Reining in costs

Clark County commissioners launched the political fight of their careers Tuesday.

Now they need to show they’re in it to win it.

The all-Democrat board voted 5-2 in favor of a motion to make broad cuts through a combination of layoffs, restructuring deficit-plagued University Medical Center and obtaining concessions from the county’s unionized employees. Commissioners have to come up with at least $126 million worth of savings to answer sinking tax collections and balance the county’s operating budget.

“We need to be more efficient,” said board Chairman Rory Reid, who developed the plan and obtained support for it.

But make no mistake, Tuesday’s vote was a shot at the county’s bargaining groups and their unsustainable, contracted wages and benefits, which consume two-thirds of the general fund and allow administrators no flexibility in reducing expenses. The average firefighter receives almost $200,000 per year in total compensation, for heaven’s sake.

The county’s previous efforts at reining in personnel costs have focused on reducing wage growth. Last year, most county employees agreed to accept 1 percent cost-of-living pay raises instead of 3 percent hikes, while retaining their merit and longevity raises. Whoop-de-do.

Now the county will seek to cut salaries, eliminate pay raises and halt the overtime excesses that enrich so many public employees. If the unions don’t bend, hundreds of workers — perhaps more than 1,000 — will be laid off by year’s end.

Unions will pull out all the stops to save their members’ jobs, salaries and benefits. Already, we’ve seen an especially shameless advertising campaign from Las Vegas firefighters intended to scare voters and City Council members into sparing them from further sacrifice.

The unions and their members, however, have consistently demonstrated a dramatic disconnect from the economy that supports their elevated standard of living. They’re going to have a hard time defending their gravy to taxpayers who’ve lost income, lost jobs, lost savings, lost homes and lost hope.

Tuesday’s vote was just the opening bell. The five county commissioners who stood up to the unions — Reid, Susan Brager, Steve Sisolak, Larry Brown and Tom Collins — must be prepared to use the bully pulpit of their offices to answer every union attack and exaggeration.

One factor working against the unions and in favor of the public: Of these five commissioners, only Ms. Brager is up for re-election this year (Mr. Reid, whose term expires at the end of the year, is running for governor).

Mr. Reid deserves much credit for moving quickly to cut expenses. He has been measured and deliberate in charting this course. Now it gets nasty.

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