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EDITORIAL: Strapped North Las Vegas should outsource park maintenance

The city of North Las Vegas needs to find ways to save big money. Its budget deficit for the coming fiscal year is $18 million, and the government’s estimated seven-year shortfall is $152 million. City management can’t attack those numbers with scissors — it needs a chainsaw.

North Las Vegas can get through the next year without layoffs if the city’s public safety unions agree to accept reduced pay raises and a $7.7 million settlement from the government, instead of a $25 million court judgment over salary increases that were illegally suspended two years ago as an emergency measure. But even if those employee groups decide they can get by with reduced pay raises, the city will have a new latest fiscal challenge: how to cover up to $2.2 million per year in maintenance costs at the new Craig Ranch Regional Park.

The 170-acre park, which opened last year, provides residents with amenities and open space they’ve never had. The $130 million golf course conversion started well before the Great Recession and was funded largely by proceeds from federal land auctions. The city won’t be fully responsible for the park until July — the park’s developers have been covering some security, graffiti abatement and maintenance costs — but once summer arrives, North Las Vegas’ limited parks resources will be stretched even thinner.

As reported Monday by the Review-Journal’s James DeHaven, North Las Vegas has just eight park maintenance staffers to take care of three dozen municipal parks. When you factor in each employee’s sick and vacation time, the city effectively has just seven full-time park workers. That’s not nearly enough to properly take care of public property intended for recreation and relaxation. Indeed, other parks are falling into disrepair.

The city doesn’t have more parks maintenance workers because it can’t afford more of them. And it can’t afford more of them because they are provided salaries and benefits well above what their private-sector peers are paid.

According to the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s TransparentNevada website, in 2012, the city had 12 parks maintenance workers who, on average, received more than $90,000 each in total compensation. They were paid base salaries of between $51,600 and $53,600 and medical and retirement benefits that cost the public between $27,000 and $29,000 each. Only in government can someone receive a benefits package worth more than 50 percent of a base salary. Roll in overtime and other forms of compensation, and the price of a city parks maintenance worker reaches $90,000. Two park maintenance supervisors received base salaries of about $77,000 and total compensation of at least $139,000 in 2012.

The city’s solution here is obvious: North Las Vegas needs to outsource its park maintenance. Taxpaying, private-sector landscape maintenance companies, which take care of everything from homeowner association parks and common areas to commercial centers and hotels, can groom parks for far less money than government workers. Moreover, the intense competition between these companies keeps costs down and quality up. Collective bargaining and pension costs, on the other hand, ensure the costs of municipal park workers go nowhere but up — and there is no incentive for improved performance.

Best of all, if a contracted park maintenance company doesn’t get the job done, the city can fire that company, request new bids and hire someone else. North Las Vegas officials should, at a minimum, put out a bid to see what companies would charge to take care of the city’s parks for a year. In fact, every local government in Southern Nevada should engage in such an obvious cost-savings measure. Why should taxpayers pay an inflated government price for a service local businesses are capable of delivering at a much lower price?

Perhaps one day, as Mayor John Lee’s Chief of Staff Ryann Juden hopes, Craig Ranch Regional Park can not only become self-sufficient, but make all North Las Vegas parks self-sufficient. Perhaps, in five to 10 years, the park can be turned over to the ambassador group Friends of Craig Ranch, which already contributes many hundreds of volunteer hours per week.

Until then, overpaying for park maintenance makes no sense for a city mired in fiscal crisis, in desperate need of savings. Instead of cutting service, it’s time to provide the public with more for less.

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