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May 26, 2019

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Town hall on budget shows which side is which

Held by county commissioners, heavily attended by union firefighters


Leila Navidi

Jerry Walton sits with fellow firefighters Wednesday at a town hall meeting, one of several public-input sessions hosted by county commissioners.

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

At the first town-hall meeting to discuss Clark County’s budget troubles Monday night, it quickly became evident how the powers will play their hands.

Of the 325 people who showed up at the event hosted by Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a third were county employees, and most prominent among them were about 50 firefighters. The rest were people who had lost their jobs, had stories of county waste or wanted something done about the bleeding at University Medical Center.

If county management and some commissioners have their way, firefighters could see their salaries slashed to address the projected $126 million deficit next fiscal year.

During discussion of possible cuts, one person told Sisolak, “we’re supporting you — you’ve got to be drastic in your position.”

“You’ve got my vote!” another yelled.

Three firefighters followed with, “Not mine!”

None of the firefighters spoke during the time set aside for public questions, but they did send a message to Sisolak: We’re watching, we vote.

The intent of this town hall and six others continuing into next week is to gather input on recommendations for addressing budget troubles.

Among the proposals:

• Eliminating the Fire Department’s paramedic duties and having private companies provide the service.

• Combining Park Police with Metro Police.

• Changing state law on how Clark County tax revenue is redistributed throughout the state.

• Transferring UMC to a nonprofit organization.

The firefighters, who averaged $200,000 in salary and benefits last year, arrived in small groups. Before the meeting, a handful waited in a long line to get into the banquet room where the meeting was to be held. They had plans.

“Are you going to tune up Sisolak?” one said.

“No, you know me — I’m going to sit quietly,” another said.

The two guffawed.

As it turns out, they did sit quietly. But even in saying little, the implied threat was clear: Turn on the unions and they’ll turn on you.

The firefighters endorsed Sisolak in 2008.

Less than two weeks ago, he publicly decried their salary and benefits.

Others in the audience focused on waste, problems at UMC and labor costs.

A construction engineer said his pay has been cut 50 percent in the recession and he couldn’t understand why the county could cut salaries across the board.

Sisolak said unions have contracts.

Another citizen suggested tearing up the contracts.

Some UMC employees talked in detail about wasteful spending by supervisors; about seeing county cars parked at dentists’ offices; about how Wall Street caused this problem; about how the unions aren’t the problem; about county assessor brochures and how they look like taxpayer-funded political mailings; about how cutting county jobs will hurt the economy even more; about the low pay for UMC nurses; and the realization from one county worker that his job would likely get cut before police or fire positions.

As they spoke, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani watched from the back of the room and came away believing that people don’t want to cut public safety.

The County Commission voted last week to look closely at changing how UMC is operated and to send a signal to county unions that they must offer concessions to help with the budget crisis.

Giunchigliani, who has been closely aligned with the firefighters, voted against the proposal. Sisolak, with four others, voted in favor.

There’s a sense that future votes will also be divided when the new budget and massive cuts are finalized.

Based on the questions of rank-and-file citizens at Monday’s town hall, the hospital and salaries, especially those of firefighters, are going to get the most attention.

“You’re going to see tough decisions, more cuts, more changes made from here on in,” Sisolak said after the meeting. “I’d like to keep everyone. But we can’t spend $150 if we only have $100. It’s going to be jobs or wages.”

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