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Arbitrator chooses Clark County offer over firefighters union

Clark County won a months-long labor dispute with its firefighters union Wednesday when an arbitrator chose the county’s final contract offer, a decision that will save an estimated $7.4 million.

The 741 firefighters covered in the contract will get a 2 percent pay cut, no wage increases, a reduction in long-term disability benefits and a tougher sick leave policy.

The firefighters’ offer would’ve saved the county $6.1 million.

In arbitration, one offer is picked and the other is rejected, with no compromise.

The two sides went to arbitration after union leaders declared an impasse in labor talks in August.

"I’m obviously pleased with the outcome," said County Manager Don Burnette, who was the county’s lead negotiator with the firefighters. "It’s been a long, difficult process. I’m glad it’s over."

The county will spend $7.4 million less than it would have if the original contract hadn’t changed, he said.

Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, didn’t respond to phone messages or e-mails Wednesday.

The contract runs from July 2010 to July of this year.

None of the cuts in compensation will be retroactive.

They will go into effect after the contract goes before the county commissioners on Feb. 1.

That means firefighters won’t have to write a check to the county refunding some of the pay they received in the past seven months, Burnette said.

Commissioners can’t override the arbitrator’s decision, though they could nullify agreements that union and county leaders made outside of arbitration — for instance, the decision to freeze step increases in wages, Burnette said.

"I would hope that would not happen," he said.

Canceling the step increases had limited impact because only one-third of firefighters are affected, he said. Most firefighters have reached the top of the pay scale and no longer get those bumps, he said.

Significant changes include:

■ The 2 percent wage reductions. They’ll save $2.4 million in the next year.

■ Firefighters now must pay their portion of the rate increase for the Public Employee Retirement System. Before, they received a raise to cover the expense and were set to get a 1.38 percent bump this year. Eliminating this perk will save $1.75 million.

■ Phasing out the two years of full pay that disabled firefighters get when leaving the job. Those hired after the new contract goes into effect will receive 60 percent of their monthly salary until they’re 65, though with stipulations. For example, if they cash in six months of accrued sick leave, they won’t get a salary payment for six months. Estimated savings this year are $500,000.

■ Requiring firefighters to have a doctor’s note if they call in sick more than five days in a year. Before, they had to be sick three shifts in a row before the fire chief could ask for a note.

Brand agreed with the county’s contention that the old sick-leave system was prone to abuse. Some firefighters appeared to call in sick so their co-workers could fill in and get overtime pay, he said.

Commissioner Tom Collins said he was disappointed that firefighters will take a cut in their regular pay.

The county could’ve saved $7.4 million by trimming certain benefits such as longevity pay, Collins said. And the bulk of savings should’ve come from higher-ranking employees like captains, he said.

"Ryan Beaman, in my opinion, cost these firefighters a paycheck reduction," Collins said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a vocal critic of firefighters’ compensation, said he was glad the county won an all-or-nothing victory.

The changes are not just one-time savings but will continue after this contract expires in July, he said. That’s a good thing, considering the two sides will soon gear up to bargain for the next one-year contract, he said.

He said he respectfully disagrees with Collins about the wage cuts.

"Paychecks need to be reduced," Sisolak said. "The costs are out of control. This is the first step."

The two sides agreed on a number of measures and clashed on half a dozen significant points, Burnette said.

The 26-page ruling shows that in some instances the two sides gave offers with only subtle differences.

Arbitrator Norman Brand sided with the county on most of the sticking points.

Brand rejected the union’s argument that the county had enough money to cover the costs of the contract approved in 2006.

He pointed to falling tax revenue, and noted that the county had made efforts to cut costs through layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs.

Meanwhile, the county hired firefighters, Brand wrote.

"Thus firefighters are not being singled out, but are being asked to share in the fiscal difficulties that are affecting all public employees," Brand said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@review journal.com or 702-455-4519.

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