Union drags its feet on talks

The city of Las Vegas is asking for wage cuts to meet a projected budget deficit, but the city's largest employee union doesn't plan to make it easy.

The Las Vegas City Employees Association released a letter Tuesday saying it will not come to the negotiating table until the city has finished talks with the other three unions that represent city workers.

That is because the City Employees Association feels it gave up more than other unions did when it agreed to a small decrease in the amount of annual raises early this year.

"We have heard very loudly and clearly from our membership that this time the LVCEA must go last in your negotiations with the various unions," said the letter, which is signed by association President Don King.

The association is willing to enter talks "in the spirit of helping the city," but the letter said that the union has a "legally binding collective bargaining agreement that does not expire until June 2014, and therefore the LVCEA is under no compulsion to give the city any concessions."

Without the concessions, layoffs are unavoidable, City Manager Betsy Fretwell has said, but how many has not been determined.

In November, Fretwell sent letters to the four city unions saying that to meet an estimated $69 million shortfall, all workers need to take an 8 percent pay cut in each of the next two budget years while forgoing all scheduled pay increases. The cuts would not be made up in future years, and even then no guarantee existed that layoffs could be avoided.

That language rankled many workers, King wrote in his letter.

"We heard from many members who at one time were sympathetic to your plight but who, after reading your letter of Nov. 20, were turned off by your excessive demands and unwillingness to give something in return," the letter said. "Your letter did major damage to your cause."

For more than a year, Las Vegas has been scrambling to plug holes in its budget created by declining tax revenues in the economic downturn. Positions have been frozen or eliminated, some capital projects have been delayed, and some layoffs already have occurred.

Savings from one round of union concessions will not be enough, city officials have said. Those reduced the rate of growth of personnel costs but did not stop them from increasing.

Now the city is looking at reducing wages, and state law dictates deadlines for budgets to be presented.

"We didn't expect (the deficit) to be as much as we're projecting at this point," Fretwell said. "If we're unable to have discussions ... that limits our options."

The City Council is scheduled to have a budget hearing in March.

"That gives me very little time to address the shortfall," Fretwell said. The City Employees Association, she said, makes up "close to 50 percent of the budget and the employees."

"All of us collectively will need to come together to resolve the budget situation."

In the previous round of contract changes, the City Employees Association agreed to a 1 percentage point reduction in the annual cost-of-living raise. The city's detention center workers also agreed to that reduction, and city marshals took at $662.50 reduction in the amount the city pays for cleaning uniforms and maintaining equipment.

The city's firefighters, meanwhile, agreed to go without a cost-of-living increase in exchange for a larger city contribution to retirement and health care funds.

The concessions amounted to about a 1 percentage point reduction in annual growth of personnel costs for each bargaining unit, Fretwell said, except for the marshals' costs, which were reduced by about half a percentage point.

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