Assemblyman sees consolidated fire departments as ‘no-brainer’

CARSON CITY — A Las Vegas assemblyman is drawing up legislation to consolidate the Clark County, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson fire departments into one department that covers all jurisdictions.

"This is a no-brainer," Democrat Tick Segerblom said Tuesday. "It would save on costs for everybody. There is no real reason to have separate fire departments for every jurisdiction. This is an idea whose time has come."

But Segerblom said he has no idea how much would be saved through consolidation or how contracts with firefighter unions would be handled. Answers to those types of questions could be found when the bill receives hearings next year, Segerblom said.

He expressed confidence that consolidation would be supported by fellow legislators, particularly because savings are necessary during the recession. The concept already is drawing union support.

The proposal is one of 533 bills being prepared by legislative lawyers for consideration at the session that starts in February.

Studies of consolidations in other areas have found that costs increase in the short term, with no guarantee that savings will result over time.

"This is because local government services are labor intensive, and when the personnel systems of two governments merge, the combined costs of salaries and fringe benefits can overburden a new government," according to the National League of Cities in 2000.

The University of Georgia, looking at the consolidation of two local governments there in 1991, said: "The extent to which money is saved in a merger will depend on the design of the new government. Each consolidation must be considered case by case."

Consolidation could lead to one pay scale for all firefighters. Current, lower-paid firefighters might push to be paid the same wages of those of other jurisdictions.

When the Metropolitan Police Department was created in 1973, legislators passed a law that required the "most liberal employee benefits" negotiated by police unions in the city and the county be paid to the new department’s employees.

Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid called Segerblom’s plan a good starting point for discussion.

But Reid, the Democratic candidate for governor, expressed concerns about determining pay.

"It raises a number of questions that need to be answered, not the least of which is, which would be the prevailing wage for the firefighters? We’d also need to determine if there are other savings that would result from this effort, or hidden costs," Reid said. "That’s why you have legislative hearings and public discussion, and we just need to see where it goes. But it’s certainly worth considering."

North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck questioned whether consolidation would be a good move.

"People talk about consolidation as if it’s this great panacea," Buck said. "There are lots of questions that would have to be answered. Does it serve the city of North Las Vegas better? Does it save money? Does it cost money? Consolidation doesn’t necessarily save money."

As it stands now, beginning North Las Vegas firefighters are paid considerably more than those in Las Vegas and other jurisdictions.

A North Las Vegas firefighter receives base pay of $54,597 to $76,941 a year, compared with $47,449 to $77,602 a year in Las Vegas. Clark County firefighters earn base pay of $51,426 to $76,411 a year, while Henderson firefighters earn $53,648 to $79,257 a year.

Similar differences exist for paramedics, ranging from a $51,426 beginning salary in Clark County to a $62,786 starting salary in North Las Vegas.

Consolidation could face legal challenges.

In 1975, the Legislature passed a bill to consolidate the government of Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, including the combining of fire departments. The separate governments would have continued to exist after the bill went into effect in January 1977, but would have had a joint operating authority.

That legislation never went into effect, however. The attorney general declared it unconstitutional, and in 1976 the state Supreme Court found the bill, Senate Bill 601, to be unconstitutional.

Justices said it was "special legislation" that violated the state constitution and also violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s "one-man, one vote" principle. Justices said any consolidation bill must apply uniformly across the state, not for just one county.

Then in 1977, legislators passed a bill consolidating just the Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments. The Supreme Court, however, in 1978 once again ruled such a consolidation was unconstitutional.

Gov. Paul Laxalt also in 1969 vetoed a Clark County-City of Las Vegas consolidation bill.

Faring better was the legislation consolidating the Las Vegas Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Department into the Metropolitan Police Department in July 1973. But it took more than a decade to arrive at a mutually acceptable funding formula.

Segerblom anticipates savings could come from the combining of dispatch centers and a reduction in management staff.

Fire departments already go to wherever their services are needed, he said.

"A fire is a fire," Segerblom said. "I don’t think people are aware if it is the county or city or North Las Vegas that is fighting your fire."

But Tim Szymanski, a public information officer for the Las Vegas Fire Department, said one dispatch center already serves Clark County, North Las Vegas and Las Vegas. When 911 calls come in, the available fire equipment closest to the fire or emergency scene is dispatched, regardless of jurisdiction.

Rusty McAllister, a Las Vegas Fire Department captain and legislative lobbyist for the Professional Firefighters of Nevada, a firefighters’ union, supports consolidation, although he expects it would take several years to accomplish.

"I have been on four house fires this week, two in the city and two in the county," he said. "They don’t care if we are in a yellow truck or a red truck; just take care of the problem."

The Las Vegas Fire Department does not bill the county for sending firefighters into Las Vegas, and vice versa, except in cases of very large fires, McAllister said.

"Nothing would change in the field. There could be savings."

McAllister said in Clark County there are three fire training centers and four fire prevention centers. Some could be eliminated with consolidation.

He said Segerblom’s bill also could apply to Washoe County, which has four fire departments.

With consolidation, McAllister said some of the big salaries firefighters earn through working overtime could be reduced. Local governments have decided against hiring new firefighters and instead prefer paying overtime to existing firefighters, which drives up the overall payroll, he added.

"Our guys don’t need to work so much," he said. "But that is what local governments have decided. We would ultimately like to see a department that is run in the best interests of the public."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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