Taxpayers, prepare to lose again


If you could choose, would you preserve valley police jobs at the expense of other, less-important public-sector positions, or would you pay higher taxes to bail out police budgets so the rest of the government workforce could collect big, fat pay raises?

That option wasn’t presented during last week’s sales tax showdown between Sheriff Doug Gillespie and the Clark County Commission. But it should have been. It would have put the policy battle in clearer perspective for taxpayers.

As far as the political class is concerned, the Metropolitan Police Department budget is a pot of tax money that can’t be considered alongside any other. That’s why Gillespie asked for (and was denied) a sales tax increase that would have poured tens of millions of new dollars into that pot every year, erasing a budget deficit, averting future job cuts and, eventually, allowing the force to hire about 100 new officers.

Clark County and the city of Las Vegas could have filled Gillespie’s budget hole simply by boosting their own general fund contributions to the department. But following that course would require taking money out of other pots that feed other public employee unions. How much money comes out of those pots is largely out of the control of elected officials, determined instead by collective bargaining and contract negotiations that take place behind closed doors.

One reason the County Commission is reluctant to raid the rest of its operating revenues to fund Metro: The county is in the process of negotiating new contracts with the Service Employees International Union Local 1107. The SEIU is asking for an arm and a leg, and an arbitrator might give the county no choice but to pay up.

The union and the county are in mediation for a contract for about 5,000 rank-and-file workers. These talks are not open to the public or the press (an insane policy the Legislature must correct), but I obtained an SEIU document that updates its members on just how far apart the sides are on pay raises.

The county is offering a three- to four-year contract that gives workers a 2 percent pay raise in the first year, along with merit pay raises. But the county has demanded a “financial reopener” for every year after that, meaning the two sides would have to sit down in subsequent years to negotiate additional pay raises. And it wants to eliminate longevity pay for future hires. Those raises give employees an annual 0.57 percent pay bump for every year of service at eight years and beyond. Getting rid of longevity pay would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars many years down the road.

Considering the county is still relying on reserves to balance its budget, it really shouldn’t be giving any pay raises that aren’t tied to performance. But it’s a wisely conservative offer that gives the government flexibility and protection against another recession.

“This proposal by Clark County gives SEIU members no guarantees,” the SEIU document says.

Well then, welcome to the world inhabited by everyone else.

The SEIU proposal is staggering in cost and audacity. It seeks a four-year contract with a 4 percent raise in the first year and 3 percent raises in each of the next three. Compounded, that’s almost a 14 percent raise over four years. For a bargaining group that has seen its members’ pay increase 13.5 percent since 2008. And the SEIU wants to preserve longevity pay for future hires — something Metro officers agreed to give up.

Amazingly, the SEIU offer is identical to the four-year deal it struck in early 2007 — a 4 percent raise and three years with 3 percent bumps — well before the valley economy melted down. In case the SEIU folks haven’t looked around or read the news for six years, it most definitely isn’t 2007 anymore.

A 1 percent across-the-board pay raise for all rank-and-file county workers costs about $5.2 million per year going forward, according to the county. The SEIU’s demands would cost the county an additional $70 million per year by the fourth year of the contract.

Which brings us back to Metro. Its current budget deficit is about $30 million, and it could rise to $40 million next year, according to Gillespie. The raises the SEIU wants could easily stop Metro’s bleeding, but the bargaining game doesn’t work that way.

The county and the SEIU are almost certainly headed to binding arbitration, which will result in the approval of one offer or the other — not something in between. And because the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recently awarded their unionized workers terms similar to what the SEIU is seeking, an arbitrator could hold that against the county.

Something else that won’t help the county’s case: county negotiators recently agreed to a three-year contract for University Medical Center employees that provides them with a 2 percent raise retroactive to Jan. 1, another 2 percent raise on July 1, and a 1.5 percent raise on July 1, 2015. Compounded, that’s a 5.6 percent raise over 18 months. The agreement also restores merit pay raises and ends a freeze on longevity pay while preserving longevity pay for future hires. That agreement, if approved by the commission, would add about $10 million in annual costs by the end of the deal.

UMC, unlike other county entities, competes against the private sector to attract and retain employees. UMC is losing nurses to other hospitals. But that won’t matter to the arbitrator who eventually takes up the SEIU-county contract.

If the County Commission eventually approves a sales tax increase to support police, and the SEIU gets the pay raises it wants, don’t think of them as separate issues, and don’t be surprised. The fix is in. The taxpayer always loses.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.