Goodman advises more budget cuts as union rejects wage concessions

Las Vegas city officials should cut deeper into next year’s budget, a move that might require additional layoffs, Mayor Oscar Goodman said Wednesday.

His directive followed news that members of the Las Vegas City Employees Association, by far the largest of the four city bargaining units, voted against giving wage concessions to the city.

“We tried,” Goodman said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “We tried. But the window is closed. The door is slammed.”

The council already was looking at a 2011 budget with a projected $70 million shortfall. The idea was to make up some of that with reserves and the rest with 146 layoffs of city employees.

The alternative to layoffs was for all city employees to give up scheduled raises and instead accept an 8 percent pay cut.

With unions unwilling to reopen their contracts to reduce pay rates, Goodman said the council will ask for a “much more modest” budget “with less reliance on reserves.”

City Manager Betsy Fretwell “has been instructed to look at every corner of the city, sparing no one in contributing to the reduction in the shortfall,” the mayor said.

City Employees Association President Don King said it’s his understanding that more layoffs are possible. The blame for the current situation, though, lies with the city, he said.

“There’s very little, if any, trust right now in management,” King said. “We don’t know what to believe anymore. The rank and file are out there saying, ‘The city doesn’t care about us.’ “

Almost 70 percent of his membership voted against wage concessions because there wasn’t a guarantee that the reduction would save jobs, even though Goodman repeated for weeks that the only way to stop layoffs was for workers to agree to less pay.

“That’s mixed signals,” King said. “The city really needs to take a hard look at what it’s doing.”

The union prepared two options for cuts, if the membership wanted them — giving up cost-of-living increases and going on furlough for 96 hours during the year or accepting a smaller cost-of-living raise and going to a four-day work week. The first option would save an estimated $8.7 million, the second, $16.5 million.

But “why should I give the city $8.7 million or $16.5 million when they won’t guarantee that we’ll keep anybody?” King asked. “That’s all we asked for: ‘Guarantee me how many positions I can save.’ That would’ve made it easier to sell to my membership.”

Goodman didn’t help things by, at one point, exploring the idea of firing all city employees and then offering to hire them back for a shorter work week.

He also joked before Wednesday morning’s council meeting about a new bungee jumping ride at the Stratosphere, saying that perhaps city employees should jump off the tower and the ones who survived could keep their jobs.

“That’s the kind of crap that just tears morale apart,” King said. “That kind of stuff just has to stop.”

Bruce Snyder, the City Employee Association’s attorney, showed up at the end of the meeting to criticize Goodman and demand an apology.

“We can have our policy differences,” Snyder said. “But statements like that are reprehensible.”

Goodman retorted that it was just an example of “my humor.”

“If I felt I did anything wrong or wasn’t a joke, I would apologize,” Goodman said. “It was an attempt at humor at a very difficult time in our city’s history.”

While proposals like the City Employee Association’s would save money, they don’t address the root concern that growth in personnel costs has reached a point that it will always outpace the city’s ability to pay, city officials have said.

Between cost-of-living, merit, step and longevity raises, many city employees get 6 percent to 8 percent raises annually until topping out on the pay scale. They also have benefit packages that include health insurance premiums and retirement system contributions.

“We do not want to leave this city in a terrible state for the next group of elected officials,” Goodman said. “We feel it’s our duty … to begin to bring our finances in line with what the private sector economy has so that we will have a sustainable city for generations to come. The one we have right now isn’t sustainable.”

Of the other bargaining units, the city marshals offered to give up a cost-of-living raise and a uniform allowance, and the city’s firefighters have offered a budget that keeps personnel costs the same.

The city’s detention center workers did not offer concessions.

A 2008 Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study found that Nevada’s state and local government workers are among the best paid in the country. It also found that Nevada has the lowest ratio of government workers to population, a finding employees have pointed to as proving their efficiency.

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

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