Las Vegas Sun

December 10, 2023

J. Patrick Coolican:

Choices will have to be made, but what about the firefighters?

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J. Patrick Coolican

For several months, I’ve argued that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to balance the state’s budget by cutting funding for teachers, professors, social programs and health care providers would be shortsighted and deeply damaging for all of us, not just recipients of those government services.

To which many readers have offered the retort: What about the firefighters?

It’s an understandable frustration, and it’s one I share whenever I see a luxury SUV with a firefighter sticker, or see firetrucks at the grocery store or gym and grit my teeth.

Nevada firefighters average nearly $100,000 per year, according to a recent report completed by analyst Jeremy Aguero for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. That’s 49 percent more than the national average. In Southern Nevada they make more, largely because local governments have decided it’s more cost-effective to pay the current roster massive amounts of overtime than to hire new firefighters.

And by now we’ve all pounded our fists over morning coffee reading about some Clark County firefighters calling in “sick” when they were really on vacation, which caused still more overtime pay.

Can’t we just clamp down and balance our books by paying the firefighters and other public employees wages in a manner more commensurate with the times?

Unfortunately, no. Clark County, for instance, will spend $49.3 million this fiscal year on firefighter salaries and benefits. Let’s say we cut that in half, which is obviously completely unrealistic: That would only save $25 million, or approximately 2.5 percent of what we need.

Still, Nevada state and local elected officials have made what I find to be a strange policy choice: We have very few public employees, but a small subset of them has essentially won the lottery, earning fantastic salaries now and, because of generous pensions, until they die.

(Rusty McAllister, the firefighter lobbyist here, says his members are dying young, pointing to dangerous working conditions, both burning buildings and working with hazardous materials, that he says has led to an alarming spike in certain cancers.)

This small, highly paid workforce has been a bipartisan choice, but Democrats in particular, as the party closest to public employees, need some introspection. They are sympathetic to a robust public sector that helps those who can’t help themselves, educates the young and smooths out the rough seas of unfettered capitalism. OK, fine. But they need to ask themselves which of those goals are accomplished by helping some firefighters get rich.

I don’t recall “rich firefighters” as an unfinished plank of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future agenda.

So this debate is worth having.

Let’s review some facts.

• Per capita we have fewer public employees, both state and local, than every state in the union. Bloated government? Hardly.

• State workers, who do not have collective bargaining rights, averaged 7 percent above the national average in 2009, or $56,688.

• Local government employees, who do have collective bargaining rights, made $56,935, or 15 percent more than the national average.

• Of 115,400 state and local employees, 79,000 made more than the national average.

• Given that firefighters, at 49 percent above the national average, and police, at 25 percent above average, so heavily skew the mean, we know some workers must be paid less than the national average. Which ones? Would you guess our educators? You’d be right! We pay college instructors 9 percent less than the national average and teachers 4 percent less than the national average. Priorities.

• Aguero calculates that if we pay local government employees the national average — professors and teachers aren’t in this pool — then we’d save $1.7 billion over two years. In Nevada we don’t have home rule — local governments are pretty much at the mercy of the state. Still, the state can’t just by fiat reduce salaries like that and take the savings. There are contracts. Bottom line: The state’s financial hole can’t be solved in the short term by doing anything to those firefighters.

About those contracts: Some say the rules governing the contract negotiations need to be fixed to give local government more leverage against the unions, a subject I’ll take up in my next column. This would seem to be a key negotiating item as Democrats try to win over a few Republican votes needed to get more revenue to pay for education and social services.

I can understand Democrats’ reluctance to sell out their friends, the public employee unions. Politics is usually an us-vs.-them affair, and Democrats are right to be suspicious of Republican motives — for a long time the Republican Party and its rich allies have sought to destroy the labor movement.

But if the choice is between protecting generous compensation for a few chosen public employees or cuts to education and social services and health care, there should be no choice at all.

Throw them overboard.

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