Let’s stop calling the recession-driven changes in local government labor deals “concessions” and start calling them something more appropriate — like “raises.”
This week, the Las Vegas City Council is expected to approve a new two-year contract with the city’s firefighters. The firefighters are the city’s last bargaining group to agree to a revised contract in response to steep revenue declines, but the first to forgo cost-of-living raises altogether. In exchange for giving up a pay raise that has amounted to about 3.5 percent most years, the firefighters will see the city — the taxpayers — pick up $1.75 million in additional benefit contributions this year. The second year of the contract is open-ended, subject to potential renegotiation.
The result is a net increase in the firefighters’ compensation, although one not nearly as large as they have received in previous years. Unlike pay raises, the benefits contribution won’t become a compounding expense, City Manager Betsy Fretwell said. To the beleaguered taxpayers who have endured hardships including income reductions and higher taxes, such “concessions” are a slap in the face.
But the city’s firefighters deserve credit here for agreeing to some of the smallest compensation increases of any local government union. These handsomely paid public safety workers know they are guaranteed a high standard of living when, for most of the people they serve, that standard is declining. That 97 percent of the union voted for the new contract shows that unlike their Clark County colleagues, who are imperiling welfare programs by refusing to give up any of their extravagant pay increases, they understand what’s happening in the valley around them.
However, this development underscores the deeper problems with government unionization and collective bargaining in Nevada. Once negotiated, compensation increases practically become a birthright. Government workers receive “cost of living” raises with no nexus to the cost of living, “step” raises, “longevity” raises, boosts in benefits, sweetened, early retirements and on and on, and the taxpayers can’t get meaningful relief even when the economy crashes and burns.
Ms. Fretwell and Mayor Oscar Goodman point out that the city is not yet in a fiscal emergency. But after years and years of giveaways to city unions, it won’t be long before the budget bursts into flames so tall, not even the firefighters will be able to put it out.