Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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Horrible county budget outlook worsens, tough decisions loom

$200 million shortfall predicted; unions must brace for pay, job cuts

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

A new financial forecast for Clark County will likely make it all but impossible for its employee unions to avoid this unwelcome choice in the coming weeks — salary cuts or job cuts.

As they prepare to begin renegotiating labor contracts in a few weeks, Clark County commissioners learned Tuesday that next year’s budget deficit could reach $200 million — much higher than the $126 million predicted earlier.

George Stevens, the county’s chief financial officer, told commissioners that consolidated tax revenue fell $28 million, or 20 percent, in the first three months of the fiscal year compared with the same period in the previous year, and that commercial property tax revenue is expected to decline. The fiscal year began July 1.

Based on an average cost of $90,000 in salary and benefits per county employee, the looming deficit would equal roughly 2,200 jobs.

Because 65 percent of the county’s general fund budget of $1.2 billion goes toward salaries and benefits, jobs and pay will have big targets on them in the coming months. More so because county cost-cutting measures that have been taking place for almost two years have eliminated many expenses outside of labor costs — things like newspaper subscriptions and shuttle bus operations. In addition, an estimated 950 positions within University Medical Center and other county departments have been left unfilled.

As a result, there isn’t much left to cut outside of jobs and salaries. The $200 million deficit could become the most significant figure in the debate over county finances, as employee unions posture in an effort to minimize the damage to their members.

Stevens’ report came a few hours after more than 100 county firefighters, clad in yellow T-shirts — the same color as the department’s familiar fire engines — filled the Clark County Commission chambers. They said nothing — didn’t have the opportunity, in fact, because it wasn’t a public hearing — as the commission accepted a list of recommendations from the Committee on Community Priorities, a citizen committee established by Commission Chairman Rory Reid to prioritize county services.

Among the committee’s recommendations for saving money: cutting the Fire Department budget, including its paramedic service.

With the firefighters present, Commissioner Tom Collins launched into a lengthy defense of public services.

Other commissioners made briefer statements, saving their comments for upcoming meetings when county staff will examine the community committee’s top recommendations and return with cost-benefit analyses and other evaluations.

After the meeting, Commissioner Steve Sisolak repeated the figure “$200 million” in astonishment.

Sisolak has spoken most openly about the looming cuts. A few weeks ago, he decried the average firefighter compensation, which including overtime and benefits totals about $200,000 annually. He has also said he wants to get rid of longevity pay, a salary perk that cost Clark County $44 million last year.

Though he expressed some reservations about how politics might play into commissioners’ decisions — some of their comments, he said, sounded like “posturing” — Sisolak said commissioners’ positions will be largely determined by the enormity of the budget shortfall they are about to face.

“There will be some very difficult decisions that, unfortunately, will have to be made,” Sisolak said.

Standing up for his estimated 9,500 members, Service Employees International Union President Al Martinez blamed Wall Street for the country’s financial mess, adding that public employees nationwide are being portrayed as “the cause of the meltdown.”

Whatever the source of the county’s financial problems, the fortunes of its employees were partly decided when commissioners went into a closed session. There they discussed what strategies they wanted to take as they head into union negotiations, which begin in a few weeks.

After that closed meeting, Reid was asked whether commissioners remain as committed to cutting as they appeared to be two weeks ago, when they voted 5-2 to support his motion to look at privatizing or transferring UMC to another entity and seek more concessions from unions.

“The policy this board adopted just two weeks ago in a public meeting was to fundamentally change how we do business at UMC and to lower labor costs, and I don’t see that changing,” he said.

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