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November 21, 2017

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Unions, cities spar over bill to change oversight of fire chiefs

The ongoing battle between firefighter unions and local governments took the stage in Carson City on Monday, as the two sides sparred over a bill that North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck said could have “disastrous” results.

Assembly Bill 420 would give city councils in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas the power to appoint the fire chief directly.

The move would give fire chiefs direct access to the city council, allowing them to bypass the city manager, who is currently responsible for hiring and managing the chiefs in both cities, in addition to overseeing collective bargaining negotiations with unions.

The bill seems unlikely to pass amidst strong opposition from the cities and skepticism from legislators, but it offers a peek at the ongoing tensions between the unions and cities, where contract negotiations have turned contentious.

In Las Vegas, negotiations between the city and the union have been stalled since an impasse was declared in May.

Firefighters have continued to work under the terms of the previous agreement, as the arbitration process runs its course.

At issue are concessions sought by the city that firefighters are reluctant to make after several years of cuts. With the city facing a projected $1 million budget deficit next year and Metro Police also seeking an increase in funding, it’s unclear where extra money for firefighters would come from.

In North Las Vegas, relations with the union have frayed after the city declared a fiscal emergency last year to force concessions on firefighters as part of a plan to close a $33 million budget gap.

During testimony before the Assembly Committee for Government Affairs, representatives for several fire unions denied the bill had collective bargaining implications and told of rifts between fire chiefs and city managers in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas that they say are threatening public safety.

“We perceive there’s an issue with communication with our fire chief and elected officials,” said North Las Vegas Firefighters Association president Jeff Hurley, who described information being filtered or prevented from reaching the council at the city manager level. “Our concern on this is the council and the mayor are not being fully apprised of things they need to make informed decisions about public safety.”

Representatives for Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, including North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck and Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, strongly opposed the bill, which they called unnecessary.

“If you have a fire chief being directed by five council members, it could be in all different directions,” Buck said. “(It) would be disastrous.”

Coffin said he wasn’t interested in taking a larger role in overseeing and managing the fire department.

“I frankly did not know about this specific issue until this bill was introduced,” he said. “We didn’t know that the objections were there and that they felt they need to cut the city managing team right out of the middle. They serve a purpose. That’s what they’re paid for.”

Members of the Assembly committee seemed skeptical of the bill and held it for more discussion at a future meeting.

Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, raised concerns that changing who the fire chief reports to could have unintended consequences and further hamper communication by subverting the normal day-to-day operations of city government.

“By bypassing city manager and going to the city council, it might be two to three weeks before you could get a hearing on the agenda,” he said.

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