North Las Vegas loses pay raise lawsuit with unions

North Las Vegas does not have the authority to suspend millions of dollars in long-sought union employee pay raises, a judge decided Tuesday.

District Judge Susan Johnson ruled that the cash-strapped city had no right to freeze $25 million in pay raises owed to union employees under collective bargaining agreements signed in the mid-2000s.

City leaders, who first forced the concessions under the terms of a city-declared “fiscal emergency” in June 2012, voted to renew the pay freeze in August.

Johnson sided with union lawyers’ view that the move was unconstitutional and, in the absence of a riot or a natural disaster, “not a valid exercise of (the city’s) police power.”

She also denied the city’s counterclaim for a summary judgment in the case.

City officials, who have predicted in the past such a decision would be calamitous for the city’s finances, did not return requests for comment.

Police Supervisors Association President Leonard Cardinale, who leads the smallest of three bargaining groups to bring legal action against the city, said he doesn’t plan to break off talks with the city as result of the ruling.

“This ruling wasn’t about money; it was about right and wrong,” Cardinale said. “We’re still willing to sit down and talk.”

Jeff Hurley, president of the North Las Vegas Firefighters Association, wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s decision. Having not seen a copy of the verdict, he declined to say much else.

“They ruled the way the law was written,” Hurley said. “(Officials) might try now to blame unions for the city’s financial demise, but the city has bigger problems.”

Tuesday’s ruling arrived within hours of Clark County commissioners’ latest rejection of a Metropolitan Police Department-supported 0.25 percentage point sales tax increase meant to support the addition of up to 30 North Las Vegas police officers.

Slow political progress on the proposed tax was widely blamed for city leaders’ failure to ink a $4.1 million August settlement with the 275-member North Las Vegas Police Officers Association, the city’s largest public safety union.

As recently as last week, association President Mike Yarter guessed there was a “50-50 chance” the union’s long-running contract dispute would enter arbitration.

Reached for comment Tuesday, Yarter hoped those odds were looking up.

He is optimistic that other union leaders will rally around negotiations to soften the ruling’s budgetary blow.

“(The city’s) odds of resolving this with us for less than what they owe are good,” Yarter said. “In my experience, the city fights cases they should settle and settles cases they should fight.

“I hope that’s not the case here. They’re spending millions on outside counsel, when what they really need is to get things done at the bargaining table.”

Mayor John Lee said he didn’t know whether the city will appeal the decision.

He has said a decision favoring North Las Vegas unions could spell near-disaster for the the state’s fourth-largest city.

“I don’t know that (the decision) will put us into a state of insolvency, but I know that the city’s ability to pay will be in question,” Lee said Tuesday. “Legal staff are looking into it, but I can’t comment on (legal) questions until I’ve been briefed.”

City Finance Director Darren Adaire, who predicted such a decision would “hand bargaining groups the keys to the city,” did not return requests for comment.

Interim City Manager Jeff Buchanan hopes the decision can give the city a fresh start in future contract negotiations.

“While we are weighing our legal options, our agreements are greater than our differences,” Buchanan said in a statement. “We are looking forward to the opportunity to sit down with our union representatives as we continue to repair the past and build toward our collective future.”

Contact reporter James DeHaven at jdehaven@viewnews.com or 702-477-3839.