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Q & A with County Commissioner Steve Sisolak

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has been the most vocal among the seven commissioners about the need to rein in runaway personnel costs at the county — which, despite the recession, in the past three years has seen some workers’ pay increase as much as 18 percent when cost of living, merit and step increases and longevity pay are totaled and compounded. This while property tax revenue has plummeted, the unemployment rate remains above 13 percent and foreclosures continue apace.

All of the county’s union contracts expire June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The terms of new contracts will have a major impact on the level of services the county can afford to provide. Just this past week, unionized workers at University Medical Center rejected a proposed 2 percent cut in pay.

In an interview this week, Commissioner Sisolak discussed what priorities need to be established for cost containment and the county’s role in attempting to stimulate the economy of the region. He said new contracts must not include any cost of living, merit, longevity or step pay increases and must include real reductions in salaries.

Q: What can be done about the level of pension payments to public employees?

A: The numbers are just unfathomable moving forward. I mean if you get Social Security, you get what? $1,500 … $2,000 a month? If you’re lucky you get that kind of money. Now you get people who are making, you know, the public employees who are making $12(,000), $14,000 a month — that their pension is going to come to.

And as the life expectancy increases, you’re going to pay this out over a longer period of time.

And at some point when it tips, right now it is my understanding with the PERS system there are still more contributions going in than (payments) coming out, but it is getting to the point now where you’ve got the county employees … getting to the end of their careers. Once everybody starts retiring and you get all these $100,000-a-year pensions … what we are leaving the next generation? How do you fix that?

You’ve got to start sometime. …

People earned (the pensions), they’ve got an entitlement to it, they got hired based on that. That’s one thing. But we at some point have to stop and say, look, start doing this differently, calculating a different way. Whether it comes down the amount of sick time they can accrue, the amount of vacation they get and so forth, that all has to change. How longevity is calculated.

Q: County unions complain they have fewer employees per capita than other governments already and that layoffs will increase the workload.

A: Right. And that’s one of the things the labor groups are dealing with amongst themselves, and I’ve talked to some of the labor folks. They’d say look, do you want 100 percent of my people to make a 3 percent sacrifice or 3 percent of my people to make a 100 percent sacrifice? Depending where you are in the pecking order in the union, are you going to be in the 3 percent that’s making 100 percent of the sacrifice? That’s just what it comes down to, and who votes.

Q: Do you expect any relief from the Legislature?

A: I’m in favor of collective bargaining, but some of what has been talked about is reasonable. The disclosure and transparency is important. I’ve had individual union members who’ve called me and said they don’t know what the county offered them. They don’t know what their union offered the county. And I don’t think that’s fair. The leadership only takes a contract to the members if they decide to take it to the members. So is that fair to the people who are paying the dues? They don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t see where anybody would oppose that. But obviously they will. … Why the last and best is not made public is beyond me, and why the opening offers are not made public. I think not just the rank-and-file need to know what their leadership is offering, but what their leadership is rejecting, but also the public that is ultimately paying this bill has a right to know what’s being negotiated away or not. I mean how do they know if the county staff or the commissioners or city council people or whoever that might be, the elected leaders, are doing a good job if they don’t know what’s being talked about. I think that everybody should be in favor of the transparency, but that’s not the case.

Q: Is there a problem with the fact that when governments make wage comparison studies, they usually compare wages of other government entities rather than the private sector?

A: Well, that’s the ratcheting up effect that’s occurred from, you know, you let the city go, and then the county and then Henderson and North Las Vegas, then it’s the city, then it’s the county and they go boom, boom, boom. It’s a spiral staircase going up, up and up. That defeats the purpose. You don’t want the collusion of everyone bargaining together, yet the unions talk and basically use one against the other. "You’ve got to give me this, because they got this at the city or they got this in the county, so Henderson got this." The base keeps increasing. Your top is the base for the next group. … You come around and around and around. That’s a real problem.

Q: How do you fix the problem in the long-term?

A: You have to say, look, we’re going to change the pension plan for people moving forward. We’re going to change the benefits they can accumulate. I don’t think anybody could argue that, if the county had to hire 1,000 people the first of July, and you said OK, moving forward here’s the new set of rules everyone is going to fall under, I don’t think there would be any shortage of applicants for those jobs. And the time has come. We need to re-look at this. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, now fix it.

My biggest disappointment in this whole economic downturn that we’ve seen is that I don’t think we’ve used it to learn a lesson to fix our mistakes. And if you don’t fix your mistakes and learn from history you’re going to repeat history again — 25, 30, 40 years from now you and I might not be around anymore discussing this, but somebody’s going to be sitting here and they’re going: This is the same problem they had back in 2011, 2009, 2010, why didn’t they fix it then and then it would have improved. … The longer we wait the bigger the problem’s going to be.

Q: How can government expect the same or more from those in the private sector who are getting by on less?

A: I’m involved in a lot charities now and you’re getting the people who used to be donors are now clients at food banks. I’m shocked. … There are an awful lot of people who are one paycheck away from living in their car, living on the streets. In a zoning meeting there was a construction job on South Las Vegas Boulevard where they committed to me it’s 200 workers. It’s going to take them a year for 200 guys to build this apartment complex that’s going up, and I just said, look, you know I’ll move mountains to get the permits expedited, just tell me you’re going to hire Clark County workers. They will. They’re going to hire Clark County people.

Q: What is the priority for the county in the coming months?

A: Reducing costs and creating jobs. Creating jobs would be the first one. We need to do whatever we can to help businesses to exist and to expand and to attract new businesses.

A big part is getting out of their way. Build a bridge, not build a fence. That’s what we need to start doing. You’re not going to come with this idea to create 10(,000) or 20,000 jobs. This guy who is building those apartments is creating 200 jobs. That’s huge. That’s a big number. That’s 200 guys who are going to be able to support their families. They’ll go to the grocery store. The kids’ll go to school. They’ll buy a new jacket. It all starts adding up. …

If your readers have any ideas …

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He can contacted at (702) 383-0261 or via email at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.

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