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September 17, 2019

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County firefighters union preaches frugality, to others

More than a year ago, the county firefighters union took Clark County bureaucrats to task, challenging them to cut travel expenses before asking the union for salary concessions during difficult contract negotiations.

That demand by Ryan Beaman, president of International Association of Fire Fighters 1908, might come back to haunt him, as a Sun examination of county fiscal data shows that leave and related expenses for firefighters are rising while travel costs are way down.

Union leave can be used for things such as educational conferences, seminars and training courses, according to its contract. Many of those events are out of state.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak thinks the county’s frugal travel budget for several thousand workers, in contrast to rising leave hours for the union’s 700 firefighters, could be a factor for a neutral arbitrator who will try to break the impasse in contract talks.

“If the union is saying they’re entitled to more than the county wants to give, the county can show it’s being very fiscally responsible,” he said.

Rusty McAllister, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Nevada, deferred questions on leave to Beaman, who said he would answer questions after arbitration.

An arbitration hearing of two or three days begins this week. A decision will come weeks later.

Since Beaman’s letter in March 2009, the county’s travel budget fell from $1.1 million in fiscal year 2009 to $699,000 in fiscal 2010, down 36.5 percent. County numbers also show that if travel expenses for the district attorney’s office are removed — investigators travel more for witness interviews — it spent $238,188 last year.

So far this year, the county’s travel budget appears to be even lower. Travel expenses in the first quarter of fiscal 2011 were $106,000 ($58,000 for the district attorney’s office). If that holds for the year, total travel would be $424,000, a 40 percent decline from the last fiscal year.

Meanwhile, firefighter union leave is on pace to increase by 19 percent. Further, the county pays overtime to firefighters who fill in for union members who take leave. That overtime in calendar year 2009 was $211,000. So far this year, 37 union members have taken leave, and overtime to cover them is projected to be about $250,000 by year’s end.

In terms of hours, the county projects that by the end of this calendar year, firefighters will have taken 5,100 hours of union leave. That’s up from 4,300 hours in 2009.

Commissioner Tom Collins, whose support of unions is symbolized by a firefighter helmet on a hat rack in his office, remembers when he served in the Legislature and the state cut lawmakers’ trips to one per year. When union leave is to attend conferences, Collins said he knows how union leaders will reply when asked to cut back.

“I know (the union) is going to claim this is a safety issue,” he said. “But they don’t have to go more than necessary, and if they are, then they need to cut it.”

The union’s contract does not require members to disclose why leave is taken. If leave involves travel, for example, it does not show up in county records.

But conclusions can be drawn.

Correlations exist between union leave and firefighter conferences across the country. What follows are some of the conferences this year and the hours of union leave recorded during that time.

• Jan. 27-29 — the International Affiliate Leadership Training Summit in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Eight firefighters took 109 hours of leave.

• March 14-22, International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. Seven firefighters took 312 hours of leave.

• Aug. 21-27, the union’s 50th Biennial Convention, San Diego. Seven firefighters took 304 hours of leave. Along with typical conference sessions, the convention included activities such as a motorcycle ride, golf tournament, block party, firefighter social, and two San Diego Padres games, with proceeds from ticket sales going to the San Diego Burn Institute and the union’s Burn Foundation.

“We pay for them to attend conferences with golf outings and galas,” Sisolak said. “At the same time constituents are having a hard time feeding their families. I’m just not buying that with the advent of the Internet, so much travel is necessary to learn about policy and union matters.”

Other county unions have different leave policies.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 5,700 employees, caps all union leave at 1,375 hours per year. No overtime is paid.

Chris Collins, president of the Police Protective Association, which represents about 2,700 active-duty members, estimated that about the same number of his union members as firefighters take leave each year. He said eight go to a national conference in Washington once a year, and he tries to send his seven board members to union classes once a year. No overtime is generated.

Compared with SEIU members, the largest county public employees union, firefighters take on average six times more leave per person, according to county figures.

In 2010, county figures show, SEIU’s 5,700 members are on pace to take 4,500 hours of union leave, while the firefighters’ 754 members are on pace for 5,100 hours. For every 1,000 hours worked, firefighters would be taking 2.4 hours of leave versus 0.4 hours for SEIU members.

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