Gridlock, layoffs loom despite NLV’s emergency action

Neither side blinked Friday after the deadline for compromise passed.

The North Las Vegas City Council voted unanimously to give the city manager the power to change union contracts in order to balance the city’s budget shortfall of $31 million.

As expected, the police and firefighter unions held firm to challenge that vote in court.

There were harsh words from a few people who accused the council members of mismanaging the city’s finances. “Why should we trust you since we’ve trusted you since 2008?” asked corrections officer Danielle Moreno.

“We didn’t mismanage money,” Mayor Shari Buck answered, sitting on the dais of the new $127 million City Hall. She referred Moreno to reports from economic experts, including Robert Lang, the executive director at UNLV’s Lincy Institute. The experts explained how decreasing property taxes mixed with increasing labor costs means financial disaster.

Lang also wrote, “Adding to the diminishing reputation of North Las Vegas are widespread charges of fiscal mismanagement by city officials. The most publicized of these charges targets overly generous contracts with public employees – especially those in public safety. The charge has merit.”

I agree with Lang’s analysis that if North Las Vegas fails, it becomes a public relations disaster for the entire state. I also agree that in boom times, the city officials gave away the store, and were late to recognize their mistakes.

There were a few comments of support, one from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, which contends North Las Vegas public employees are overpaid.

“Public safety union leaders have told everyone at the top of their lungs how much they have given. But not once have I heard them tell you how much they get,” Councilwoman Anita Wood said.

The Teamsters aren’t expected to join in any lawsuit challenging the emergency powers resolution, said Steve Harney, vice president of Teamsters Local 14.

Even so, Buck had harsh words for the Teamsters.

On Thursday, in a tight vote, Teamsters rejected a contract offer. “I witnessed one of the most embarrassing and despicable acts yesterday as one of our unions voted down a tentative agreement,” Buck said. “I saw members of that union public ly and enthusiastically cheering and clapping and celebrating at the announcement that 60 of their colleagues would be losing their jobs.”

Harney didn’t dispute that occurred. “I wish I could explain it, but I can’t.”

Filing a lawsuit will most likely mean layoffs will occur. The city’s budget deadline was Friday, and state law required it be balanced, so a judge may say his or her hands are tied and allow layoffs to go forward.

Based on a common sense reading of the law, I suspect the declaration of emergency suspension of collective bargaining agreements won’t hold up in court. The state law was written to allow swift reaction in emergency situations such as riots, natural disasters or military action – unanticipated problems that come on suddenly. This economic downturn began in December 2007.

The city’s only hope to alter union contracts is that a judge will agree this is a public safety emergency.

Declaring municipal bankruptcy like they did in Stockton, Calif., is not an option in Nevada. State law doesn’t permit it. The next Legislature may consider changing that, but then the city puts everything in the hands of a bankruptcy judge, and there are pros and cons to that.

If the emergency power grab is blocked by a judge, another option is that the state might take over the city’s budget. Some union leaders see that as preferable to continuing to work with a City Council they don’t trust.

It’s obvious North Las Vegas leaders don’t want to surrender power, not to a judge and not to state officials.

Sadly, North Las Vegas has become just like Congress. Constipated.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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