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May 27, 2015

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City government:

City, firefighters turn to fact-finding to resolve contract differences

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Steve Marcus

City of Las Vegas firefighters treat a man, apparently suffering from smoke inhalation, after a fire at the City Center Motel, on the northeast corner of Fremont Street and Seventh Street, in downtown Las Vegas Tuesday, May 8, 2012.

After months at impasse, firefighters and the city of Las Vegas are scheduled next month to resume efforts to reach a contract agreement, this time with the help of a third party.

Over the course of three days starting Feb. 4, an independent fact-finder will hear arguments and evidence from both sides and issue recommendations about the disputes that could help end negotiations that had been stalled since an impasse was declared in May 2012.

There’s been little discussion about the contract since, said Scott Johnson, president of firefighter union Local 1285. Firefighters have continued working under the terms of the previous agreement.

At issue are concessions sought by the city that firefighters are reluctant to make after several years of budget cuts.

“That doesn’t mean we are asking for a great deal of things. It simply means we are hoping to reset and do some recovery of concessions our members have made in the last couple of contracts,” Johnson said.

City Manager Elizabeth Fretwell has called the growth of the fire department’s budget, which has increased at nearly twice the rate of the city’s general fund since 2004, unsustainable.

The contentiousness of the negotiations is captured in a September complaint filed by the firefighters after the city offered each of them a $549 bonus.

The complaint, which has played out over the past months in a series of filings with the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board, accuses the city of bad-faith bargaining for offering the bonus to firefighters as part of its “gain-sharing program.”

The program, akin to profit-sharing in the private sector, took a percentage of leftover funds, $1.3 million this year, and gave them to city employees in the form of a bonus.

Three employee groups, 262 nonunion employees and 263 members of two separate police unions, accepted the bonuses, but the 594-member firefighter union and the 1,248-member Las Vegas City Employee Association rejected the bonuses.

The firefighters were the only employee group to file a complaint over the bonuses. Johnson said the gain-sharing bonus circumvented and undermined the collective-bargaining process.

“We feel that these issues are best handled at the negotiating table. This is not the proper process by which to go forward with this type of an offer,” Johnson said.

That complaint likely won’t be heard by the employee relations board for several months, by which time the fact-finder could have issued his recommendations.

Johnson said he’s optimistic the fact-finding process would lead to a deal between the firefighters and the city.

If it doesn’t, negotiations could make their way to binding arbitration, where each side submits its final, best offer and an arbitrator chooses between them, something the firefighters haven’t done in more than a decade, Johnson said.

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