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Fire department merger idea about more than money

It’s not hard to understand firefighters in Clark County want to change the subject.

After months of bad press surrounding high salaries, generous overtime and the alleged abuse of sick leave, the heroes of Sept. 11 are now the villains of a down economy.

As the county investigates who actually gamed the system, and who used sick time appropriately, an intriguing idea has surfaced to change how the fire department is managed: consolidation.

Under Assembly Bill 278, introduced by Assembly members Tick Segerblom, Marcus Conklin and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, fire departments in certain counties could merge, similar to the way the Clark County sheriff’s office and the Las Vegas police department were joined in 1973. That means the fire departments of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Clark County could be consolidated into a single metropolitan fire department. It would be funded by contributions from the various cities and the county, with the money overseen by a fiscal affairs committee similar to Metro’s, with representatives of all contributing governments on its board. And it would be headed by an elected fire chief, the way Metro is overseen by an elected sheriff.

The theory goes, by electing a chief, you’d have some accountability. If firefighters failed to perform their jobs (say, not meeting response times) or abused sick leave, there would be a single individual whom the voters could hold accountable. Now, elected officials who didn’t personally select the chief and local government managers are on the line if a department screws up.

Consolidation would save money in the long run, but certainly not in the short term. Under AB278, employees of existing departments “are entitled to suffer no loss or gain in pay or benefits until a successor collective bargaining agreement is negotiated with the new employer.” And, tellingly, sick leave, longevity, vacation time and Public Employees Retirement System credits won’t be lost.

The bill says chiefs of existing departments “are entitled to obtain employment with the [metropolitan] department in positions which their leadership abilities warrant.” There could be a lot of deputy chiefs, post-merger.

If the idea was really to save money, it could be done — by specifying the newly merged department would adopt the least generous pay and benefits package currently offered in the county, and that only the number of employees needed to provide public safety would be hired by the new department, from chiefs to probationary firefighters. That approach would probably not win many fans in the fire service, however.

A consolidated fire department would likely save money on buying equipment, and there would be no leveraging when it came to contract negotiations, in which a city fire union argues to match the newly minted (and often more lucrative) contract of their brothers over in the county, and vice versa.

But consolidation wouldn’t solve every problem.

In part, that’s because firefighters are looking at the relatively more popular Metro police department, which has received praise even from elected officials who are critics of the firefighters’ sick leave scandal. Consider what would have happened, however, had a consolidated fire department been in place before the recent sick-leave scandal broke: An elected fire chief would be sweating out his next election. The hit to taxpayers — and the outrage of local elected officials who would be even more powerless than they are now to make changes — would be exactly the same.

In the long term, consolidation is probably the most efficient, smartest way to go, but it’s certainly not a cure for every problem, nor every scandal.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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