City unions lost bet with mayor and council, but game not over

Stand in Mayor Oscar Goodman’s company for even a short time and he’ll tell you he likes to gamble.

On sports, mostly: baseball, basketball, football and the ponies. If it’s found in the sports pages, chances are excellent Goodman has placed a wager on it. Make that many wagers.

Win some, lose some, drink a little gin. Beyond using his ups and downs as a sports gambler as comedy material for his daily monologue with the residents of Las Vegas, he rarely seems to sweat the bottom line. Whether Goodman bets a lot or a little depends on your perspective and bankroll, but the fact is the guy bets every day.

All that is a way of reminding you — especially all the public employee unions currently negotiating with the city — Goodman is unlikely to flinch as the stakes get higher. Beyond not being risk averse by nature, politically the term-limited mayor has little to lose by drawing a hard line.

For months we’ve heard from Goodman and City Manager Betsy Fretwell about the need for city employees to accept pay cuts — 8 percent across the board along with no cost of living, step, or merit increases — in order to save 205 jobs and balance the budget. Flagging tax revenues continue to haunt city fiscal planners, and 60 names have been added to the layoff list in recent months. With about 85 percent of the budget consumed by salaries and benefits, that is the most logical place to look for savings.

I can’t help feeling representatives of city employees, firefighters, and marshals have believed Goodman and the City Council could be made to buckle under pressure. Instead, the council voted unanimously to approve its budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which calls for 205 layoffs. With the exception of Goodman, don’t those council members have pressing political aspirations?

In other years, under other less severe economic scenarios, the old negotiating rules might have applied. Not this year, not given the current revenue figures.

It’s easy to say the council is under Goodman’s spell, but that’s far too simplistic. Fact is, this council has listened to Fretwell and City Chief Financial Officer Mark Vincent. In short, the council has done its homework.

Council members also have been wise to hear the anguished cries of their constituents — many of whom have taken a withering beating during the recession. Some of those neighbors have lost their jobs; others are working two jobs to survive. Still others have lost their houses and have been forced to declare bankruptcy.

In this atmosphere, even elected officials as skittish as quail have relatively little to fear from angry public employee unions, whose representatives have failed to show the public they fully comprehend the real state of the city.

Firefighters and other public employees can accuse Goodman of being a bully — “I’d rather be a bully than a liar,” he responds — and vilify the mean old Review-Journal for posting their salaries.

But the fact is they haven’t done nearly enough to make their case in the court of public opinion. Frankly, it might be too late now. Recent months have seen firefighters fritter away the one thing they’ve always enjoyed in abundance: the good will of the public.

If it’s not already too late, the city employee unions would be wise to re-evaluate their public perception, accept the salary cuts at a time a large number of Southern Nevadans have no salary at all, and live to fight another day.

They’ve lost their bet with Goodman and the council, but the game is far from over.

The latest word from City Hall: Revenues continue to decline, and at last count another $47 million would need to be cut in the coming fiscal year.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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