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Council advances budget that would leave 146 jobless

Mayor looking into drastic proposal that involves firing, rehiring employees to save jobs

Updated Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | 7:02 p.m.

After a sometimes emotional hearing that stretched nearly four hours today, the Las Vegas City Council tentatively approved a budget for next year that will cause 146 employees to lose their jobs in June, largely to fill a $70 million revenue shortfall.

The council will give its final approval to the budget in the middle of May.

But in the interim, it will look at other alternatives designed to forestall employee layoffs, including a somewhat drastic one rolled in at the last minute by Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Goodman asked the City Attorney Brad Jerbic to look into the legal possibility of terminating all city employees, then asking each of them, as a condition of being rehired, to accept getting paid for a shorter work week to save the city enough money to prevent any layoffs.

"If we're permitted to do that legally, I'm ready to take the risk of political capital because I believe it's the right thing to do," Goodman said. "If people can't agree to do the right thing among themselves, then we can force them to do the right thing among themselves. If they want to continue working for the city, they would have to agree to those terms."

The mayor's proposal — which was called a bullying tactic by several union representaties at the hearing — came following city bargaining units being cold to the city's proposal of reducing their salaries by 8 percent for each of the next two years and also freezing any step longevity increases or cost-of-living adjustments.

Goodman said he also believed that public safety employees could not be subject to such termination. As a result of that, he asked Fretwell to hire an outside consultant under a competitive process, "so no one can think we're fixing the result," to evaluate the city's public safety departments, in particular, Fire & Rescue, to find out whether or not there are areas concerning emergency transport (EMS) that could be privatized.

He asked for the consultant to be hired in July and provide results in December.

The council also asked the city staff to look into several other changes in the budget, among them restoring funds to the Reed Whipple Cultural Center, which provides theater and music programs for the city's youth. They would also explore the possibility of getting public donations to keep it open.

Besides the layoffs, the council is taking care of the $70 million shortfall with using $38 million in reserves and raising fees designed to generate about $5 million.

One is a fee to display news racks around the city. Another fee would raise about $525,000 by billing homeowners for "services and supplies" from Fire & Rescue visits, which could be billed to their home insurance.

The council also decided to step up collection efforts for those owing fees to Municipal Court, which could raise $600,000 and revise Municipal Court processing fees, which could raise $950,000.

But the main issue was the layoffs.

Mayor: 'I'm sorely disappointed'

City Manager Betsy Fretwell and Mark Vincent, the city's director of finance and business services, gave a detailed account of the number of employees who would be cut from each department, with an assessment of the effects on services.

In an earlier version of the budget, they had looked at cutting 215 position, which would have affected 261 employees, with 171 workers losing their jobs and the rest getting bumped to lesser jobs. But in the budget Fretwell presented today that was tentatively approved by the council, there were 190.92 positions eliminated, affecting 230 employees, including 146 who will lose their jobs in mid-June.

After their presentation, Goodman said council members have "agonized" over the loss of revenue, but thought they had a solution in that department heads could cut 12 percent. But in order to save employees from being fired, that they keep their salaries flat and agree to an 8 percent salary cut.

That would have allowed all the employees to keep their jobs and allowed the city to continue to providing all the existing city services, he said.

"We haven't received a meaningful response to the 8 percent request and keeping the salary and compensation flat," Goodman said. "And I'm sorely disappointed. . . I believe that this is a fraternity. This is a brotherhood of city workers who pride themselves in serving our constituency. And I believe that, in my heart of hearts, that the employees would have stepped up and done the right thing in order to preserve the jobs of their colleagues. That's not the case."

Goodman said cities throughout the U.S. are facing similar problems with massive layoffs, including thousands of people in Los Angeles and New York City.

"I'm going to ask Mr. Jerbic, our city attorney, to explore a solution which will result in keeping all of the city employees employed and all of the services intact," Goodman said. "I don't know whether it can work. I know in San Francisco something similar to this is being tried. I don't know whether it's constitutional or it may violate the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution. ... If the city council were to direct the city manager to send termination notices to each and every member of the city staff, terminating them immediately, with a 60-day notification, and then, following that up with a letter agreeing to rehire them, if, in fact, they would agree to a reduction of hours to be worked per week."

