Las Vegas Sun

June 1, 2015

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Firefighters, county face PR battle to win renewal of tax up for vote in 2014

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Chris Morris

A federal lawsuit by battalion chiefs of the Clark County Fire Department against the county disappeared Tuesday with little fanfare.

Fearful that county officials might decertify their union, the “batt-chiefs” sued the county after the county refused to guarantee it would not make a decertification attempt. The matter was quickly ended in court, though, when the county agreed not to seek decertification — for now.

But given the ongoing disputes between firefighter unions and local government — which includes Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas — political observers say the lawsuit is the last thing that either Clark County or its Fire Department needed.

Both sides face a monumental money issue in less than two years when the county has to prepare its budget by looking through a crystal ball to determine whether voters will decide in late 2014 to renew a 20-year-old tax that raises about $15 million per year for Fire Department operations and capital expenses.

Once again, the observers say, the lawsuit highlighted stark differences between unionized public employees and those who work in the private sector. Those differences have had devastating effects on public employee unions around the country, perhaps exemplified by the landslide victory Wisconsin voters gave in a recall election last week to Gov. Scott Walker, who has eviscerated public employee unions through laws attacking collective bargaining.

And in San Diego and San Jose, voters supported moves to place new public employees on 401(k)s, the type of retirement programs provided to many in the private sector.

It’s no great stretch to say that public employee unions are under siege around the country. But in Clark County, news related specifically to firefighter unions over the last three years has been a public relations disaster.

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Firefighters with the North Las Vegas Fire Department on the scene of a fire Friday, March 2, 2012. After refusing to accept concessions and facing layoffs, firefighters want the city to consolidate the department with another valley fire department.

Public disputes have erupted over contract talks between unions and city and county officials.

Las Vegas and its firefighter unions have just declared a contract talk impasse. The union has asked for what amounts to $12 million in additional wages and benefits over a two-year period.

In North Las Vegas, city officials blame the firefighters and other unions for refusing to give up some wages or benefits in a non-contract year as the city struggles to overcome a massive deficit.

Last year, Clark County fired two firefighters, alleging they abused the county’s sick-leave system, booking sick days as vacation days. Closer scrutiny of sick-leave by administrators seemed to support the county’s notion, as firefighter sick-leave fell by 57,000 hours over roughly two years.

But then the other shoe dropped. Independent arbitrators ruled the county overstepped its bounds and had no right to terminate those two firefighters. Within the last few months, both were ordered back to work with full pay and any missed back-pay.

Then two weeks ago, one of those firefighters, Donald Munn, filed a federal lawsuit against the county alleging defamation, invasion of privacy and violations of the Family Medical Leave Act. The suit will keep the sick-leave issue in the minds of voters for months to come.

Asked if voters, a typically fickle and sometimes-forgetful lot, will forget about all this business in 17 months when the tax renewal is on the ballot, former County Manager Thom Reilly said, “That will be difficult.”

“With all the recent attention by firefighters in general and the arbitrators’ recent rulings, it’s going to be a hard sell,” Reilly said. “Raising taxes is a challenge in any environment, but when you’ve had this much media attention specifically targeted to firefighters, it’s going to be much tougher.”

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Donald Munn gets a hug from his disabled adopted son Brian, 21, at their home in Henderson Thursday, March 8, 2012. Munn, a former Clark County firefighter, says the fire department fired him for abusing sick leave but Munn says he needed to take the sick leave to care for his son. Brian Munn suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

A local political consultant doesn’t think voters will be able to forgive.

“I’ll just say that if the economy is worse, it’s going to be even harder,” he said. “If the economy is growing and people start building houses, it’ll pass in a second.”

In his view, the only chance to change minds is to scare voters.

“You have to scare the public into looking past all the things we just discussed,” he said, “because right now people see public employee unions as getting things that no one else in the world gets. Period. So there has to be something dramatic. You have to scare them past the realities of current-day life.”

Reilly, who was the Clark County manager from 2001 to 2006, is a professor of social work at San Diego State University and president/CEO of the Reilly Group, a consulting firm to public, private and nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations.

He is currently promoting his book, “Rethinking Public Sector Compensation: What Ever Happened to the Public Interest?” (M.E. Sharpe, publisher).

Reilly said work would have to start now showing firefighters and government were working hand-in-hand to solve fiscal problems. Then the county — that means union members, county elected officials and county staff — have to start justifying the tax, which amounts to 5.27 cents per $100 of assessed property value. It went into effect in 1996 and expires in 2016 but will be voted upon in November 2014.

The Sun could not reach Ryan Beaman, president of the county firefighters union, for comment. County Manager Don Burnette said county officials and the union had been building a stronger relationship over the last year or so.

“That’s good for the firefighters, the county and good for everybody,” Burnette said.

In recent years, in fact, the county has cut $11 million in Fire Department expenses, mostly because overtime payouts declined, a result partly attributable to the decline in sick days. In addition, the county and union have more quickly adopted new contracts, where just a few years ago they fought all the way to arbitration.

But Reilly said overcoming years of bad press is going to take more than a story or two in the paper.

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Firefighters fundraising on the corner of Rainbow and Flamingo for "Fill The Boot" on Friday April 13, 2012.

“They need to tell everyone where the money will go, and 17 months is not a long time,” he said. “And there have to be additional reforms in public pay. That means statewide changes but also any changes you can make at the local level.”

He had specific ideas, including:

• Working with state lawmakers to change state law: Instead of taking disputed contract terms to an outside arbitrator, send them to locally elected officials for a final decision.

“I think that would be significant,” Reilly said. “No one could say, ‘Well, it’s out of our hands.’ You’d have people living and elected in the community being ultimately responsible.”

• Opening collective bargaining meetings to the public, making them subject to the state’s open meeting laws.

• Putting a moratorium on any wage or benefit increases.

• State laws need to be worked on to change a system that allows public employees to get health care in perpetuity if they keep paying the monthly premium upon retirement. That holds even after they become eligible for Medicare. Reilly suggests enacting a law to force the employee to drop the health insurance when Medicare kicks in.

“These are great ideas,” said County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. “After the two arbitration cases we had, to me the system is broken.”

Sisolak said he is getting a growing number of calls from “disgusted” voters angry at increasing water and other fees, stewing as they sit and watch unions and public employees seek more wages and benefits.

Asked to consider what he would do if he were the county manager and had to face the prospect of up to a $15 million drop in funds for the Fire Department, Reilly said people would likely lose their jobs.

“You’re going to have fewer employees around,” he said. “There’s just no other way to do the math. To reduce cost, you have to reduce your personnel.”

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