Budget buster: Runaway overtime in North Las Vegas

Hard times demand hard decisions, not denial and wishful thinking. Not surprisingly, the cash-strapped city of North Las Vegas is engaged in more of the latter and less of the former.

Case in point: the North Las Vegas Fire Department’s runaway overtime costs.

As part of its shaky spending plan for fiscal year 2012, the City Council budgeted about $933,000 for firefighter overtime. Last week, during a special City Council meeting, Deputy Chief Kevin Brame reported his department had spent almost $740,000 on overtime in the first three months of the fiscal year. Considering the second quarter ends in a couple of weeks, the Fire Department is already hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red on personnel costs, on pace to spend triple what the council budgeted for overtime.

Mr. Brame told the council the department has been stretched thin by retirements, buyouts and a hiring freeze, and the overtime has been absolutely, indisputably necessary to maintain minimum staffing requirements and response times. And the council, while expressing some concern, had little beef with Mr. Brame’s report and his defense of the spending. Earlier this year, a city audit found the Fire Department didn’t abuse overtime or sick leave.

"It’s basic math," Mayor Shari Buck said. "You can ask someone to cut their overtime, but when we’re giving them the task of protecting the city, covering 100 square miles, and doing it with less people, something has to give."

The council has been doing the giving, showing great deference to its public safety unions throughout the recession by demanding few compensation concessions in exchange for promises of no layoffs. Ms. Buck, in particular, has made it clear that exceptionally well-paid firefighters and police officers — most of whom aren’t North Las Vegas residents — are the city’s most important workers, providing the city’s most important services.

Then pass a budget that reflects those priorities and slash spending elsewhere. The city’s low-ball overtime estimate for firefighters is the equivalent of a family responding to a loss of income by budgeting $100 per month for food. They know they have no chance of hitting that number, but at least their budget is balanced on paper, right?

North Las Vegas is a fiscal disaster because it consistently waits for bills it can’t afford to come due before it worries about how to pay for them. The city has almost no cash reserves and is a prime candidate for municipal bankruptcy.

If elected council members aren’t willing to make the painful calls necessary to stabilize their foundering city, then perhaps the state should take over and do the job for them.

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