Firefighters, Las Vegas at an 'impasse' over new labor deal

Las Vegas firefighters have declared an impasse with the city over a new labor contract, kicking off what could be a long and expensive legal battle as city leaders seek to reshape the city-employee relationship.

"This is the very definition of an impasse," union President Dean Fletcher said in a statement released Thursday. "We have been negotiating in good faith all this time. We are at a point that we do not know how to characterize what is going on."

Mayor Oscar Goodman said what's going on is that the offer didn't get close enough to what city management says is needed from all employees -- giving up all raises and accepting 8 percent wage cuts.

"Fire feels that they've made concessions more than they've made in the past," Goodman said. "It wasn't enough. It didn't meet my needs as the mayor."

The matter now heads to a two-tiered process -- first fact-finding, then binding arbitration, in which each side makes its best offer and an arbitrator decides between the two. The dispute also could be settled at the fact-finding stage, Goodman said.

Still, the process could take as long as two years.

The firefighters' existing contract stays in place until the matter is resolved, Fletcher said.

Las Vegas has been cutting costs since the beginning of the recession, and since late last year, city leaders have been pushing for the 8 percent cuts as a way to prevent or at least reduce expected layoffs for the next budget year, which starts July 1.

The firefighters and the city were moving toward an agreement in early May that would have saved an estimated $2.7 million, well short of the $8.8 million city officials were seeking.

Firefighters union members voted to approve the deal Tuesday, which came as a surprise to city management.

"I am confused about why you would schedule a ratification vote," wrote the city's chief negotiator, Dan Tarwater, in a letter to Fletcher.

"The proposals discussed on May 4, 2010, were never signed as tentative agreements by the parties ... they do not constitute tentative agreements."

City Council members had already signaled that the proposed deal wouldn't be accepted.

Still, two of the components of that proposal were accepted by the city.

One would defer a $1,500 uniform allowance for a year, saving an expected $900,000. The other would increase the number of "rover" firefighters on duty, which is intended to reduce overtime costs.

The 601-member union will not sign those changes now, said Fletcher.

"We declared impasse," he said. "Nothing goes into effect."

No firefighters are included in the 200-plus layoffs the City Council approved recently.

City leaders have been grappling with a projected $80 million deficit in the coming budget year, but there are long-term concerns as well. City employees enjoy attractive wage and benefit packages, and in many cases are guaranteed annual raises that can reach 6 percent or 8 percent.

A 2008 study by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce found that, generally, government workers in Nevada make more than their counterparts in other states, and that Nevada's public entities are also more leanly staffed.

Las Vegas' arrangement was affordable when the city was booming. But city officials warn that even when the economy recovers, the city won't grow by leaps and bounds anymore, which means its budget can't, either.

That's led to the idea of a "new" city employee who would be less well compensated.

In the Fire Department proposal, for instance, starting firefighters would have been paid 5 percent less to start out than the existing pay structure.

It's an idea the city will continue to pursue: "If we can't change our culture now, we'll never change our culture," Goodman said.

Arbitration has not been kind to the city in the past, Goodman noted. "There's a history of arbitration, basically, where the city never wins," he said.

The city is not flush with money as it has been in the past, though, he added.

"There's never been a time in our economy like this," Goodman said. "It's a different era."

The firefighters were the only city union with a contract up for renegotiation this year. The other groups would have to vote to reopen their contracts to formally negotiate changes.

The Las Vegas City Employees Association, the city's largest with about 1,400 members, put forward some cost-cutting proposals, but the city deemed them too modest. No additional talks have been scheduled, Employees Association President Don King said Thursday.

The Las Vegas Peace Officers Association, which represents city corrections workers, did not discuss possible concessions.

The city's 75 marshals, meanwhile, represented by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, are working on concessions of around $1 million that will at least come close to meeting the 8 percent target. Those changes are on the City Council's agenda for Wednesday.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at or 702-229-6435.