Putting taxpayers first: RTC wise to seek revised labor pact

The administrators of the Regional Transportation Commission and negotiators from the Service Employees International Union thought they had struck a fine new labor deal. When the public isn't allowed to witness or participate in the bargaining process, such mutually beneficial agreements are common.

But last Thursday, the elected members of the RTC board sent the five-year contract back to the drawing board, citing concerns about the length of the contract and the fairness of offering perks - such as cost-of-living increases and merit and longevity pay - that other local entities have cut to bring personnel costs in line with economic realities.

Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who serves as chairman of the transit board, said the valley faces too many financial uncertainties over the next five years.

"A five-year contract in a different time would be something we could look at," Mr. Brown said. "But there's the uncertainty of the economy right now. ... Some say we're going to have a hit next year."

Mr. Brown said he didn't want to see the board commit to something it wouldn't be able to fulfill.

Management had won some concessions under the five-year proposal. Merit pay would have been awarded only to proficient employees, while bonuses would have been tied directly to increased sales tax revenues - provided they actually increased.

New employees would have remained eligible for longevity pay, a perk largely cut from other local employee contracts, after eight years. Longevity pay for new hires would have been reduced to three-tenths of 1 percent of their salary for each year of service, about half of what current employees get. In addition to merit pay and longevity, after one year the draft contract also called for employees to receive cost-of-living increases.

Al Martinez, president of the Service Employees International Union local, which represents about 200 RTC employees, told Mr. Brown after the meeting that future talks were being tentatively scheduled for next month.

"I think we can work something out," Mr. Martinez said

The RTC board was wise to be cautious. Members were elected to represent the valley's private-sector taxpayers, who are suffering through nation-leading unemployment, schedule reductions and income declines. Meanwhile, board members' local governments have frozen salaries, eliminated positions, cut benefits and laid off workers. Pay raises? Bonuses? This contract would have set a terrible precedent and driven up public-sector labor costs across the valley.

And it never would have made it this far if public employee contract talks were subject to the open meeting law, a badly needed reform that must be considered by the 2013 Legislature. If this was what the RTC and the SEIU settled on, where did the negotiations start? The fear of shame is a powerful check on those who spend the public's money.

Employment today is a buyer's market with no guarantees beyond this week, let alone five years. Chairman Larry Brown and the other board members deserve credit for putting taxpayers first. They were wise to dial this deal back.