Employee union, county reach pact on concessions

About 5,500 members of Clark County's largest employee union would take a 2 percent reduction in their base wages under a tentative agreement that members will vote on at the end of March.

The wage decrease would save the county an estimated $8.3 million a year.

If the union workers approve that and other smaller concessions, county commissioners will vote on the changes April 5. They would go into effect on April 16.

"We're glad to reach a tentative agreement on the wage concession," County Manager Don Burnette said in a statement. "This will help relieve pressure on the county's strained budget."

But it's not clear whether the concessions will be enough to avert layoffs as the county wrestles with a growing shortfall because falling tax revenue and an expected money grab by the financially strapped state.

Although workers' base pay would drop by 2 percent, roughly 70 percent of them still would be eligible for merit raises of 3 percent to 4 percent and a 1 percent cost-of-living raise.

The proposed concessions came last week at the end of mediation between the county and the Service Employees International Union Local 1107.

County managers' announcement that they and nonunion employees would take a 2 percent pay cut persuaded union leaders to break from their "hold the line" stance on compensation, said Nick DiArchangel, union spokesman.

Those salary reductions would save an estimated $3.3 million in a year. Commissioners are expected to approve them today.

"That was a big, pivotal moment," DiArchangel said. "We have asked for shared sacrifice. We've said, 'How can you keep taking from our lowest-paid workers when your managers are making so much?' "

Union officials also wanted to avoid fact-finding, a precursor to arbitration, because it would hand too much decision-making to a third party, he said.

Aside from reduced pay, the union proposes the following:

■ No longer counting sick leave toward overtime. That means if a worker spends three hours at the doctor's office, that time would not be counted as part of the work day.

■ New hires paying 10 percent of their base pay into the Public Employee Retirement System. Current employees, who pay roughly 5 percent, would be grandfathered in.

County union workers average about $80,000 a year in pay and benefits. The SEIU represents a broad range of county jobs, from maintenance workers and electricians to clerks and administrative assistants.

A recent Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study showed that public employees in Nevada are among the best compensated in the country but also have the thinnest staffing relative to the populations they serve.

A study by the county last year pointed to many county workers earning less than their counterparts in neighboring cities and regional districts.

Reducing union workers' base wages with managers' and nonunion employees' pay adds up to decent savings of almost $12 million, Commissioner Steve Sisolak said, calling it a good start.

"It's not the end of the journey," Sisolak said, suggesting that more concessions will be needed in the coming year.

Commissioner Mary Beth Scow spoke favorably of the union's offer.

"I'm sure we'd all like to see it go farther, but it's a big step," Scow said. "I appreciate that they're taking that step ... to save jobs."

Burnette has told three dozen department heads to draft plans to snip their costs by 9 percent, mostly through reduced staffing. The cost-cutting steps would save about $40 million and result in as many as 400 layoffs.

Sagging tax revenue has created a $30 million shortfall that is expected to worsen after a record number of property owners finish appealing their assessed values this week.

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

Union officials have complained that the county work force is strained because of 1,500 jobs slashed or left vacant, and 300 employees laid off in the past 18 months.

That leaves few expendable jobs, they argue.

County officials have said that workers could give up some pay and perks to preserve jobs.

Managers' pay has been frozen in the past three years while SEIU workers received 13 percent in raises, costing $35 million, officials say.

Those include 3 percent merit raises each of those three years and cost-of-living bumps of 3 percent in 2008 and 1 percent in 2009.

DiArchangel said he expects commissioners today to assess how many jobs will be saved by all the pay reductions.

"I'm sure we'll learn a lot in the commission meeting," he said.

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