County union leader argues against proposed budget cuts


The head of Clark County's largest public employee union on Tuesday spoke against department heads drafting plans for 9 percent budget rollbacks, arguing that the cuts would come too heavily through layoffs.

"Why does it have to be on the backs of our employees?" said Al Martinez, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1107. "I think we're an easy target to solve the problems."

SEIU represents roughly 9,500 county workers.

Martinez also balked at the union making concessions to help meet the 9 percent targets, saying, "We need to hold the line and maintain what we have."

The union's resistance to county officials' efforts to slash labor costs amid a budget crisis mirrors a nationwide trend as local governments struggle with less revenue in the prolonged recession.

It was union leaders' hardest stance on threatened cutbacks, but it came with the awareness that if they don't agree to concessions, more workers could lose their jobs.

Clark County managers have requested that three dozen departments submit the cost-cutting plans by March 23, when commissioners will start reviewing the county's preliminary budget.

Nine percent cuts would result in about $40 million in savings and as many as 400 layoffs, according to county estimates.

County officials insist that reducing staff and employees' compensation are the main avenues left for trimming costs.

They say that severe measures are needed to offset a $30 million drop in tax revenue that is expected to worsen after property owners finishing appealing their assessments this month.

The losses are aside from an anticipated money grab by the state that could cost the county $125 million a year.

SEIU spokesman Nick DiArchangel said county managers have hinted that they would prefer a mixture of layoffs and concessions to fill budget holes, rather than leaning too heavily on one or the other.

But many union members oppose giving up pay and benefits, DiArchangel said. They contend that they saved the county $10 million by lowering their cost-of-living raises to 1 percent from 3 percent, and the county still laid off workers, he said.

"The members have said, 'We've done our part,' " DiArchangel said, adding that they know the risk of drawing a battle line. "Ultimately, the employer has the flexibility of layoffs."

Union leaders are confident that county officials can find other ways to save money, whether it is revamping overpriced contracts with outside vendors or putting off buying high-tech systems, he said.

"It's time to crack open the books and look at the money and see how it is spent," DiArchangel said.

But county spokesman Erik Pappa said it is questionable whether the employees have truly done their part.

If they had frozen their pay the way managers have since 2008, the county would have saved $35 million, Pappa said. "We wouldn't be in this predicament."

If workers were to accept a 5 percent reduction in wages and benefits, similar to what firefighters gave up, the county could save $20 million and preserve 200 jobs, Pappa said.

A study by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce that was released Monday found the state's public workers were the ninth highest paid in the nation, receiving average annual pay of $56,872 in 2009. That is 13 percent higher than the national average of $50,187.

But the study found that Nevada ranked last in the number of public workers per capita, with 43.6 for every 1,000 residents in 2009.

Labor advocates and some commissioners say the county's overall staffing is even more strained after managers slashed or left vacant 1,500 jobs and laid off about 300 people in the past 18 months.

"I don't want to add to our unemployment rate," Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said.

She didn't say whether she thought employees' wages should be reduced.

SEIU's resistance to cutting jobs and employees' compensation comes while the union and managers are deadlocked on bargaining part of the labor contract.

The contract was extended for a year in 2009 after the union agreed to reduce cost-of-living raises. As part of the deal, the two sides agreed to negotiate money-related terms, such as wages.

Meanwhile, the full contract is set to expire in July, adding pressure for the two parties to resolve the current stalemate so they can start bargaining soon to renew the contract.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said the county and SEIU have been at the table for most of a year and achieved nothing. Protracted bargaining is made more fruitless by pay cuts not being retroactive, he said.

"Sooner or later we're going to run out of road," Sisolak said.

Sisolak called on the union to fulfill its earlier "save our services" mantra by making concessions.

He credited union members for identifying a capital reserve, known as Fund 437, that shaved $75 million from last year's gaping shortfall. They should pursue the same kind of creative solutions, he said.

Giunchigliani said there will be no quick and easy way out of this financial bind. "This is going to be a tough one," she said.

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

 

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