Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A five-year proposed contract with union employees of the Regional Transportation Commission has onlookers scratching their heads, while the new head of Southern Nevada’s transit agency is singing the agreement's praises.
“This is huge progress,” said Tina Quigley, who a month ago became general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.
Under terms of the proposed contract, RTC union employees will maintain merit and cost-of-living pay — though they will be calculated differently — and longevity pay, also changed, will remain.
The commission board will consider the contract this morning.
Comparing the proposal to other contracts, Carol Vilardo, head of the Nevada Taxpayers Alliance, who for decades has kept a close eye on local government budgets, said she found it “pretty unbelievable.”
“The RTC has increased bus fares, they’ve shortened hours on some routes, and given the concessions that have been acknowledged and made by other (unions). I find it difficult to believe a contract of that type would be entertained by the board.”
The Transportation Commission’s board is made up of representatives from Clark County, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Las Vegas, Mesquite and Boulder City.
Board Chairman Larry Brown, a county commissioner, could not be reached for comment.
Quigley said she was effusive about the new contract. She says it includes a first-time concession locally by the Service Employees International Union, the union to which transit employees belong. Union members do not include bus drivers and mechanics, who work for private companies that have contracts with the Transportation Commission.
“It’s the first time in this valley any SEIU bargaining agency has moved in regard to longevity,” Quigley said.
Terms of the proposed contract say existing employees will keep their longevity pay, which is equal to 0.57 percent of their salary. But the rate for new employees was reduced to 0.3 percent.
Longevity pay was devised years ago as a way to hire and keep new employees. Lately, though, unions have given it up, conceding that in the poor economy the benefit isn’t needed — no one is leaving a job because it’s so hard to find another one.
Asked during a conference call if the Transportation Commission had difficulty finding transit workers to fill union jobs, Jerry Keating, assistant general manager, replied “no.” He added that contract negotiations are a matter of “give and take” and you don’t always get everything you want.
“Ideally,” he added, “everyone would like to get rid of longevity.”
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who also sits on the RTC board, agreed the longevity concession was a “huge change that, I think, bodes well for future contract negotiations, too.”
During budget hearings in April and May, RTC officials noted that fixed-route service hours will have fallen from a peak of 1.55 million in 2009 to 1.325 million by the end of the current fiscal year. That’s a drop of 225,000 hours.
The RTC’s budget this fiscal year is about $490 million, down from about $525 million last year. Some 6 percent of the budget, which is funded mostly through sales taxes, goes for salaries and benefits.
To attack an $8.3 million budget deficit, the board earlier this year approved some restrictions on passes for paratransit service, increased fares for Strip routes and increased the cost of reduced-fare passes. Regular route fares did not increase.
Transportation Commission officials say they now expect long-term savings through their new contract, even though union members will maintain cost-of-living pay raises and merit pay increases. Subtle changes to how those two areas of pay are calculated will pay dividends, Keating said.
According to terms of the proposed contract, union members will receive cost-of-living raises equal to the average that the consumer price index increased in Western states over three previous years. When the RTC was tied to the county system, Quigley said, cost-of-living adjustments seemed more subjective.
“We’re taking out the politics of setting those numbers,” she added. “We have never done that before.”
Merit pay is going to be tied to sales taxes, which is a new strategy.
Currently, merit pay raises can be at rates of 3, 4 or 5 percent and are based on different performance levels. Under the new contract, an increase in sales tax revenues must occur for employees to be eligible for merit pay. If revenues increase less than 3.49 percent, no one gets a merit increase; if 3.5 to 4.49 percent, employees are eligible 3 percent increases; if 4.5 to 5.49 percent, they get 3.5 percent; and if 5.5 percent or more, they can be eligible for 4 percent merit increases.
If that system had been in place over the past three years, employees would have been eligible for merit pay in two out of three years.
Merit pay isn’t automatic, Keating noted. Employees will still have to be judged “proficient” to get the increase.
One of the biggest changes will be in sick-leave calculations, which Keating said would save the RTC about $178,000 per year.
Currently hourly and salaried employees are allotted a certain amount of sick leave each year. While union employees will maintain their allotment, and be eligible to later cash in those hours, salaried employees will get no sick-leave allotment. With no allotment, there is nothing to cash in down the road.
Asked how bus riders would feel about the new contract, given some route changes and fare increases in recent years, Quigley said she thought they would be “excited to see we have a contract that allows very sound budgeting so we don’t have to make drastic cuts as the economy changes.”
The board meeting begins this morning at 8:45.