Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2015

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North Las Vegas must turn to unions to help close latest budget gap

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North Las Vegas city manager Timothy Hacker answers a question during a meeting with the Las Vegas Sun editorial board Wednesday, June 27, 2012.

It’s back to the negotiating table for North Las Vegas.

North Las Vegas Finance Director Al Zochowski outlined the city’s projected budget to the city council on a special meeting Tuesday. Once again the city faces a budget gap, this time totaling $18 million.

Last year the city declared a state of emergency to eliminate a $33 million budget gap after negotiations stalled with the police, fire and Teamsters unions. This time, there is little left to cut but salary raises and holiday benefits. To do that, the city must repair its relationship with the unions and come to a deal it couldn’t reach one year ago.

“If (unions) don’t take their raises, uniform allowances or holiday pay back it keeps us in a frugal situation,” Mayor Shari Buck said. “One way or the other our budget will be balanced. Whether they help or not remains to be seen.”

The city has struggled with budget deficits since the recession, but City Manager Tim Hacker said it has improved every year. After a $60 million budget gap heading into 2010, the city has decreased it to only $18 million this year through a series of cuts.

Last year, that meant closing the detention center, forcing firefighters to take less overtime, eliminating office positions and shortening hours for libraries.

This year, Hacker said the only place left to find cuts is in employee wages and benefits, which he estimates add up to about 80 to 85 percent of the city’s cost. To do that, he said the city and unions must overcome any issues lingering from last year and put the city first.

That means renegotiating the union contracts that were made when the economy was more stable but are unsustainable now.

“One thing we cannot afford to do is keep moving the target down the road,” Hacker said. “We’ll have to deal with the fact that the economy has changed dramatically, so those expectations are not going to be realistic anytime soon.”

Zochowski said this year’s budget deficit stems from a lack of tax revenue. Zochowski said staff levels are already at a minimum to provide services, so there is little excess or areas of overspending to cut.

In the meeting, he highlighted a $1 million budget deficit in the library fund that is paid for solely through property taxes in the meeting Tuesday. He isn’t sure it is possible to maintain three libraries with the revenue the way it is.

“I happen to know city council is adamant at keeping service levels at the libraries at a minimum the way they are at, so we are going to look hard to find ways to do that,” Zochowski said. “Will we be successful? I’m not sure, but we’re sure going to try.”

The city must file its budget with the Nevada Department of Taxation by April 15, but it has until May 21 to eliminate the budget deficit before it submits a final budget on June 1.

The fate of this year’s budget rests on the city and unions striking a deal they couldn’t come to in time last year. One way or another, however, Buck said the budget will be balanced.

“We’ll see if they’re willing to help the city,” Buck said. “If not, obviously we’re talking about layoffs again.”

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