City Council OKs budget with 205 layoffs

Las Vegas leaders approved a budget Tuesday that calls for 205 layoffs, although City Council members said the door is still open for employee unions to make concessions and avoid some job losses.

At the top of the list of potential effects are increased response times from the Fire Department and city marshals, two departments facing cuts.

The Fire Department isn’t losing any employees to layoffs. To reduce overtime, though, the department will introduce "brownouts," taking as many as three units out of service a day.

Fire Chief Greg Gammon said that the brownouts will be rotated around the city and that other crews will be able to cover for the out-of-service units.

Dean Fletcher, head of the firefighters union, countered that response times could be affected, especially in situations in which "seconds matter, not minutes."

The council on Tuesday cut the Fire Department’s budget by $8 million, $4.6 million of which comes from the overtime savings. The rest is expected to come from concessions the fire union will grant in renegotiating its contract, said Mark Vincent, the city’s chief financial officer. The union’s last offer of a total of 3 percent in cuts was rejected by the city last week.

If the proposed cuts don’t materialize, "we’ll have to come back and likely revisit this," Vincent said.

Council members hammered on the point that additional brownouts will not be allowed without council approval.

The Las Vegas marshal force, meanwhile, stands to lose more than 20 members over the next budget year. Marshals patrol and investigate crimes on city property, including parks.

They play an important crime prevention role, said Chris Collins, executive director the Las Vegas Police Protective Association.

The Metropolitan Police Department has promised to help, but there’s no way the officers can fill the gap left by missing marshals, Collins said.

As many as eight of the marshal positions might be restored in a new unit the city is considering. Those officers would focus on serving pending warrants, the fees from which would fund their positions.

"They would actually be doing warrant arrests," Collins said. "They would not be out doing general patrol or prevention activity."

The first set of layoffs will occur in June and the second in July. The last group of marshal layoffs will be in January.

Other cuts approved Tuesday include shutting down the Xtreme sports and Leisure on the Go programs; increasing Municipal Court fees; downsizing records management staff, which could mean delays in obtaining city documents; and privatizing the Darling Tennis Center.

Councilman Steve Ross said he has lost sleep over the budget cuts and was particularly concerned about cuts to the marshals.

Almost all of the council members noted that their constituents think public safety should be the city’s No. 1 priority.

Councilman Steve Wolfson said that, relative to other government functions, public safety spending was the least cut in the coming year’s budget. Public safety spending was reduced by 8.9 percent, while most other functions saw cuts of around 30 percent.

The other functions include services such as maintaining parks, processing business licenses and building plans, and responding to code violations.

And although the budget has been adopted, it’s not written in stone, Wolfson said. The council can change it if employee groups agree to cuts.

"Nothing stops today as far as continuing negotiations," he said. "Let’s just continue to keep trying."

The City Council approved a 2011 budget that included a $477 million general fund budget, which pays for city operations, mostly personnel costs. That is down sharply from 2008, when that same fund had nearly $527 million. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

The city already had planned for 145 layoffs, but continuously declining tax revenues because of the recession added 60 more, Mayor Oscar Goodman said.

Because senior employees have the right to "bump" workers below them, a list of layoffs by department was "not all nailed down yet" Tuesday, city spokesman Jace Radke said.

"I’m hopeful that this will be a wake-up call," Goodman said, reiterating his position that employees should agree to give up all scheduled raises and accept 8 percent pay cuts to help balance the city’s books. "We don’t have a choice because we have to balance the budget."

But employee union members said a choice exists. Tracey Valenzuela, president of the Las Vegas Peace Officers Association, said Goodman set the bar "ridiculously high."

"It seems to be your way or the highway," she said. "The city employees have turned their backs on you and dug their heels into the sand."

The Las Vegas City Employees Association, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association and the firefighters union have all made offers to the city to cut expenses, but the officials said the offers did not go far enough.

Collins said the city should accept them, even if it means different bargaining units endure different sacrifices.

"Sometimes equality can’t be reached," he said. "Why not preserve jobs where you can?"

Contracts with the city’s four bargaining units vary but generally provide for annual raises that can include cost-of-living, merit and step increases and longevity pay for those who qualify. Cost-of-living raises are negotiated and are not tied to any living cost indexes.

A 2008 Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study found that Nevada’s state and local government employees were among the best paid in the nation. There are also relatively fewer of them, as the study noted that Nevada’s governments are exceptionally lean.

A sampling of Las Vegas city employee annual pay ranges includes deputy city marshal, $51,600-$79,192; firefighter, $49,947-$77,602; public information officer, $49,584-$88,150; land surveyor, $67,120-$94,444; water quality technician, $46,551-$72,216; city administrative secretary, $38,773-$61,936; and heavy-equipment operator, $51,323-$72,216.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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