Getting Burned: Firefighters 'lose' contract dispute

Well, it's a start.

After negotiating with the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908 since February on a contract that expired July 1, 2010, an arbitrator chose Clark County's final and best offer over that submitted by the firefighters. The county says the new contract will save taxpayers $7.4 million a year and reduce firefighter wages and benefits 5.5 percent. The firefighters' final and best offer would have saved $6.1 million and cut pay and benefits 4.5 percent.

The arbitrators decision will thus save taxpayers $1.3 million a year.

The new terms of the one-year contract are not retroactive to July 1, but take effect after the contract goes before county commissioners on Feb. 1, which happens to be the date the county and firefighters are allowed to begin negotiations on the next contract to replace this one when it expires June 30.

But, if nothing else, the just-approved contract does push back the starting point for that next contract.

The arbitrator's language in his ruling should make it harder for firefighters to argue with a straight face for more money in those upcoming talks. Arbitrator Norman Brand pointed out the county's revenues have fallen precipitously since the 2006-10 firefighter contract was brokered. Property tax revenue alone is down $110 million in one year.

Mr. Brand pointed out the county has reduced expenditures by using furloughs and layoffs of other county employees, but not firefighters.

Under the new contract, wages will be reduced 2 percent, firefighters will have to pay out of pocket for an increase in pension expenses instead of getting the customary off-setting raise; generous benefits for disabled firefighters are being phased out; and past abuses of sick leave are being addressed.

Mr. Brand singled out as an example of sick leave abuse a firefighter who took 48 days sick leave, working only 63 of his 121 scheduled shifts, but worked 92 shifts on overtime or callback pay to rack up $232,187 in pay before benefits. One commissioner is calling for a criminal investigation of such manipulation of the system.

Meanwhile, Clark County firefighters already are paid 118 percent of the average annual pay of other fire departments in Southern Nevada, which already are paid higher than the national average. In the past two years, county firefighters enjoyed a 7.75 percent compensation increase in cost of living raises and pension reimbursements. "No comparable group gained as much," the arbitrator observed.

"I'm obviously pleased with the outcome," County Manager Don Burnette, who was the county's lead negotiator with the firefighters, was quoted as saying of the contract. "It's been a long, difficult process. I'm glad it's over."

But it is not. It starts anew.

County negotiators must start at this new, slightly lower base and demand further cuts and givebacks until the compensation of county firefighters is, at the very least, more in line with other Southern Nevada firefighters.