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Clark County fire department consolidation bill meets hostility

CARSON CITY — A bill to allow fire departments in Clark County to be consolidated was greeted with hostility by local governments and private ambulance companies Friday.

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom said his Assembly Bill 278 would bring savings, although he could not say how much.

Under the bill, existing firefighters would be given "comparable" ranks and pay grades in the new consolidated fire department. The bill also calls for the new fire department to be directed by an elected fire chief.

"This ultimately will save money," the Las Vegas Democrat said. "We don’t know for sure now (how much). Where there are four fire chiefs (Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Clark County), three would be eliminated and that saves $1 million off the top."

But the critics complained that nothing in the bill guarantees there will be savings and that it would provide less scrutiny of firefighters’ pay and benefits when more scrutiny is needed.

The bill comes when the FBI and Metropolitan Police Department are looking into alleged sick leave and overtime abuse by Clark County firefighters, which some have suggested could lead to a formal criminal investigation.

The critics also said the elected fire chief — a position sought by the firefighters’ union — would have the power to put private ambulance companies out of business and would be beholden to firefighters and not local governments.

LITTLE SUPPORT OFFERED

Except for Rusty McAllister, the lobbyist for the Professional Firefighters of Nevada union, all witnesses, including representatives of chambers of commerce and every affected local government, were opposed or neutral.

As written, AB278 would not require the consolidation of fire departments in Clark and Washoe counties, but it sets out a framework that they would have to follow if they chose to consolidate.

Some fire agencies already are moving toward the consolidation of some fire services through inter-local agreements.

There was only brief mention during the hearing of the scandal in Clark County involving misuse of overtime and vacation pay that has led to many firefighters earning more than $200,000 a year. Some earned even more than $400,000 in pay and benefits in 2009.

But County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who didn’t attend the hearing, said later that he was concerned that merging the fire departments would create a mega-union with mammoth political power.

"If the union becomes more powerful and more of a powerful political force, the (labor) contract could become more unwieldy," Sisolak said .

He said he found it suspicious that just as the county is getting a rein on its firefighters’ contract, the statewide union is pushing for consolidation. The union’s support of the bill makes him wary, he said.

Past attempts to meld local fire departments hit legal roadblocks.

In 1975, the Legislature passed a bill to consolidate Clark County and Las Vegas governments, including the combining of fire departments.

But the attorney general and Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. Justices said any consolidation bill must apply uniformly across the state, not for just one county.

In 1977, legislators passed a bill consolidating just the Las Vegas and county fire departments. In 1978, however, the Supreme Court again ruled such a merger was unconstitutional.

CHAIRWOMAN LIKES BILL

Despite widespread negative testimony, the current bill has an important co-sponsor, Assembly Government Affairs Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-Las Vegas. She chided one witness Friday for being shortsighted.

"It is time to start these discussions," Kirkpatrick said. "Consolidation would have huge financial benefits over time."

Kirkpatrick said North Las Vegas avoided change and now it has the highest property taxes and least services in Clark County.

McAllister said the bill would provide the new fire chief "many opportunities for savings."

But he began his presentation by asking: "Does it save money? Well, I don’t know exactly (how much). I believe in the long run, it will."

McAllister said his organization wants the elected fire chief, something no other major city has. "We’d be the first, No. 1 in something," he said.

Las Vegas lobbyist Ted Olivas challenged language in the bill that consolidation would increase efficiency and bring savings.

He said a study and public hearings are needed "to validate those findings."

Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, said nothing in the bill requires the deposed fire chiefs to be paid less and in fact their pay would not be reduced.

"Where is the pay savings if they keep the same rank and grade?" she asked.

No vote was taken on the bill.

The most virulent opposition to an elected fire chief was made by John Wilson, lobbyist for MedicWest Ambulance Co. in Las Vegas.

"This would be one of the most powerful positions ever created in Nevada," Wilson said.

"We will have an elected czar. There will be no checks and balances. No saving for taxpayers."

Wilson said local and county government payroll costs for emergency workers already are twice as high as those of private ambulance companies.

"The potential for abuse is enormous," said Wilson about the bill.

Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce lobbyist George Ross testified the chamber normally favors consolidation, but added he did not see where in the bill there would be savings and reforms.

"We all know there are a lot of high-paid firemen," Ross said.

Reporter Scott Wyland contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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