City might close for one week

If you have business to conduct with the city of Henderson this year, don't put it off until after Christmas.

Nevada's second largest city will close its offices for the last week of 2010 under a proposal slated for City Council approval on Tuesday.

If council members sign off on the idea, Henderson will join Las Vegas and North Las Vegas in closing down between Christmas and New Year's.

The difference is Henderson employees will be paid for their time off, while workers in the other two cities will take unpaid furlough days that week as part of union budget concessions.

Henderson Human Resources Director Fred Horvath said the city's agreement with the Teamsters Union designates Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day as paid holidays, even when they fall -- as they do this year -- on regularly scheduled days off.

Rather than pay union workers roughly $600,000 in cash for those holidays on top of their regular wages, the city instead wants to observe the three holidays on Dec. 27, 28 and 29.

The union had to sign off on the contract change. To sweeten the deal, the city will give workers one additional day off with pay, Dec. 30, and close city offices for the entire four-day work week. City offices are not open on Fridays.

Horvath said Henderson is basically swapping vacation time for cash under the deal. The trade-off is a week of lost productivity, which would come during what is generally among the least productive weeks of the year when as much as three-fourths of city workers are on vacation anyway, he said.

"This is all about managing dollar expense in the least disruptive way possible," Horvath said.

Roughly 700 of Henderson's 1,850 full-time employees are represented by Teamsters Local 14, most of them clerical personnel, trades people, laborers and other blue-collar workers.

Last year the city stopped paying nonunion workers for holidays that do not fall on normal workdays, allowing them instead to "bank" those holidays to use as vacation later on.

Horvath said the Teamsters ratified the contract change last week over the objections of some rank-and-file workers who didn't want to give up what amounted to a holiday bonus in exchange for vacation time.

"It's a fair chunk of change at the holidays," Horvath said. "They may have had this money spent already."

But he acknowledged that such complaints probably won't find much sympathy among the unemployed or those in the private sector who don't regularly receive such holiday perks.

From a public relations standpoint, the city didn't do itself any favors by inadvertently mailing out an early version of Tuesday's City Council agenda to several dozen people.

Whoever wrote the draft version -- city spokesman Bud Cranor said he didn't know who it was -- described the extra day off with pay on Dec. 30 as "a one-time gift thanking all employees for their giving up of salary increases and benefits to help the city in this economic time."

That language, which was unlikely to play well with taxpayers or with employees who felt like they were giving instead of getting, disappeared from the final version of the agenda.

But while no one is talking about gifts anymore, both Horvath and Cranor said city workers do deserve credit for their willingness to sit down at the negotiating table and help Henderson through the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Over the past two years, the city has used buyouts and normal attrition to reduce its overall staffing by almost 200 positions, including 119 jobs that have been permanently eliminated.

Horvath said all of that has been done without a single involuntary layoff. For about 40 city workers, avoiding a pink slip meant accepting a transfer to another job and as much as a 40 percent cut in pay.

The remaining salaried work force has seen its pay cut by 9 to 16 percent through the reduction or elimination of benefits, Cranor said.

Horvath said Henderson seems to be weathering the recession better than some other municipalities because officials there reacted more quickly to the downturn.

The success of the city's buyout program and its amicable relationships with its bargaining units have also played a large role in staving off the more dramatic cuts and layoffs seen in other jurisdictions.

Cranor said it wasn't necessary to close out 2010 with a week of mandatory furlough days because "we already took those cuts two years ago."

Horvath said the other cities are "trying to catch up now kind of in crisis mode."

He added that the public sector in general is in the midst of what he called "a normalized progression toward more private-sector-like arrangements."

A 2008 report commissioned by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce showed that 96 percent of state and local government workers in Nevada enjoy a median income that is higher than their counterparts in the private sector.

The report also showed that the average state and local government employee is paid $47,450 annually, 28 percent more than the average private sector employee.

In a separate 2008 report, also commissioned by the Las Vegas chamber and updated in January, Nevada's local government workers ranked as the eighth highest paid in the nation.

The same report showed that only four states employed fewer local government workers per capita than Nevada.

If council members agree to shut down Henderson between Christmas and New Year's, not everyone will get the week off. Police and fire personnel will still be on the job, of course. Utility services and a few other departments also will keep a skeleton crew on the clock to handle emergency calls.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@review or 702-383-0350.