When a firefighter can commute from Alabama, there’s a problem


North Las Vegas’ greedy public safety unions have plenty of skin in the game — the hides they’ve collected from suffering city taxpayers.

For too long, firefighters and police haven’t shared in the fiscal pain they’ve long inflicted on the city. The overwhelming majority of them don’t live where they work. It explains why North Las Vegas public safety workers have been so hostile to the people who pay them, demanding generous increases to some of the highest local government salaries in the country, despite one of the worst municipal fiscal crises in America.

And this aggression isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Although the city’s unions last week finally agreed to pay-raise concessions to prevent layoffs and a state takeover of North Las Vegas government, two bargaining groups refused to accept what had been one of city management’s highest priorities in revising employment contracts: a requirement that all future hires live in the city.

At the City Council’s April 2 meeting, Mayor John Lee wanted to be absolutely certain that a residency requirement was in the settlement language. He was adamant that his police and firefighters have theirown skin in the game, just as those in many other cities do. The city’s initial offers to the unions, in preserving every existing city job without salary or benefit cuts, included a mandate that future hires live inside city limits within six months of accepting a job, if they weren’t residents in the first place.

However, city spokesman Mitch Fox said Friday that only the Teamsters union, which represents the city’s non-public safety workers, and the Police Officers Association agreed to the residency requirement for future hires. The city’s firefighters and police supervisors refused to accept the requirement.

The problem of North Las Vegas public safety workers living outside the city is getting worse by the year. Today, 95 percent of the city’s 151 firefighters live elsewhere, according to records provided by the city. In 2012, as reported by the Las Vegas Sun’s J. Patrick Coolican, 92 percent of city Fire Department employees lived outside North Las Vegas. And in 2011, when the residency issue was first reported by the Nevada Journal’s Kyle Gillis, 90 percent of North Las Vegas firefighters lived outside the city.

The residency problem is so acute among North Las Vegas firefighters that more live outside Clark County than inside the city. Just eight firefighters call North Las Vegas home, while eight live outside the state. Six live in Utah, one lives in Idaho and one commutes from Alabama.

Alabama.

One firefighter lives in Carson City and another lives in Wellington, in Lyon County. Firefighters make so much money — a typical North Las Vegas firefighter receives more than $170,000 per year in total compensation (including benefits) — and can schedule their 24-hour shifts in such a favorable way that daylong commutes aren’t a problem, even if they involve commercial flights.

The residency issue isn’t much better among police. More than 77 percent of the city’s 260 police officers live elsewhere — up from 74 percent in 2011 — and more than 80 percent of the 37 North Las Vegas police supervisors live outside the city.

The issue of residency goes far beyond public employees spending their taxpayer-funded salaries at taxpaying North Las Vegas businesses, instead of removing the money from the municipal economy (or the state). It’s about making them live with the services they provide — and the reduced services that will result from their outrageous salary demands. It’s about making them pay the higher taxes they call for. It’s about making them live with potential cuts to libraries, parks and other services, fire station brownouts and reduced police patrols.

The city was at risk of such cuts because a District Court judge recently upheld some $25 million worth of pay raises suspended by the council through an illegal emergency declaration two years ago. The city doesn’t have the money (hence the emergency declaration), so it offered the unions a choice: much smaller raises or layoffs.

During a March 11 hearing before the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board that addressed the North Las Vegas pay raise dispute, Police Officers Association attorney Jeffrey Allen offered the city suggestions to help cover the cost of police salary increases.

“There’s plenty of things that they (city officials) could do,” Allen argued. “They could sell off assets, they could close a park, they could close a library. They could lay off non-public-safety employees. They could even raise taxes.”

This scenario would allow a North Las Vegas cop to stick city residents with higher tax bills while leaving them with fewer parks and only two libraries to serve 230,000 people. Then that same cop could go home to Summerlin or Henderson and enjoy a lower tax rate, a nearby library and plenty of park space. That’s why it’s not unusual to see North Las Vegas vehicles many miles away from the city — its employees are headed home.

City officials had argued that laying off police officers would have a detrimental effect on public safety. Interestingly, that’s the exact same argument North Las Vegas police made in 2011 when, in response to potential officer layoffs because of a lack of contract concessions, the union put up signs at the city limits that said, “Warning: Due to recent police layoffs we can no longer guarantee your safety!” Another showed a masked man holding a gun. Heads exploded within the business community, and residents were outraged, but union leaders were adamant that fewer officers meant increased response times and more opportunities for bad guys to get away with violent crime and property crime.

During last month’s Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board hearing, however, Allen took it all back.

“It was a PR message,” Allen told the board regarding the 2011 stunt. “A PR message is not any evidence of any sort of impact, any sort of public safety impact. One of the things said is, ‘The POA can no longer guarantee your safety.’ That’s hyperbole. Obviously, the police can’t guarantee anybody’s safety.”

Translation: Now that the city has turned our own argument against us, of course it’s baloney.

Would the union have done something so outrageous if every police officer were a North Las Vegas resident and had to explain the stunt to neighbors and friends?

The unions had been intent on pushing the city into state receivership, Nevada’s alternative to municipal bankruptcy, with the hope that the Department of Taxation would impose tax increases on North Las Vegas residents. All so firefighters and police could collect pay raises. Raises!

But Gov. Brian Sandoval attended last week’s last-ditch talks to help the unions understand that receivership would not be to their liking. A city source told the Review-Journal’s James DeHaven the state delegation to the talks made it clear that unelected officials would not balance North Las Vegas’ books with a massive tax increase.

But the firefighters and police supervisors made sure their future members won’t have to live within the municipal dystopia their unions helped create. That they fought so hard to avoid relying on their own service says everything.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Resuming April 21, listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.