Police union talks raise concerns about saving North Las Vegas recreation centers

Some North Las Vegas leaders are starting to doubt whether last-ditch efforts to get police union concessions will come in time to save city recreation centers from the budget chopping block.

“They don’t get it,” Councilwoman Anita Wood said of the unions on Thursday. “It’s just devastating. They just don’t realize.”

Even Mayor Shari Buck, who has long championed public safety and remained optimistic about contract talks, is concerned.

“I don’t know if they all still think everything’s fine, if they have an understanding of how serious this is,” she said Friday. “If we don’t have meaningful concessions from them, there will be serious consequences.”

City officials have been banking on union concessions to plug a $4.9 million hole in the fiscal 2012 budget and allow the city to keep its recreation centers open.

The City Council twice has delayed action on a plan to lay off dozens of employees — probably leading to the closure of city rec centers and pools – in hopes concessions could be reached. Scores of residents angry about the potential closures have protested at council meetings, some of them blaming the police unions for not offering up more concessions sooner.

The city falls another $165,000 into the hole for every week it delays. It is barred by court order from laying off members of the Police Officers Association or freezing pay and cutting benefits for members of the Police Supervisors Union. State officials are keeping a wary eye on North Las Vegas; they have the power to take over the city’s finances if it can’t balance its budget.

In short, the city is running out of time. The council is slated to consider the plan again at its Aug. 17 meeting.

“We have to make this decision now,” Buck said. “Too much time has passed.”

But Sgt. Leonard Cardinale, president of the 60-member police supervisors union, said his union has come to the table. The city won’t negotiate, he said.

“We drew up a concession package and sent it to them Monday,” he said, adding that the city wasn’t happy with the offer. “They just want everything their way.”

Cardinale wouldn’t discuss all the details of the offer but said sticking points in the talks included the union wanting the city to pay 100 percent of members’ accrued sick leave upon their departure from the city. The city now pays 60 percent.

The union also wanted the city to maintain members’ current health insurance plan instead of increasing their premiums, he said.

But the city won’t give anything in exchange for concessions being offered, he said.

“It’s like someone stealing your sandwich and saying ‘I’ll give it back for $5.’ ”

What would be best for residents, Cardinale said, is for the city to “take the concessions instead of continue going to court with us.”

A hearing on a preliminary injunction that would continue barring the city from cutting police supervisors benefits will be held Monday in District Court.

City officials say they have little left to cut. North Las Vegas has undergone several rounds of budget cuts and layoffs, trimmed more than $60 million in the past five years from its general fund budget and cut or frozen more than 800 positions since 2009.

The city’s ending general fund balance — its savings account — plunged from a healthy 23.1 percent to a shaky 4.4 percent of expenditures.

Still, Cardinale said his “suspicion is there’s a lot of unrestricted money they don’t want anyone to be aware of because the public would go after them.”

Residents would be angry if they thought the city would close recreation centers “when you have unrestricted monies you could use to balance the budget,” he said.

Police supervisors in North Las Vegas average $147,700 a year in salary, plus $72,600 in benefits. The union’s members got their most recent cost-of-living raise — 4.25 percent — on July 1. Their next raise — 2.5 percent — comes in January, Cardinale said.

Mike Yarter, president of the roughly 360-member police officers union, has not returned calls or emails seeking comment in months.

His union’s members agreed to give up their July cost-of-living raises but last year received a 4.25 percent wage increase. More than half of the members last year also received merit increases between 5 percent and
7 percent.

Police officers in North Las Vegas average $92,400 a year in salary, plus $50,300 in benefits.

Union officials have said the city mismanaged its finances and failed to support public safety the way it should.

An outside financial review completed in June as part of talks between the city and police officers union said the city’s budget shortfall “absolutely does not require further concessions” from the union. It said the city has decreased funding for police at an “alarming rate” in recent years while increasing other expenditures.

City officials contested the review, saying it included several errors and “improper analysis.”

Wood conceded the city could have been smarter with its money during boom times and hasn’t committed to the Police Department the way it should have. But the city has no money to rectify the situation now, she said.

Buck, who has said she wouldn’t support more cuts to public safety, still believes “it has to be our No. 1 priority.”

“I don’t believe in laying off police officers on the street who are protecting our citizens,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to lay off within the Police Department.”

She continues hoping the city and unions can come to agreements.

“This is a dire situation,” she said. “We need their help.”

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

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