Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2014

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Staffing shuffle would cut county Fire Department overtime

Rory Reid

Rory Reid

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid will seek to immediately disband some infrequently used Fire Department heavy equipment teams, a move aimed at reducing the department’s ballooning overtime costs.

Reid wants to mothball the department’s mobile air unit, which hauls extra oxygen apparatus to fire scenes, and a water tender, a truck that transports water to locations without hydrants, freeing the staff who operate the equipment for other needs. The equipment could still be used “as needed.”

Neither piece of equipment is first out on fire or medical calls, so Reid said changing their status would not increase response times.

The idea, which sprung from cost-saving measures proposed by Fire Chief Steve Smith, will cut overtime $965,000 by allowing six engineers who are tied to the equipment 24 hours a day to work elsewhere.

“The county’s personnel costs are not sustainable,” said Reid, a Democratic candidate for governor. “This is the first of many steps that we need to take.”

The six engineers would be used to fill in for absent firefighters in any of 25 county fire stations. Typically, the county pays overtime, or 1 1/2-times a regular wage, to firefighters substituting for colleagues who miss shifts.

In the 2009 fiscal year, overtime for firefighters totaled $14.1 million, helping push the average firefighter pay and benefits package to $180,000.

In the current fiscal year, the county is on pace to pay $15 million in Fire Department overtime. Overtime costs for all other county departments total about $2.7 million.

The Fire Department’s overtime problem is compounded by the fact that it is understaffed by seven fire engineers. Another 20 engineers are eligible for retirement or promotion over the next 12 months.

The county announced in April that it wanted to start a new round of fire engineer exams, which would give rank-and-file firefighters the opportunity for promotion to engineer.

In response, the fire union threatened legal action. Union President Ryan Beaman, who is an engineer, pointed out that the union’s contract states engineer exams are only given every two years. Giving exams this year would violate the contract.

Reid was infuriated by Beaman’s response. Soon after, he held a news conference with Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman to announce city and county staff will work toward sharing some firefighting duties between the jurisdictions.

The goal this time is the same: free up firefighters who are staffing rarely used equipment so they can fill in for absent firefighters to cut overtime costs.

Reid’s move could provide a key test of the commission’s will to take on the firefighters, who have been widely viewed as politically powerful.

Contacted Wednesday, Beaman agreed with Reid that using the equipment “as needed” won’t affect response times. But he said it will affect the county’s ISO rating, which can affect insurance premiums for home and business owners.

“The county could end up saving taxpayers a couple of cents per day while costing property owners, especially business owners, much more when it comes to insurance premiums,” Beaman said.

Smith said that is highly doubtful. Clark County is a Class 2 department. For its ISO rating to be hurt, that rating would have to drop to Class 4, he said, and that’s not likely to happen because the department is “still using the equipment.”

Barring a commission vote, the proposal is scheduled to take effect May 26.

But if Reid’s proposal ends up on an upcoming commission meeting agenda, it will reveal how likely commissioners are to support more cost-saving measures.

Reid has a solid vote in Commissioner Steve Sisolak, an ardent critic of firefighter pay.

“I think it’s the first small step in a very, very long journey but I’m glad we’re going to do something,” Sisolak said. “It’s a long way from over.”

Surprisingly, another commissioner known for his affinity for the firefighters union, Tom Collins, likes Reid’s idea too.

“I think some of these trucks get about 200 miles a year and that’s some real, real low mileage,” he said. His pro-union stance, he added, does not get in the way of his desire to get the most out of county employees. “I want these guys to be productive.”

Smith, the fire department chief, and every other county department head submitted plans almost three weeks ago outlining 8 percent spending cuts.

None of those plans has been made public. But the Sun has reported that one version of the Fire Department plan includes working with Las Vegas to coordinate brownouts of neighboring fire stations. To make the brownouts work, Smith wants to triage the 120,000 ambulance calls the department receives each year, no longer answering minor calls, to free up ambulance time.

Smith has also suggested reducing overtime pay for battalion chiefs by operating with just two when one calls in sick. That would save $149,000 annually. He also suggests eliminating four administrative staff positions, saving $230,100 annually.

Reid’s plan comes a few days after the commission approved a $1.2 billion county budget.

That budget included none of the Fire Department’s 8 percent budget cut plans and made no guesses about how much the county might save in ongoing contract negotiations with the firefighters union.

After the budget vote, Reid promised the spending plan was only a work in progress and that more cuts would come.

“We have to make more cuts or 1,000 people could lose their jobs next year,” he said. “I leave in five months, and I want to leave the county in good fiscal shape when I do.”

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