Firefighting labor rift continues

Firefighters union officials and Clark County leaders traded the latest barbs Monday as they prepare for arbitration.

The county and its firefighters union have been stalemated for six months and aim to resolve their dispute in an arbitration hearing set for early November.

County officials have said from the start they would take a tougher stance with the firefighters union than they did in past contract negotiations when rapid growth pumped up tax revenues.

Times have changed since the firefighters' last contract was sealed four years ago. An economic slump has mired the county in a two-year budget crunch that could worsen next year if state lawmakers dip into local coffers to help offset an estimated $3 billion state shortfall.

Firefighters face the prospect of possibly having their compensation rolled back for the first time ever.

In an e-mail, the union's leader accused county commissioners of using the media to gain leverage and the county's negotiators of rigidly rejecting all the union's offers.

"Time and time again we have had county commissioners trumpeting their positions in the newspapers day in and day out," wrote Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908. "It is clear that some of them have no idea what they are talking about."

Commissioner Rory Reid, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said it was ironic that Beaman would accuse commissioners of using the media in an e-mail he wrote to a reporter.

"I'm disappointed that we've been unable to reach an agreement," Reid said. "An arbiter is going to decide who is reasonable."

The hearing is Nov. 1 and, if necessary, Nov. 2 and 8. Norman Brand, a San Francisco attorney who has been an arbitrator for 27 years, will adjudicate.

The two sides chose him from a list of seven candidates through a process of elimination. The county and union will submit their final offers at the end of the hearing, at which time they will become public.

Brand will choose one offer within 10 days. In arbitration, one side wins, with no compromise. Brand has extensive experience and has made decisions favoring unions and management, said Don Burnette, the county's chief administrative officer and head negotiator.

"He's kind of middle of the road," Burnette said.

For example, he ruled for employers in two Oregon disputes: the Multnomah County public employees in 2008 and the Winston-Dillard Fire District in 2005. But he chose the police union's offer in a Coos Bay, Ore., dispute.

In a 2003 fact-finding hearing, he recommended some of what the city of Las Vegas offered and some of what the firefighters union offered.

In the current dispute between Clark County and its firefighters, union officials declared an impasse in talks in August after offering what they contend was $9.7 million in concessions. County leaders rebuffed it, arguing that most of the savings would come from cuts in programs they could make without the union's say-so.

The two sides had agreed to refrain from commenting on talks when they began in March. In June the union went on a six-week advertising blitz that bashed the county for disbanding several fire crews and diverting the employees to a relief staff to cut overtime costs.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said Beaman is hypocritical when he accuses commissioners of trying to grab headlines.

"How can you be more blatant than buying newspaper and TV ads?" Sisolak said. "The county can't afford to do that."

Beaman, however, said county officials were the ones guilty of hypocrisy.

The union has been accused of stalling, Beaman said, but it was willing to accept an Oct. 4 arbitration hearing, which county officials rejected because they wanted more time.

Firefighters were slammed recently for receiving a higher wage, known as premium pay, for medical certification, Beaman said. The union was willing to eliminate premium pay in contract negotiations in past years, but the offers were rejected, he said.

"They continue with their on-going attacks, while at the same time they are losing opportunities that they have stated that could save taxpayers real money," Beaman said. "Who is really running the county anyway?"

Sisolak said he's confident the county now would be glad to erase premium pay.

"OK, give it up," Sisolak said. "I'm willing to take it. Give it up, right now."

Burnette said the county wasn't delaying. Key county staffers were unavailable the first week of October, and the arbitrator was booked up the rest of the month, he said.

Commissioner Tom Collins said Beaman and Burnette clash.

"The two of them are oil and water," Collins said. "That makes it difficult to negotiate."

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