Two rival candidates for the Clark County Commission diverged sharply on Wednesday when describing how they would cut labor costs to allay a budget crunch that could deepen by the time the winner takes office next year.
Mary Beth Scow, a Democrat, and Douglas Bell, a Republican, agreed that labor costs, which make up the lion's share of the county budget, must be trimmed, especially if tax revenue keeps sagging.
However, as Scow talked of revising union contracts to make the costs more sustainable, she avoided criticizing the unions.
"Negotiators must be watchful of what they're negotiating, so in the future it's not something that will snowball," Scow said.
Bell bashed the unions -- especially the firefighters -- and said they exerted too much influence on the all-Democratic commission.
"The firefighters have acted like an elite group," Bell said. "It's time to see a shared sacrifice."
This was the first public forum in the general election that featured commission candidates. Scow and Bell are vying for the District G seat that Rory Reid, who is running for governor, is vacating at the end of the year.
The Associated General Contractors and the Framing Contractors Association sponsored the event at the Texas Station casino.
The two candidates touted their government backgrounds. Scow served 12 years on the Clark County School Board. Bell is a former county housing official.
An audience member asked how they would approach cutting costs and pointed to Commissioner Steve Sisolak as one who takes an aggressive tack.
"I'm going to be to the right of Steve Sisolak," Bell said, adding that the board was in serious need of a Republican.
Scow said she would be independent and fair-minded.
"I would always make decisions based on facts," she said.
Both Scow and Bell thought the county should not have diverted capital funds to preserve jobs, though they differed on their reasons.
With a capital project such as new road, you build something, employ people and wind up with an asset that serves the public, Scow said. Using that money to hold onto some jobs for a year can be hollow, she said.
"The only thing it does is put off the problem," Scow said. "It's a temporary fix."
Bell argued that the county should've laid off the 500 workers as initially planned rather than using capital money to plug financial holes. Patching up the budget gave unions less reason to make concessions, he said.
Local governments' layoffs have been light when compared to, say, construction in which thousands of people have lost jobs, Bell said.
"I would think that would be something that would make you angry," Bell told an audience filled with contractors.
County workers often are paid better to do the same job as private sector employees, when the two really should be getting comparable pay, Bell said. He argued that public employees should pay more of the cost for their retirement benefits.
Scow said the county needs to "close the loopholes" on pensions. Some people receive three times more money after they retire than what they were paid in their best earning years, Scow said.
She thought differences should be resolved without going to binding arbitration, as the county and firefighters union are preparing to do.
In arbitration, there's no compromise, she said. An arbitrator picks one side's offer and rejects the other.
"So I think binding arbitration is a very harmful thing," Scow said.
Both candidates said balancing next year's budget will be even more daunting if the state, which faces a $3 billion shortfall, raids the county's coffers. The state also is expected to make local governments responsible for more social, medical and educational programs, they said.
"I think we're going to see some major unfunded mandates coming down," Bell said.
"We will be having more services (to pay for) at the local level," she said. "It will be a challenge."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@review journal.com or 702-455-4519.