Firefighters oppose report calling for cuts


About 200 firefighters wearing yellow T-shirts made a unified show of force Tuesday as Clark County commissioners received an advisory panel's report that includes recommendations to reduce firefighters' overtime pay and eliminate paramedic teams.

The report is a culmination of the panel members' talks over several months and votes they cast two weeks ago.

The 15-person Committee on Community Priorities was created in July to discuss making departments leaner in the face of a growing budget shortfall.

Commissioners got the report on a day the county finance director estimated that plummeting tax revenue will put the county more than $150 million in the hole and perhaps as much as $200 million. The previous estimate was $126 million.

Firefighters packed the Government Center's auditorium. A sea of yellow shirts could be seen in seats, aisles and the main hallway.

"I think a little controversy is a good thing," said Commissioner Rory Reid, looking out at the crowd.

The report was presented at the meeting as a "business item," which doesn't allow public comment. Commissioners agreed to discuss the recommendations piecemeal in the coming months and let the public weigh in.

The suggestions included consolidating services, cutting some jobs and adding a clause to labor contracts that would automatically reduce wages in dire economic times.

Most panel members indicated they thought firefighters' labor costs, especially overtime pay, should be reduced. Some favored eliminating Fire Department paramedics and assigning all emergency care to ambulance carriers.

Outside the meeting, the leader of the local firefighters union said panel members went strictly on the overview they got from the fire chief, giving them a skewed view.

"They never met with the men and women that provide the service," said Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908.

Many people don't realize that fire-and-rescue paramedics have more stringent standards to meet than private carriers, such as a response time of seven minutes or less, Beaman said. "We are able to serve the public quicker and better."

Beaman said he hopes firefighters will be included in future discussions.

Yes, overtime is high, he said, but the department is understaffed. The national standard calls for an area to have 1.22 firefighters per 1,000 residents, Beaman said. Clark County has 0.7 firefighters for every 1,000.

Other union leaders complained that the panel worked with one-sided data.

The committee got most of its information from managers and little from rank-and-file workers and people who use the services, said Al Martinez, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1107. SEIU represents most of the county's employees.

Martinez and another SEIU official on the panel refused to vote on recommendations.

Some members didn't understand that you can't stick a wage-reducing clause in a contract without the union's blessing, Martinez said. "I'm not going to deviate from the contract."

Martinez said it was unfair to lay all the blame on workers, especially when they saved the county $15 million by taking a smaller cost-of-living raise.

Nancy Brune, who co-chaired the panel, said some members thought the information they received was incomplete. She agreed with union officials that they should have heard more from people who weren't in management.

County Commissioner Tom Collins said deciding which recommendations to accept or reject will become political.

He said the answer is never to cut workers' pay. "If they're not worth what you're paying them, then you should fire them," Collins said.

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

 

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