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Las Vegas firefighters, city at impasse in contract talks

Mayor says arbitration could favor the city this time

Updated Thursday, May 27, 2010 | 2:28 p.m.

Contract negotiations have stalled out between the local firefighters' union and the City of Las Vegas, so a third-party arbitrator will be called in to settle the differences, Mayor Oscar Goodman said today.

"It's at an impasse," the mayor told reporters this morning at his weekly press conference at City Hall. "... We couldn't agree."

He said going into arbitration will be costly, although he didn't say how much.

"This is a matter of money, it's a matter of principle, it's a matter of how we're going to do business in the future," he said.

Goodman said that on Wednesday, City Manager Betsy Fretwell hand-delivered a letter to Dean Fletcher, the president of the local firefighters union, about the status of negotiations from the city's point of view.

Fletcher responded today with a letter to Fretwell, "stating that the union has no other option other than to declare an impasse ... and please have your attorney contact the local's attorney to proceed further in the process," Goodman said. "So that's where we are right now."

In a press release issued this morning, firefighters said they thought they had an agreement with the city, but the city walked away from it.

“This is the very definition of an impasse. We have been negotiating in good faith all this time. We are at a point that we do not know how to characterize what is going on,” Dean Fletcher, president of the Las Vegas Firefighters Local 1285, said in the release.

Goodman said the next step will be for a process called "fact finding," where an arbitrator will be brought in to clear up disputes between firefighters and the city.

"You can resolve the differences, perhaps in the fact-finding process," he said. "Then after fact finding, if it's not resolved, then you go to arbitration. The arbitration can take up to six to nine months in order to have a resolution."

The city had asked firefighters -- and all other city employees -- to take an 8 percent salary and benefit cut and to give up any automatic cost of living, longevity or step pay increases in the next year.

Because none of the unions would agree to do so, the city council approved a final budget that would cut about 200 city jobs next year and eliminate some services in order to deal with a budget deficit the city says had grown to $80 million for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.

Negotiators for the city and firefighters thought they had made a deal, but Goodman said when Fretwell told city council members during non-public briefing about it, they couldn't accept it.

Goodman said firefighters made greater concessions than they had ever made in the past.

"From my perspective, it wasn't enough," the mayor said, pointing out he was only speaking for himself. "It didn't address my needs as the mayor. And therefore, at least from my perspective, arbitration is probably the right thing to do under these circumstances."

Goodman said that arbitration, in the past, has usually meant that the employees union came out ahead. But he thinks this time the economic times will favor the city's position.

"We're in uncharted waters as far as the economy is concerned," he said. "And if we don't change our culture, in my opinion ... Then we'll never be able to change it. And I think that it's toppled over and we have to start looking at a new city and a new way of doing business."

Goodman pointed out that there were no firefighters among the 210 city employees who have received notices they would be laid off.

Meanwhile, Goodman said the city staff is getting close to working out a deal the the city marshals' union, who were scheduled to have 12 marshals laid off in July and another 10 in January in the new budget.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to avert those layoffs," he said.

The city marshals union's proposal will come up for a vote next Wednesday at the city council meeting, he said.

He said the city marshals were asked to trim $1.1 million from their budget and they have come to the city with an offer to cut $900,000, he said.

"That's a substantial step in the right direction," Goodman said.

Goodman was asked why all the employee groups were being affected by the job cuts except for the firefighters. He said that as part of the budget process, the city had held 13 town hall meetings, held focus group meetings and taken a survey through UNLV that showed local citizens put public safety highest on their list of city services.

"Basically, the public said their primary interest was to keep public safety intact," Goodman said, "and didn't want to see any modifications take place as far as response times and the like. That was the reason that fire had nobody laid off."

However, the budget will create reduction in firefighters' overtime by scheduling "brownouts" to three fire units a day, he said.

"The fire chief has said consistently that that would not affect response times," Goodman said. "But if we got to a point where there were substantial brownouts then it would have to be brought back to the city council for our approval because, at that point in time, there would have been a potential effect on public safety."

Goodman said in arbitration, each side makes a "best and final offer" and the arbitrator picks one of them.

"It's not something in between. It's not as though one says six and another says eight and the arbitrator picks a seven. It's either a six or an eight. From my perspective, where we are right now, this is the only way it's going to be resolved."

Goodman said that, historically, the city never wins in arbitration. But it's not necessarily bad this time around for the city.

"There's never been a time in our economy like this," he said. "So, I'm saying, if we can't make changes in an arbitration in this time in our economy, then it's going to be business as usual for years to come. And, to me, that's unacceptable."

He said the consolidated tax has been going down for close to three years and an arbitrator will take that into consideration.

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