As cash-strapped North Las Vegas struggled to balance its budget in recent years, some employees continued to receive raises of up to 11 percent.
"These are raises taxpayers are funding," Councilwoman Anita Wood said. "These are raises taxpayers haven't been getting."
Wood and others have criticized some employee unions for not giving up more concessions to help keep the city solvent.
The 60 members of the Police Supervisors Union got their most recent cost-of-living raise -- 4.25 percent -- on July 1, at the same time North Las Vegas officials were warning that the city might soon have to declare a financial emergency and risks having its finances taken over by the state. The supervisors received the same raise last year.
The roughly 360 members of the Police Officers Association agreed to give up their July cost-of-living raises, but last year received a 4.25 percent wage increase. More than half of the members last year also received merit increases that ranged between 5 percent and 7 percent, city officials said.
The average salary and benefits package for North Las Vegas police officers up to the rank of chief is almost $157,000, according to the Police Department.
Union officials say the city has mismanaged its finances and failed to support public safety the way it should. Union officials also believe the city has money to spare and say that, in at least one case, city officials turned down their contract concession offers because they didn't like what the city was being asked to provide in return.
"We absolutely will cooperate when they are willing to cooperate," said Sgt. Leonard Cardinale, president of the police supervisors union. "But they're not good at negotiating. If they can't do it their way, they just try to take what they want. We can't just take our contract and say, 'We don't have one.' "
Now the city -- temporarily barred by court order from laying off police union members and cutting supervisors' benefits -- is scrambling to patch a $6.6 million hole in its budget.
Officials say if the unions don't soon cough up concessions, the city will have to choose from an unpalatable list of options, including raising taxes; laying off much of its remaining nonpublic safety staff, probably resulting in the closure of parks, pools and other city facilities; or selling its new $300 million wastewater treatment plant that is mired in a federal lawsuit. Otherwise, they say, they could be forced to declare a severe financial emergency.
North Las Vegas has gone through several rounds of budget cuts since late 2008 and eliminated or frozen about 1,000 positions. Its situation has been dire enough that almost as soon as one round of union contract concessions talks wraps up, another begins.
About 75 percent of the city's noncapital projects budget goes to pay employee salaries and benefits. A committee of business leaders and community members formed to study the city's budget last year warned that its spending on salaries and benefits was "out of whack" and unsustainable.
The city's repeated push for concessions has caused a rift between the public safety unions and the largest union in the city, Teamsters Local 14, which represents city workers in jobs ranging from park maintenance to secretaries. The Teamsters argue they have given more than their fair share of concessions, to the tune of $17.7 million during the last round of talks.
"We've given more than anybody else," said Steve Harney, vice president of the Teamsters. "We've lost more people than anybody else. The city is a mess."
During concession talks, the 500 members of the Teamsters union agreed to give up their July cost-of-living raises. They received a 4.25 cost-of-living raise in July 2010, but gave it back in January as part of concessions. About a quarter of the members also received a merit increase of 5 percent last year.
Teamsters also agreed to take 12 unpaid furlough days this year and 10 last year.
Harney said the Teamsters won't sit for more concession talks, even to save jobs, until public safety unions "give their fair share."
"We're at a point that it's really difficult for us to give any more," he said.
North Las Vegas laid off more than 150 Teamsters in recent weeks.
Teamsters members average $102,000 a year in salaries and benefits, according to city government officials.
The firefighters union on Monday came to a tentative agreement on contract concessions to save the jobs of 35 firefighters. The agreement includes a 5 percent base salary reduction for union members. They haven't received a cost-of-living raise since 2008, though about 60 percent of them got merit increases averaging 6 percent in 2009. Firefighters in the city average $162,000 a year in salaries and benefits, according to a committee formed last year to study the city's budget.
Nonrepresented city employees last received a cost-of-living raise in 2008. Ten of those employees also received a merit increase of 5 percent in 2009. Nonrepresented employees also will take 10 furlough days this year.
Councilwoman Wood said the police unions "have chosen to protect their raises" at the expense of taxpayers who fund them.
"It's not about layoffs," she said. "It's about the fact that they don't want to give up anything. If the unions were willing to work with us, we would be in a much better place."
But Cardinale said his union recently offered to make concessions and the city refused to accept them. The supervisors union is embroiled in a contract dispute with the city, and Cardinale said city officials wanted to "do a whole new contract rather than take concessions and get on with it."
"Wouldn't it have been better to take that money and move on?" he said.
City officials don't typically discuss details of contract talks while they are in progress.
Jeffrey Allen, an attorney for the police officers union, said the union and city could still come to an agreement on concessions soon, and the union is dedicated to working in good faith with the city.
The District Court judge who earlier this month prohibited the city from laying off police union members also ordered the two sides to keep talking in an effort to come to agreement.
Meanwhile, "we're in a contract," Allen said. "This was an agreed upon contract. It's not like we have to justify anything. These are things we are entitled to receive by contract."
Mayor Shari Buck, who has refused to vote for more cuts to public safety, said she won't "blame our employees and the unions" and "throw staff under the bus" for the city's current financial troubles.
"The main reason we're where we are is the economy," she said.
Still, she said, "one of the reasons we are where we are is the inability to reach agreements" with the unions. "It's time to pull everybody together and stop all the in-fighting and find some solutions."
While Buck and Wood disagree on whether to cut public safety to save money, they both say the city's best bet remains reaching agreements on contract concessions with the unions.
Union leaders say the city has been financially irresponsible for years. They argue that the city should not have spent money on a wastewater treatment facility, nor $131 million to build a new City Hall. They also say North Las Vegas mishandled money raised by the state's More Cops sales tax law passed in 2005. And the city could use $36 million in utilities money to help balance the budget and prevent laying off police officers.
"It is unfortunate for the city that they are in this predicament," Allen said. "A lot of it is because of their spending on capital projects. They didn't see the writing on the wall when they should have. People blame it on the union, but it's misplaced."
An outside financial review completed in June as part of talks between the city and police officers union said the city's budget shortfall "absolutely does not require further concessions" from the union. It also said the city has decreased funding for police at an "alarming rate" in recent years while increasing other expenditures.
City officials contested the review, saying it included several errors and "improper analysis."
The city also insists it cannot use more funds raised and meant for utilities for other expenses.
The council in 2009 voted to cap at $32 million the amount the city transfers out of its utility fund into its general fund each year. And state legislators this year approved a bill that limits the amount of such transfers.
Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said the bill was meant to target municipalities such as North Las Vegas that had been using utility revenue for other purposes.
"The whole goal was not to use more than you've been using in previous years," she said.
Allen said he still "truly believes" the city can use that money to help balance its budget.
The bottom line is that the city "needs to readjust their spending priorities the way they're supposed to be," he said.
COULD HAVE BEEN SMARTER
Wood, who was elected in 2009, conceded the city could have been smarter with its money.
"I don't think the city was any different than anyone else," she said. "Times were good. We looked at what we needed and wanted, and we went and spent."
She also said the police unions have a point "when they say we as a city haven't committed to the Police Department the way we should have."
As examples she mentioned the way the city handled the More Cops money and the dilapidated condition of the department's headquarters, sections of which date back to the 1950s and 1960s.
"Their department is falling apart," Wood said. "I've been committed to rectifying those things. But there's no money to do it. There's no way to rectify it right now."
She added that the city has to put those differences aside to survive.
"Do we find a way to work together, or do we continue to fight and kill the city?"
The City Council in May approved a 2012 operating budget of $125 million, and a total budget of $504.9 million. That operating budget included about $49 million for police and detention, and $34 million for fire.
The city employs about 1,300 people, including some 850 public safety workers.
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.