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Retirement, overtime costs create snags for Las Vegas Fire Department

Las Vegas Fire Department is battling staffing issues because of an increase in retirement and overtime costs that far exceed the budget.

The Las Vegas City Council on Thursday approved funneling $3.9 million to public safety functions from other areas of the general fund budget to make up for the overtime cost gap and give the Metropolitan Police Department more money for more officers to focus on crime hot spots.

About 20 percent of Las Vegas Fire Department personnel, more than 80 employees, are retirement-eligible. Vacancies in the department have sent the overtime costs soaring above the budgeted amount for the past few years. For the current fiscal year that runs through the end of this month, overtime costs are projected to come in at $5.5 million more than the budgeted amount of more than $10 million.

“There have been many sleepless nights over this report,” City Manager Betsy Fretwell said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The city’s fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1, has roughly the same amount budgeted for overtime as the current year’s budget, which Fretwell called a “healthy” overtime budget.

City Council members expressed concern about how the department can manage to shave more than $5 million off its year-to-year overtime costs.

“That’s a huge swing. How will they do that?” Councilman Ricki Barlow said.

Las Vegas Fire Chief William McDonald said the department needs to maintain its staffing level and “can no longer open up resources that we don’t have the people for.”

McDonald said he thinks 24-hour shifts could work, but city officials may need to re-examine how the department covers more than 130 square miles of territory.

Fretwell floated the possibility of running shorter fire academies for new recruits that might feature more concentrated instruction, she said.

“We’re on the brink of needing to do things very differently,” Fretwell said.

The city is also allocating an extra $440,000 to the Metropolitan Police Department to help fund an additional neighborhood engagement team to focus on crime hot spots in the valley. If a 13-week trial for the additional team is successful, the hope is that the program can become permanent, city Chief Financial Officer Mark Vincent said.

But city officials won’t know whether there’s additional revenue to fund the program’s continuation until at least November, after the current fiscal year budget has been audited.

Metro already has neighborhood engagement teams in place, and has seen a significant decrease in crime in some areas since those officers hit the streets, Metro Assistant Sheriff Todd Fasulo said.

Roughly 67 percent of the city’s general fund budget is used for public safety, which is up substantially from just over 50 percent in the fiscal year 2007 budget.

City officials said at Wednesday’s meeting they hope Clark County will devote some additional money to combat a violent crime spike in the valley. The city and the county both fund the department.

But Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak pointed out that he pitched a $5 million funding boost to Metro two years ago.

“I’m not in favor of these temporary, Band-Aid solutions,” Sisolak said. “We offered two years ago … If they want to talk about creating more funding for police officers, I would look for a more permanent solution to the problem.”

Contact Jamie Munks at jmunks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0340. Find @JamieMunksRJ on Twitter.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the year of the comparsion fiscal budget.

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