It turns out, city of North Las Vegas leaders haven’t scoured every couch and soda machine for loose change. It turns out, the broke municipality hasn’t drained every publicly funded account. But City Council members and city management might have to if they’re going to provide pay raises to their public safety unions.
If nothing else, the settlement discussions during Tuesday’s City Council meeting were a testament to the power of public-sector collective bargaining and the lack of flexibility governments have in managing personnel costs. It also highlighted the lack of sympathy unions have for the struggling businesses and residents who pay their salaries.
Back in 2012, you might recall, the city suspended pay raises for its employees under a fiscal emergency declaration. The unions sued. Last month, a District Court judge ruled the city’s action was illegal and that the unions were owed about $25 million in back pay. As a result, the city’s projected budget deficit for the coming fiscal year now tops $40 million, despite last year’s Legislature-approved bailout.
Absent massive layoffs, there’s no way the city can provide that back pay or balance the budget without some concessions from the unions. So council members explored desperate steps to get the unions to accept much less than they’re owed: raiding a More Cops sales tax account, reducing what’s left of emergency reserves to almost nothing and shifting court revenues. The city hopes that nearly $8 million will be enough to end the litigation and keep police and firefighters on the job.
As reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s James DeHaven, Mike Yarter, president of the police officers’ association, wasn’t optimistic. “They basically chopped all of the money they really have available. … $7.7 million won’t resolve all the lawsuits,” he said.
What a message to send to the city’s struggling businesses and residents. North Las Vegas was buried by the Great Recession, hammering the poorly run municipality with business closures, job losses, depressed housing prices and tanking tax revenues. But city employees keep asking for more. The consequences of that pressure could be severe. If the state has to take over an insolvent North Las Vegas government — a settlement of this magnitude would make such an action more likely — taxes could go up across the city, regardless of residents’ ability to pay.
That’s not an important consideration for firefighters and police, because a majority of them live outside North Las Vegas. The Nevada Policy Research Institute reported in 2011 that only 7 percent of North Las Vegas firefighters and 26 percent of police lived in the city. In other words, they don’t have skin in the game.
Give North Las Vegas’ new management team and new Mayor John Lee credit: They’ve been constructive and transparent enough with their unions to bring them to the table. But this settlement proposal looks like a suicide pact. If the city doesn’t soon draw a harder line in negotiations with bargaining groups, there will be literally nothing left to give.