Firefighter layoffs looming

Brad Iverson is set to join the swollen ranks of Nevada’s unemployed, as one of 16 North Las Vegas firefighters who received layoff notices in recent weeks.

“It’s devastating. I love what I do,” the 39-year-old said Wednesday while visiting the downtown office of Mark Fierro, a longtime public relations professional recently retained by local firefighters unions.

Unless the North Las Vegas firefighters union and the city come to some sort of agreement — and quickly — on contract concessions, Iverson’s position with the financially strapped city will be eliminated as of June 18.

While both the union and the city say they remain optimistic about a potential agreement, it looks less and less likely as the days tick by.

Each side blames the other for the stalemate. The union says the city refuses to accept the union’s “reasonable” offer to sacrifice $3.45 million in wages and benefits to save jobs.

Acting City Manager Maryann Ustick won’t comment in detail about talks while they are under way. But City Council members have been less reticent, with most of them criticizing the union for offering concessions only in exchange for conditions, including pay raises in future years and guarantees there will be no layoffs.

Such conditions would simply create a “temporary Band-Aid effect that defers all costs to somewhere down the road,” Councilman Richard Cherchio said Thursday. “It’s unfortunate, but we can’t do business that way in this economic climate.”

Councilwoman Anita Wood said the city is looking for union employees to give up raises and merit increases, “not just defer them.”

“We don’t know what the economy is going to be” in future years, she said. “We can’t agree to conditions that will tie our hands in the future.”

Only Mayor Shari Buck has remained steadfastly in the union’s corner, repeatedly emphasizing that she doesn’t support any cuts to city police and fire departments, despite the city’s need to come up with an additional $33.4 million to make it through fiscal year 2011.

The city, dealing with plummeting tax revenues, has undergone budget cuts totaling $51 million since December 2008. The City Council in April approved cutting 204 jobs, including the firefighter positions.

“I think the union has come to the table with a good proposal and it’s worth talking about,” Buck said Thursday. “Our problem as a city has been we expect these unions to give everything up and we will give nothing in return. You can’t expect it just to be a one-way street.”

Caught in the middle are firefighters such as Iverson.

“I’m sitting here dumbfounded as to why I’m about to lose my job,” he said.

The father of four left his previous job as an assistant principal in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a firefighter.

“I took the advice I gave to students over the years, which is pursue your dreams,” he said.

Iverson took a big pay cut to follow that dream, he said. He was making about $85,000 a year as an assistant principal for the Clark County School District. His firefighter salary last year, including overtime pay, came to about $64,000, he said.

Average 2009 earnings for North Las Vegas firefighters, including supplemental pay and overtime, was $81,648, according to the city. Average pay for firefighter paramedics, including supplemental pay and overtime, was $112,495. Those amounts do not include the cost of benefits.

As a rookie firefighter, Iverson was among the first to receive a layoff notice. Still, he toes the union line when it comes to concession talks. He says union members — whether rookie or veteran North Las Vegas firefighters — are united in their belief that the city is being unfair.

“We feel like we’ve presented sound, reasonable solutions,” he said. “It’s incredible that people are able to turn down solutions at the expense of public safety.”

Iverson said he believes emergency response times will lengthen because of the layoffs.

“How could they not?” he said.

But Cherchio said the layoffs should not affect response times because a private ambulance service already responds to emergency calls along with the North Las Vegas Fire Department.

In fact, the department recently proposed taking from the private service the transportation of more emergency patients to hospitals in an effort to save jobs. That proposal was put on hold after critics complained that the change would cost private-sector jobs.

Cherchio criticized what he called union “scare tactics” which included taking out a full page ad in the Review-Journal.

The ad claimed in part that four out of the five City Council members want to take out of service an entire engine company operating out of Station 52, near Craig and Losee roads.

Cherchio said department layoffs are not targeted to a specific station or company.

Union leadership “is in control of whether or not he (Iverson) continues to work for the city,” Cherchio said. “At this time the union isn’t doing anything much except politicking in the press.”

Wood said “there is a lot more to the story” than what union leadership is presenting to its members.

“I want them to know the city is willing to sit down any time, any place with the union,” she said. “This infighting is not doing the Fire Department any good. We need to get this resolved, but we’ve got to do it in a way that allows the city to balance its budget and doesn’t tie our hands in case things get worse.”

Iverson said he remains optimistic that the city and union will come to an agreement, and hasn’t figured out exactly what he’ll do if they don’t.

“It only makes sense for something to be worked out,” he said.

Buck, too, said she was still “hopeful that a win-win situation” would be worked out.

“I’m not going to give up. I’ll try until the last day, because these jobs are that important.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at
lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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