Amount in fund remains question for union, county


Clark County leaders and union officials agreed on one thing Tuesday.

A fund that covers assorted costs such as repairing roofs, replacing vehicles and whittling down hospital debt has at least $54 million that can be used to preserve services and jobs.

A question that never got resolved, though, is the total amount of money that can be diverted to services in what many expect will be a prolonged budget crunch.

Known as Fund 437, the reserve is a blend of surplus tax dollars from the previous year and money earmarked for unfinished projects. It is unrestricted except for money already committed to contractors.

County staff estimated after weeks of crunching numbers that $54 million could be tapped without question.

But the researcher for the Service Employees International Union, who perused the county's latest data, insisted more than $240 million was available.

The dollar amount proved elusive enough for Commissioner Rory Reid to suggest that financial gurus from the county and union sit down, trade notes and determine the correct sum.

"Somebody is right, and somebody is wrong," Reid said. "We can't have a conversation without a mutual understanding of what the facts are."

Meanwhile, the commissioners agreed to cancel or delay the projects necessary to free up the $54 million.

The money will be set aside until the board decides how to spend it, said Don Burnette, the county's chief administrative officer.

Delayed projects include razing the Bridger Building for $5.6 million and building a public works service center for $30 million.

"We make sure this money is focused on services and preventing downsizing," Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said he understood the push to salvage jobs in the bad economy but thinks the county should act quickly to augment social programs that aid the most vulnerable.

"How do we have those conversations about filling those holes ... saving lives?" Weekly said.

A union leader thanked commissioners for both acknowledging that a hefty reserve exists and for considering the union's estimates.

"We're very appreciative of what's taken place here," said Al Martinez, SEIU president.

Union officials think that the more money the fund has, the better job security the union's members have.

Outside the meeting, Mike Ward, an SEIU researcher, said the county's latest data showed money projected to be spent and not the actual money in the fund.

A relatively small portion gets spent each year -- for instance, about $40 million last year -- leaving a huge amount in the pot, Ward said. He estimates that 15 percent of the current fund would add up to $60 million.

"I'd say that's a pretty good start," Ward said.

County staff looked through 150 projects on the list and determined which ones were not too far along to be scrapped or postponed, said Yolanda King, the county's financial planning director.

That is mostly how they arrived at the $54 million estimate, King said.

But Commissioner Steve Sisolak pointed to a column on the spreadsheet tagged "encumbrances." He asked whether the label meant the funds were committed or tied up.

Not necessarily, King said. The money could be earmarked for a project in an early stage, making it available, she said.

Sisolak said her statement suggested there was more money available than $54 million.

King said she would explore how much of the money could be freed up.

"At the end of the day these funds are accumulated through the taxpayers," SEIU spokeswoman Amber Lopez Lasater said. "We have the right to see what's there."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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