Las Vegas city firefighters make too much money and new city employees should receive lower starting pay and benefits than their predecessors did, according to most voters who took a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal/8NewsNow poll.
The results drew mixed responses from mayoral candidates and union leaders, who seemed divided about whether employees had given up enough or could concede more in tough budgetary times.
The telephone survey of 600 likely municipal election voters was conducted late last week by Las Vegas-based Magellan Research. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Almost 53 percent of those polled said firefighters earn too much in compensation, compared with 31 percent who deemed it just about right and 7 percent who thought it wasn't enough. About 9 percent had no opinion.
The gap was tighter on the question of whether new workers should get less entry-level pay and benefits. About 49 percent of respondents thought they should, while 38 percent opposed the idea and about 13 percent had no opinion.
The heads of the firefighters' and city employees' unions contend their members have made substantial concessions.
Some respondents might have mistaken city firefighters for Clark County firefighters, whose labor disputes have been highly publicized, said Dean Fletcher, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1285.
"Do these people even know there's a difference between a city firefighter and a county firefighter?" Fletcher asked.
The mayor and the City Council have acknowledged that the firefighters' concessions helped fill budget holes, Fletcher said.
City firefighters have gone two years without a cost-of-living bump, he said. They also agreed to lower the entry-level wage by 5 percent and to reduce the city's contribution to a health trust fund, saving about $2 million, he said.
Marvin Longabaugh, Magellan president, said there's a good chance many of the survey's participants mentally lumped all fire departments together.
For instance, the uproar over some county firefighters' possibly abusing sick leave could unfairly taint city firefighters, Longabaugh said. "I think firefighters are painted with the same broad brush."
The head of the city's largest union said he found the polling results curious, given that new hires will have diminished entry-level pay and perks.
Those hired after Jan. 1 will receive at least a 10 percent lower starting wage, no longevity pay and no sick leave for six months, said Don King, president of the Las Vegas City Employees Association.
Workers already employed with the city will have their wages frozen indefinitely, King said.
The wage freeze was done in response to a study that found many city workers were paid significantly more than their counterparts in other areas of the country. It will remain in place until the market catches up or until the labor contract is renewed in 2014, King said.
"I hope we've given up everything we have to give up to help the city through its economic times," King said.
He argues that his 1,400 members have made the largest concession of any public employee union in the Las Vegas Valley.
Betsy Fretwell, the city manager, said the city's four major unions made concessions that will save the city $14 million in 2012 and $40 million over three years.
Freezing pay for 600 workers will add another $9 million to the pot, she said.
"I think it goes a long way toward what we needed to do," Fretwell said. "We've made it through the eye of the storm."
Two years ago, the city faced a $47 million shortfall, she said. The next budget year it will be $10 million to $15 million.
Longabaugh said apparently many of the citizens who were polled didn't know how much city workers gave up, or they didn't think it was enough.
People who are struggling in the recession resent what they view as public employees' hefty benefits, Longabaugh said. When times are good, they don't care so much, he said.
The three leading mayoral candidates had differing opinions about city workers' compensation.
Carolyn Goodman issued a brief written statement by e-mail saying she thinks city workers' wages and benefits should be in line with the private sector.
Larry Brown, a county commissioner, said it was time to eliminate "antiquated benefits" such as longevity pay, cost-of-living raises that exceed the inflation rate, and merit pay increases that aren't earned.
Wages should be based on the job's value and shouldn't be bumped up to put them in line with a similar job in another jurisdiction, Brown said.
"We work for the taxpayer, and a public job is not an entitlement," he said.
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.