The blossoming battle over unsustainable levels of compensation for government union workers has shifted to Nevada. On June 1st, the North Las Vegas City Council granted the city manager special authority to suspend parts of union contracts in order to deal with crushing budget shortfalls in that city. The unanimous vote allows City Manager Tim Hacker to mandate concessions by police and fire unions, including an end to pay raises. Yet the basis of the decision is a novel one. North Las Vegas has declared a “state of emergency” based on a relatively obscure law enacted to protect municipalities from “unforeseen disasters.”
Unforeseen or not, there is little question North Las Vegas is in disastrous condition. One in every 195 homes is in foreclosure, constituting the highest rate in Nevada. The city that once led the nation in growth has endured a loss of more than 3,000 businesses, three years after the 2007 recession began taking its toll. And despite its residents paying the highest taxes in southern Nevada for the last two years, the city has remained on the verge of insolvency, with total revenue precipitously declining from $817 million in 2009, to $298 million this year.
Today’s reality stands in stark contrast to the “good times.” From 2000 to 2010, the population in North Las Vegas almost doubled from 115,488 to 223,394. Commensurate with that increase, the city doubled its staff, built new parks each year, and spent $130 million building a new City Hall beginning in 2009. As the recession took hold, the city responded by laying off hundreds of workers. Yet it remains saddled with a $30 million budget gap and a “BBB” city bond rating, following a Fitch Ratings downgrade last month that included a “negative watch” going forward.
City Council member Wade Wagner illuminates the obvious. “We are in a fiscal emergency,” he said. “North Las Vegas is ground zero basically for foreclosures in the nation. There are only a handful of places that have been hit as hard as North Las Vegas. So because our property taxes have declined so much, we really had to invoke this,” he added.
“This” is a reference to a law that gives local governments the ability to take “whatever actions may be necessary to carry out its responsibilities in situations such as riot, military action, natural disaster or civil disorder.” Whether or not such a law can be extended to include the suspension of union contracts remains unclear. An article published in the California Public Employee Relations journal explained the criteria necessary to enact such a law, as in proving an actual emergency exists, taking reasonable steps to address the issue before declaring an emergency, and demonstrating that the moves serve an important public purpose, as well as being tailored to deal with that specific emergency.
Yet the article also illuminated an obvious reality facing many municipalities around the nation. “Since cities and counties are service providers, 75 to 80 percent of their general-fund operating costs typically are labor-related,” it states. “Because of rapidly escalating benefit costs and declining revenues, services are being cut at an alarming pace.”
City officials in North Las Vegas, which faces a state-mandated deadline to present a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year, have argued that the alternative to suspending union contracts would be 217 additional layoffs, mostly within the already strapped police and fire departments, a move they contend would jeopardize public safety. The ratio of public safety workers to residents in North Las Vegas is already among the lowest in Southern Nevada, the city said.
Residents of North Las Vegas were turned off by the unions last year after some of their leaders erected billboards that read: “Warning: Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer guarantee your safety!” North Las Vegans have since urged the city to keep its libraries and recreation centers open and sacrifice public safety–which accounts for 66 percent of the city’s budget. As a result, the city aims to reduce the 1,000 public safety employees in 2011 to 721 in 2013. Last Wednesday night, the City Council also voted to turn its jail services over to the city of Las Vegas to save $16 million annually.
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