Larger than expected city budget deficit raises prospect of more layoffs, service cuts


Las Vegas' projected budget deficit is larger than expected, bringing up the prospect of more layoffs and service cuts as the city continues to reel from the economic downturn.

City leaders now expect an $80 million shortfall in the 2011 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

That's a $10 million increase over what officials have been planning to endure, and there's still an expected $55 million shortfall waiting in 2012.

At the same time, frustrated city employees have become increasingly opposed to concessions that the city is seeking to help close the budget gap, saying the city has never truly been negotiating.

City Council members are scheduled to discuss the budget Wednesday, as well as hear a presentation from private-sector representatives on how businesses have reacted to the recession.

So far, depressed city revenues have largely been blamed on declines in property tax and the consolidated sales tax. The recent hit is caused by damage to the franchise and license fees the city collects and declines in interest income, city spokeswoman Diana Paul said

The city is now looking at a $478 million general fund budget, down from a $493 million tentative budget the City Council has already approved. To meet a shortfall in revenue, the city might draw $48 million from reserves instead of the $38 million already budgeted, with layoffs and program cuts.

Plans already call for 146 layoffs, but that number could double, Mayor Oscar Goodman has said.

How many more is not clear.

"I know that there's talk going around, but I have nothing official," said Don King, president of the Las Vegas City Employees Association, the largest city bargaining unit.

Its members voted overwhelmingly not to offer any wage concessions to the city, which had been seeking across-the-board cuts of 8 percent. That's too steep, union leaders said, especially because there was no guarantee that jobs would be saved if the cuts were granted.

The fact that the union's contract goes through 2014 makes the situation even tougher, Paul said.

"With no reductions in employee compensation for the next three years, we will have no choice but to make adjustments to staffing and programming levels to account for the mandatory wage increases that will remain in effect," Paul said in an e-mailed statement. "This will likely mean more layoffs and service reductions, albeit at a much faster pace."

Contracts with the city's four bargaining units vary but generally provide for annual raises that can include cost-of-living, merit, step increases and longevity pay for those who qualify.

The city also is turning to other sources to keep some downtown cultural offerings open.

The city's Redevelopment Agency, which uses incentives to entice development into blighted areas, is being tapped to help pay the bills at the Reed Whipple Cultural Center and the Fifth Street School.

The cultural center, home to youth theater and music programs, was going to be closed, but a public outcry removed it from the chopping block. The Redevelopment Agency is scheduled to contribute $372,700 to the center's operating costs. The Fifth Street School, a historic restoration project now used as public and private offices, will get $419,000.

"The more we enhance cultural opportunities, the more we enhance the redevelopment area (and) downtown," Paul said.

A stinging letter from another union, meanwhile, says the city needs to improve its budgeting process and its relationship with employees.

Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, complained that the city has not responded to his group's concessions offer that he said would save $622,500.

That offer "is losing the support of its members," Collins wrote in a letter to city officials. The union represents city marshals.

The city's budget must be passed by June 1. Collins noted that he would need two weeks before that deadline to hold a vote ratifying changes to the group's labor contract.

"You have had the offer for eight weeks and have pretended it doesn't exist," the letter said.

"It is virtually impossible to negotiate with the city when there clearly is no plan and the target moves with every conversation or meeting. The fact that these numbers change so frequently reflects, at best, a complete lack of leadership or, at worst, incompetence," Collins' letter said.

A 2008 Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study found that Nevada's state and local government employees were among the best paid in the nation. There are also relatively fewer of them, as the study noted that Nevada's governments are exceptionally lean.

A sampling of Las Vegas city employee annual pay ranges includes public information officer, $49,584-$88,150; land surveyor, $67,120-$94,444; water quality technician, $46,551-$72,216; city administrative secretary, $38,773-$61,936; and heavy-equipment operator, $51,323-$72,216.

Las Vegas' 2009 budget funded the equivalent of 2,900 full-time positions.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

 

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