Inconveniencing customers

When a struggling business takes steps to cut costs, reducing its hours of operation is rarely part of the survival solution. Especially in the service sector, maintaining hours that are convenient for paying customers takes precedence — workers might have to deal with reduced or unfavorable schedules as a result, but at least they’ll still have their jobs.

In government, it’s the exact opposite. A government’s “customers” have no choice of competitors, and they’re forced by law to pay the taxes that fund public-sector operations. Because regulation compels citizens to visit government offices, government has no obligation to maintain operating hours that accommodate the public — it’s the convenience of the government workers that takes precedence.

So it’s no surprise that, given current economic conditions, the city of Henderson is planning to close its City Hall on Fridays. The City Council has approved the change in hours effective July 1, but it might not take effect until August or September, a city spokeswoman said.

Henderson is grappling with worsening revenue shortfalls and out-of-control growth in labor expenses. The city has long lavished on its unionized employees the most generous public-sector salaries and benefits in all of Nevada — at the expense of city residents and businesses, of course — and now it has to figure out how to cut operating costs by perhaps tens of millions of dollars without requiring any sacrifice of said unionized employees.

The sacrifice will have to be made by the public. Already unable to interact with the city bureaucracy on weekends, residents now will lose the option of visiting City Hall on Fridays, as well.

Henderson workers will be quick to argue that they have made concessions to help taxpayers — instead of enjoying annual pay raises in the range of 7 to 10 percent, they’re facing the prospect of 2 to 4 percent pay hikes for the next few years. Oh, the horror!

To help make up for slower growth in employee paychecks, the council is about to move most of its work force to four-day workweeks.

Imagine such an announcement in the business world: “The company deeply regrets that because of the fragile state of the economy and an overall decrease in annual revenues, we will have to ask you, our dedicated workers, to take your full salaries and three-day weekends until further notice.” Yeah, you can keep dreaming.

With the move, Henderson would join North Las Vegas and Boulder City as local municipalities that close city offices on Fridays.

Henderson officials estimate the move might save about $1.5 million per year through the elimination of one part-time position and 13 full-time positions, and an additional $60,000 in energy use and other non-labor expenses. That doesn’t mean anyone would be laid off, however. Attempts would be made to move those workers to vacant positions deemed essential to city functions.

But what does it say about how “essential” these city offices really are if they can be closed half the week?

The Henderson City Council should look north, to the state of Utah, to see how much money is actually saved by inconveniencing the public and kowtowing to public employees. That state’s one-year experiment with a four-day work week, which ends in August, was instituted to save state employees gasoline through reduced commuting and to cut the state’s own gas and utility expenses. Gov. Jon Huntsman wanted to realize $3 million in annual savings from the trial, but his administration is already conceding that figure won’t be reached.

The council should leave no stone unturned in its efforts to reduce expenses. But it can’t forget that its primary obligation to is the citizens and businesses who provide the city’s spending money, not the bureaucrats who consume it.

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