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September 17, 2014

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Commissioner offers pared Metro budget as example for others

Firefighter Raises

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Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Beyond the Sun

Metro Police are proposing a smaller budget for the first time in almost 30 years, but at least one Clark County commissioner wants the department’s leaders to look even deeper for savings.

And Sheriff Doug Gillespie agrees.

It’s not just that Clark County expects to be about $200 million in the hole in the fiscal year, which begins July 1. Commissioner Steve Sisolak also admits he wants to use Gillespie’s “proactive” budgeting to send a message to any potentially recalcitrant public employee unions — a shot across the bow of county firefighters, who are among the highest paid county employees.

Last year, firefighters kept all their salary increases and benefits after the county deemed their union’s offer of concessions unacceptable.

The police officers union, on the other hand, worked with Gillespie and agreed to no cost-of-living raises. The same is expected this year. Gillespie, meanwhile, has held town-hall meetings and presented a budget that is about $56 million less than the previous year.

Now he is looking for more cuts.

After Monday’s meeting of Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee, Gillespie said he turned to his staff. “I pointed to the tentative budget, said take it home, know it, and find ways to make further cuts.

“Nobody knows for sure, but I’m not seeing things changing here in the near future,” he said, referring to the economy.

After poring over the tentative budget, Sisolak had plenty of ideas. He said he would like to see Metro try for zero increases or cuts in merit pay, longevity pay or other salary boosts for officers who work certain shifts or live in towns such as Laughlin.

Holding longevity and merit pay to current levels, Sisolak added, would save about another $8 million.

“I know Metro has stepped up, the officers have stepped up, and they gave up all of their (cost-of-living) raises last time and nobody else did,” he said. “The police have always been leaders in terms of the first to step up to the plate. But things are tough right now, so I’d like to see a true zero-increase across the board.”

The sheriff and county staff are at the start of contract negotiations with the Las Vegas Police Protective Association. Another smaller union represents police managers, and a third represents civilians in the department. The county is also gearing up for negotiations with firefighters and service employees unions.

Metro’s tentative budget request totals $522.9 million. Of that, 89 percent would cover salaries and benefits. The 96-page budget summarized during Monday’s meeting notes that 39.1 percent of the budget, or $204 million, comes from Clark County, and 24.9 percent, or $130 million, comes from Las Vegas. Property tax revenue covers $141 million, and the rest, about $47 million, is from other sources.

Because of the joint county-city funding, the Fiscal Affairs Committee includes two county commissioners and two Las Vegas City Council members. A fifth member represents the public and is appointed by the committee to serve for at least one year. The current appointee is James Hammer, president and CEO of Paycard USA. He could not be reached for comment.

The two county commissioners on the committee are Sisolak, a former university regent, and Larry Brown, a former Las Vegas councilman. Brown did not return a message left at his office. The city’s representatives are Councilmen Steve Wolfson, a lawyer, and Gary Reese, a barbershop owner. Wolfson did not return a message left at his office.

Reese said he wants to take a closer look at the budget before commenting on Sisolak’s desire for deeper cuts. But he disagrees with linking negotiations among unions.

“We need to address each union differently,” Reese said. “I don’t think we can compare police, say, to fire(fighters).”

Chris Collins, the police union president, also said he doesn’t like using the police department’s budget as “a tool to bring other unions to the table.”

“That’s not fair,” Collins said. “You should negotiate with each union on the merits. And the reality is, most folks in the county (this current fiscal year) have received cost-of-living raises. Police did not.”

Collins adds that the union is “willing to put the workload of Metro officers against firefighters, whomever.”

The idea of cutting or holding steady some other areas suggested by Sisolak—merit pay and longevity pay, among others— wouldn’t fly with the union, he added, if the savings will “just go to go back into the general fund (of the county or city).

But “if we were going to use it to augment the police so that, for instance, the (police) helicopters are flying 24 hours a day instead of 18, then we’d bite a bit.”

Sisolak told the Sun he wants Metro to consider cutting an officer’s annual uniform and equipment payment of $1,675. Collins said officers use that money to buy guns and bulletproof vests because the department stopped doing so in 2005. Gun barrels wear out every two to three years from shooting, and vests in a desert climate need to be replaced every five years, Collins said.

Sisolak’s desire to look at cutting swing- and graveyard-shift salary boosts, Collins also said, might hurt the department’s effort to keep more veteran officers on duty during less-desirable work hours.

Shift differential pay “just helps to keep some officers in patrol for longer period of time” instead of seeking detective work, Collins said. “Our patrol force is very young, so you want to keep some tenured forces among them.”

Sisolak said he would also like the sheriff to look at giving officers a one-time lump-sum payment if they obtain college degrees, instead of bonuses every year. A master’s degree, for instance, boosts annual pay by $2,200.

Collins said it’s an idea he might consider, “depending on what ... lump sum he had in mind.”

The union president stressed that the feedback from members is that “they understand the economy is in the tank. They have a realistic outlook on what’s going on.”

They also have an opinion, based partly on the fact that they gave up their entire cost-of-living increase last year, of what will happen if police are the first to take a cut.

“If everybody’s going to take a little less, I think (union members) would be amenable,” Collins said. “But right now they don’t have trust that if we come in under budget, the other entities in the valley will be held to the same standard.”

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