overtime.

Neither Blackburn nor the other owner of the mortuary could be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone said La Paloma has been in business four years.

Last year, seven mortuaries in the rotation handled 2,306 of the more than 13,000 deaths reported in Clark County. Six mortuaries are currently in the rotation.

Sisolak said he could only laugh that, after a year of trying to get the firefighters union to offer meaningful salary concessions to help the county with its budget crisis, the county is being asked to help a firefighter do potentially more business on the side.

Besides, Sisolak said, the county should not help its employees take potential business from private industry.

The issue is on the commission’s Tuesday agenda.

The Ethics Commission concluded that Blackburn is not prohibited from entering into a contract with Clark County just because he is a public employee.

He’s in the clear, the commission reasoned, because the contract is not competitively bid, the number of mortuaries is limited and La Paloma has no influence over who gets the contract.

County staff agreed with the commission on those points but waved a caution flag because Blackburn was allowed to work with the county on terms of the contract, as other mortuary owners have on previous contracts.

The case is reminiscent of when commissioners noticed in November that a county employee was listed as a member of a local architectural firm that was to be awarded a contract to design two fire stations. In that case, the architect was also in a rotation of architectural firms and the project was not competitively bid. The commission, citing the conflict, did not give the $200,000 contract to the firm.

On the other hand, the Henderson City Council a week ago licensed a private ambulance company started by three Henderson Fire Department employees. The new service would be used exclusively for nonemergency transports.

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