He said reducing hours from 40 to 37.5 hours a week would be a 6.25 percent savings and a 36-hour work week would be a 10 percent savings "that would meet our objective and keep everybody working and it would allow us to provide all of the services."

Goodman thanked employees who had tried to meet that objective of agreeing to the 8 percent cut.

"To those who haven't done that, it has to be laying very heavily on your conscience that you're causing one of your colleagues to be terminated," he said. "To those collective bargaining agents who haven't even responded, or who refuse to talk to us, I hope that what I'm going to be suggesting is going to be constitutional because that's the only way that we're going to get people to budge in the right direction."

Union rep calls mayor 'a bully'

After the vote approving the layoffs, city employee union leaders who were at the meeting took issue with the mayor for saying they hadn't presented the city with any meaningful offers.

Dean Fletcher, president of Las Vegas Firefighters Local 1285, said the firefighters, who are now in negotiations with the city, has offered the city a zero-cost contract for the next year that would provide a cost saving of about $1 million to $2 million. Fletcher said the mayor's proposal to privatize EMS transport services wasn't even on the table.

"You will lose the money we're bringing back in to you in EMS transports," Fletcher said. He said the fire department's spending would come in $6 million under budgeted costs this year. EMS transports would bring in $4.5 million to the general fund budget, a 100 percent increase, he said.

"Your move today was nothing more than a bully move," Fletcher said. "I don't want to fight with you. But that motion put in by you was off the wall. And I think it was a bully tactic in our negotiations."

Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents deputy city marshals and the municipal court marshals, told Goodman "I think you are being a bully."

Although Goodman had said there were no meaningful offers made, Collins said he's had many meetings with marshals, whose emotions have ranged from anger to tears on how to save their jobs. Collins said they did make an offer a week ago, but the city deemed it not meaningful. However, he said, it would have save $450,000, which would save the jobs of four marshals.

"I take great disrespect with your comments on behalf of the marshals," Collins said. He said if they had to agree with an 8 percent cut, then there were no real negotiations on the city's part: "It was simply our way or the highway. And today proves that to us that we have spent months and many, many hours in meetings, to no avail."

He said the city's offer was for an 8 percent cut for two years, plus a freeze in all future increases, would be a 28 percent cut for the marshals, taking an average salary from $70,500 to $58,000.

"They can't live on $58,000," he said. "... It puts them in bankruptcy and foreclosure."

Tracey Valenzuela, president of the Las Vegas Peace Officers Association, which represents the corrections officers for the city, said her union has been willing to work with the city. She said they are still the lowest paid law enforcement agency in the valley. Valenzuela said they have agreed to a 1 percent salary cut and other benefit cuts, such as a reduction in medical contribution and have offered to give up a uniform allowance. She said they had also agreed to reduce overtime by $1.5 million.

Don King, president of the Las Vegas City Employees Association, also called the mayor "a bully" for making the proposal.

"I think your directions to Brad Jerbic attacks the collective bargaining process," King said.

King told Councilman Steve Wolfson that CEA members were currently being surveyed as to whether they would accept an 8 percent cut for this year.

However, King said the 8 percent cut would be much more than that for some employees because the city's proposal would eliminate a cost of living and step increases — and another 8 percent cut would be coming the following year.

Other recommendations the council adopted today as part of the budget included :

-- Establishing a Warrant Service Program pilot study, estimated to raise $500,000. That program would involve six deputy city marshals, two senior office specialists and two public safety technicians, who would be used to identify and serve warrants in about 33,000 outstanding cases during the late afternoon and evening. The total cost would be $1.2 million, but it would generate $1.7 million.

-- Creating a proposal to consolidate the Deputy City Marshal Unit and the Municipal Court marshals.

-- Eliminating the Xtreme Sports program, saving $190,000.

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