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Union protests LV City Council

More than 100 Culinary union members disrupted a Las Vegas City Council meeting Wednesday, chanting, “No new city hall! No new city hall!” after a unanimous council vote to advance the project.

The chanting stopped the meeting for about five minutes as members of Culinary Local 226 marched out of the council chambers. Mayor Oscar Goodman appeared nonplused by the outburst about a project he believes is necessary to the revitalization of downtown.

Both he and council members took umbrage at the Culinary’s demonstration. Goodman got into a brief shouting match with a union official, barking out “You’re disingenuous!” and “Tell the truth!”

In separate votes, the council allocated money for planning and site preparation work for a new city hall and agreed to seek clearance for bonds to finance the project. The votes were not final approval for a new city hall. The council still must vote to issue the bonds.

Chris Bohner, the Culinary union’s research director, told the council it was irresponsible to pursue a new city hall building when the city is cutting its budget to make ends meet and seeking to revisit union contracts to slow the growth of personnel spending. The Culinary union does not represent city employees.

The proposed 250,000-square-foot city hall at the corner of Main Street and Lewis Avenue is budgeted at $150 million, although city officials seek up to $266 million in potential financing to cover construction cost increases and the cost of borrowing money.

Scott Adams, the city’s director of business development, told council members that the building would help spur further downtown development, including adjacent commercial buildings and a new hotel-casino at the nearby Union Park. Although the city faces a shortfall in operating revenues that has it in cost-cutting mode, the operating budget is separate from the monies that would used for building a new city hall.

The tax revenue from new development could pay for the building’s cost, as could redeveloping the current city hall site at Las Vegas Boulevard and Stewart Avenue, Adams said.

Bohner said the city was assuming an “if we build it, they will come” philosophy.

“There’s no guarantee that any of these projects will come,” he said.

Other council members also wondered about the risk. The existing plan calls for construction to start in May and finish by mid-2011, with the city starting to make full annual payments — estimated at $10 million — in 2016.

“Our vote today affects the next mayor and council,” City Councilman Ricki Barlow said. If the economy does not improve sufficiently in the interim, he asked, “where does it place the 2016 council?”

“That is the risk of this transaction,” Adams said. Without the expected ensuing development, “we would have a problem making the payment.” He added that an eight-year downturn would be “unprecedented.”

Council members cited the existing momentum for downtown development as reason to proceed, as well as the fact that construction costs likely will increase with time.

“I’m ready to take what little risk there is,” Goodman said, although he noted that the plan is a “jigsaw puzzle.”

“If it does all fall together, we have created a miracle,” he said. “This is not a billion to one. This is a sure thing. … It’s worth the dice on this one.”

In a separate interview, Bohner said it wasn’t worth risking a roll.

“A $250 million project in the middle of a budget crisis is inappropriate,” the Culinary union’s research director said, noting that at a recent meeting about city finances the mayor spoke of cutbacks and sacrifices. “Then they turn right around and say, ‘We want to do a quarter-billion-dollar city hall.’ “

The union has also criticized a city deal with California-based CIM Group to redevelop the Lady Luck Casino and surrounding property on Stewart Avenue, and Bohner said that tax incentives going to developers downtown could be funding education.

Possibly, said city finance director Mark Vincent. But without incentives, those projects might not have happened at all.

“It’s a chicken or the egg thing,” he said. “How did those projects get built? How it got here is because of the incentives.”

Those incentives, available in a zone known as the redevelopment area, expire in 2031.

When asked whether the goal was to pressure CIM or the planned Union Park casino to sit down with the union, Bohner only said, “Our members are hardworking taxpayers. This is a taxpayer issue.”

Councilman Larry Brown said the union’s leadership isn’t doing the members any good by stirring up opposition to projects that could create jobs.

“Let’s get everybody back on track because we’re all in this for the same reasons,” Brown said. “This kind of adversarial role means nothing.

“It’s disingenuous. It’s miscommunication. It’s cowardly.”

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

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