Bargaining between Clark County and its firefighters union is dragging on as the city of Las Vegas and the Clark County School District approach cost-cutting deals with their unions.
The firefighters have drawn attention because they have yet to offer what most commissioners think are reasonable concessions in pay and benefits to help the county deal with a $57 million budget shortfall.
Also, Fire Department managers and firefighters are among the best-paid county employees. Thirty-eight of the county's top 50 earners in 2009 were firefighters, many of them making more than $200,000 a year.
Pressure on county unions to make concessions is mounting as the county faces a June 1 deadline for submitting a balanced budget to the state.
To close some of the gap, County Manager Virginia Valentine has asked departments to submit plans for cutting staff by an average of 8 percent. The remaining holes must be filled by trimming wages and benefits, officials say.
The county has laid off 105 employees from development services and comprehensive planning. University Medical Center, the county-run public hospital, announced Friday it would lay off as many as 60 workers.
County Commissioner Rory Reid said the pending deals at the city and school district underscore the firefighters' lack of cooperation. "I will continue to put pressure on our Clark County firefighters," Reid said. "If they remain unwilling, I will find a way to do it."
The firefighters' contract is set to expire in July. Unlike in the city, rules set up for county bargaining impose the equivalent of a gag order on negotiators, making it almost impossible to get a clear idea of how labor talks are going.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she heard from staffers that the county has had "good discussions" with the firefighters.
The firefighters union is the only county union that has made proposals, she said. Whereas, the local Service Employees International Union has barely begun talking to the county.
SEIU's contract was extended to mid-2011 in return for a reduction of cost-of-living raises to 1 percent from 3 percent. Union leaders agreed to discuss some portions of the contract this year.
Giunchigliani said the city's tentative deal with its firefighters might set a benchmark for the county to follow.
"I suspect firefighters in both (the city and county) groups have talked to each other and have an idea of the direction each is going," she said.
Under the pending deal, city firefighters would lose cost-of-living raises for a year and defer uniform allowances for a year, and the Fire Department would beef up its reserve staff known as "rovers" to curb overtime. New firefighters would be hired at a 5 percent lower wage, and the city would contribute less to health insurance benefits.
At the school district, the teachers union is leaning toward forgoing longevity pay for a year.
Ryan Beaman, head of the county firefighters union, e-mailed a brief statement saying talks with the county are going well.
Beaman has said repeatedly that overtime is the main cause of firefighters' rising labor costs and can be cured by hiring more people.
County firefighters rang up more than $15 million in overtime last year.
Commissioner Susan Brager said Friday she is disappointed that the firefighters union has been reluctant to chip in during tough economic times.
"We cannot continue on the way we did in the past 20 or 30 years," Brager said. "We all need to part of the solution."
The 38 firefighters in the top 50 earners surpass the 32 firefighters in last year's top 50. Most are battalion chiefs and fire captains who do supervisory tasks and are at a higher pay grade but who qualify for overtime under a union contract.
Eight fire engineers and four rank-and-file firefighters made the list.
Several firefighters received final separation pay, pumping up their yearly total. Overtime often inflated the wages. For instance, Kelly McNamara, a fire engineer, has a base wage of $44,000 and earned almost $99,000 in overtime. Fire Capt. Leo Durkin made about $82,000 in regular pay and $83,000 in overtime.
A representative at a conservative Nevada think tank said hiring more firefighters would be better than paying such hefty overtime.
"You should be able to hire a firefighter for less than $100,000," said Geoffrey Lawrence, researcher for the Las Vegas-based Nevada Policy Research Institute.
County firefighters are digging in because they don't want to lose their high salary structure, but their leverage will wane as other local unions make concessions, Lawrence said.
County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said that the city's tentative deal contains some good measures but that the county shouldn't stop there.
"That's a beginning," he said. "It's a first step."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.