Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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County, fire union break ice with heated words

The rift between Clark County officials and the county firefighters union broke into open conflict Wednesday.

The union’s leaders, stung by criticism that they have not offered to help close the $126 million county budget gap by offering concessions similar to those from police and other unions, claimed they had indeed told the county they would give up pay and benefits.

The firefighters say they offered concessions and even asked Clark County to use the resulting savings to reopen the county’s outpatient cancer clinic at University Medical Center. Its closure got national attention on “60 Minutes” and has been a source of embarrassment for the state.

The firefighters say their offer was ignored.

The county says the union’s leadership is lying.

The conflict between the firefighters and the county played out Wednesday in Carson City, as the president of the union testified — often in emotional language — on behalf of legislation that would force the county to reopen the cancer clinic in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated attack on county leadership.

Further complicating matters, the 2010 governor’s race is providing a political subtext to the conflict. The bill to require the county to reopen the cancer clinic is co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, the Las Vegas Democrat who is believed to be running for governor. Her competition in the gubernatorial primary is expected to be Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid.

Here are the competing claims of the firefighters and the county:

Ryan Beaman, president of the county firefighters union, sent a lengthy letter in March to the county outlining areas where it could save money in a number of different county departments. The letter noted the cost of consultants and travel, for instance.

Beaman said the union offered concessions in salary and benefits in April, including $1.2 million in salaries and $4 million in benefits. At some point he told them he wanted the money to be earmarked for the cancer clinic because, he said, with so much waste in the county budget, firefighters wanted the money to go to something useful.

Beaman said the county never replied.

About two and a half weeks later he followed up.

Beaman said that during the negotiations, Reid and County Manager Virginia Valentine asked him not to tell other commissioners about the talks.

The county tells a markedly different story.

To begin with, Beaman included a nondisclosure clause in the letter of agreement he presented to Valentine late last month.

Valentine said Beaman never mentioned UMC’s oncology unit when they met in mid-April to talk about concessions.

“Oncology never came up,” she said late Wednesday. “I’m telling you, never.”

She added that after she added up all the “cost-saving measures” Beaman had typed into a proposed letter of agreement, the county calculated it would have saved nothing and actually cost $3.8 million.

Beaman’s proposal to save the county $5.2 million amounts to this: Transfer $4 million from a fund that would have gone to erect security fences around fire stations to UMC, and reduce cost-of-living raises 1 percent to save $1.2 million.

George Stevens, the county’s finance director, testified during Wednesday’s Senate Committee on Health and Education meeting that the county could not legally transfer money from fire’s capital fund — the security fence money — to the county hospital.

Beaman called the $4 million slated for fences a “benefit” because it was something earned in collective bargaining with the county.

“If we hadn’t put it toward the fences, then it might have been added as a benefit or for salaries,” he said.

But Valentine said that given that the union wanted the county to spend the money somewhere else, she never considered it a savings.

Valentine said Beaman’s letter of agreement included a stipulation to add five shifts of vacation accrual for every union employee, which would have cost the county $5 million.

Valentine determined that Beaman’s proposal would have actually cost Clark County $3.8 million this way: $1.2 million savings from the cost-of-living decrease; no savings from the $4 million no-fences offer; $5 million in expenses from the vacation accrual measure.

Beaman said he repeatedly asked Valentine to show him her figures to prove that vacation time would cost that much.

“And she never did it, she never provided a calculation to us,” he said.

“We know it didn’t cost that much, so she just didn’t do the calculations,” he said.

The back-and-forth ends months of silence by the two sides. The Sun has repeatedly asked Valentine and Beaman, as well as Reid, to talk about their concession talks, which date to last fall.

The silence is over, both sides said Wednesday.

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