By Selwyn Harris
The fate of firefighters employed by Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Services remains unknown after Tuesday’s town board meeting.
Board members discussed the possibility of layoffs as a way to help ease the town’s budget woes.
Town Manager Bill Kohbarger authored an agenda item that sought a vote to authorize layoffs. He blames the fire department’s International Association of Fire Fighters IAFF Local 4068 union shop for forcing his hand on the issue.
Kohbarger said the IAFF balked at the idea of freezing the firefighters’ 4 percent periodic pay raises known as STEP increases, which would save the department approximately $145,000 a year.
Board members on Tuesday voted unanimously to begin the layoff process, first by urging the union to restart negotiations and possibly salvage the jobs, but if that fails, then to make the necessary cuts.
The issue will be revisited during the first town board meeting in August.
Board member Dr. Tom Waters was the first to offer up the motion.
“Madam chair, I’d like to make a motion that we move to direct town staff to open negotiations with the IAFF regarding wages to achieve a $145,000 savings to the town budget or present options for a reduction in force at the next town board meeting,” he said.
Kohbarger maintains that both the town and the IAFF forged an apparent agreement to discuss the issue back in February but said Union President Ray Delucchi still has not expressed an interest in coming to the proverbial table to talk about the matter.
“He advised that he would, and I officially put it out in writing that we needed to sit down and talk about it. I took their word for it. I took his word for it and unfortunately now I gotta look like the bad guy here,” he said.
The Town Manager also said that looking at the condition of the local economy, the union should understand that certain small sacrifices are necessary to help move the town forward and still remain fiscally stable.
He pointed to some of the salaries firefighters are earning annually.
“We have nine firefighters who make $90,000 or more per year. Two of those firefighters make $110,000 a year, and one firefighter is making $189,000 plus per year and that is salary with overtime. You have to remember that firefighters work ten days a month. On the average they make $80,000 a year,” he said.
Kohbarger disclosed the salaries only after a Pahrump Valley Times reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act form.
He also noted that no other town employee, including himself, has accepted a scheduled pay raise in the recent past, due to the dreary state of the local economy.
“I just think it’s a little bold and brash to tell everybody that they want their 4 percent raise when they know that not one other employee in this town has gotten a pay raise and this will be the third straight year in a row and not one has received the raise. But they the union have gotten their raises. I don’t want to do this. I don’t know how many times I can say that. I don’t ever want to lay anybody off. This is the first time in 13 years I’ve ever taken as a manager, this kind of issue to an elected board and I’m not happy about it,” he said.
Kohbarger made mention to the fact that he has no qualms with the entire union, but he noted that the man who is now the president is completely unwilling to negotiate with the town unlike the former union president.
“Last year we got a great deal. Tim Murray, the union president at that time, and myself sat down and we came up with an agreement. It is just a shame that the new union president is trying to make a name for himself. Mr. Murray and I butted heads on many occasions. We had a love-hate relationship but Mr. Murray looked out not only for the best interests for the IAFF, but what was ultimately best for the town and he knew there were times to fight and times not to. He did fight very hard for the IAFF, but again he was somewhat reasonable and we got things done. For the record, we have some very talented and very brave firefighters in this department and they are very well trained,” he said.
Murray on Tuesday evening provided a slightly different account on the issue of budget talks.
He reminded board member Mike Darby about a conversation that took place between the two during a board meeting in 2011.
“I’m sure you remember a conversation we had just outside this building with me pleading for you when you were a chairperson to send someone from the town to witness these negotiations. We had this conversation right out here. My concern here is that we went through a budget setting process and in the past when there has been some financial concerns, there has been documentation that the town management sent to the union saying we have a budget problem and we need to sit down and talk about it. That never happened. I was the president of this union until about three months ago. We were never contacted. You went through your budget setting and approved the budget and 60 days after you approved the budget, now there’s some fiscal emergency, and fiscal crisis that is constituting a discussion about laying off firefighters,” he said.
Parker pointed to one reason why the town is experiencing problems trying to maintain a balanced budget.
She said hundreds of thousands of dollars have not been collected due to some residents who have not paid for medical services provided by the town’s ambulance service.
From March until last month the town has had to write off $385,928 in billable charges.
Out of $656,419 in charges for that period, the town was only able to collect $270,491.
“The percentage of people who don’t pay their ambulance bills is increasing like crazy. We use to have about $250,000 in unpaid bills. This last quarter it has gone crazy. That’s just my personal thing and this is all public information and I would just like the town to know that we have a collection problem and we are working hard on it but if the money isn’t there from people who are supposed to pay their bills, the money isn’t there,” Parker said.
At least a half dozen residents provided public comment on the item.
One unlikely ally provided his support for the fire department.
Anthony Greco attempted to sue the town for $6.5 billion dollars earlier this year.
He is now seeking an inquiry about what he calls a corrupt criminal enterprise involving both town and county officials.
Interestingly, Greco is siding with some of the same individuals that he deems possibly corrupt.
“Everybody knows that I’m not a friend to the firefighters’ union but I don’t think you should reduce the staff at all. This is a budgeting problem that you have and whoever negotiated the contract should have thought about this ahead of time. I don’t think anybody should lose their job,” Greco said.
Former Town Board Candidate Richard Goldstein also lent his thoughts on the issue.
“This fire department is a value. If it were not for the fire department, I’d be a widower today. My wife damn near died last December and they saved her. We talk about spending money out here like it’s water, $133,000 for this or that and here we are bickering about $145,000 for firefighters. You could not pay me $145,000 to go into a burning building and I damn well know that none of you would do it. But to cut firefighters’ jobs, even one, is the most ludicrous thing that this town has ever thought of doing,” he told the board.
Murray, meanwhile, noted that sometimes the town’s firefighters feel underappreciated.
“It’s not by the public because the public has always supported the firefighters on the streets. On calls, they are always very, very supportive. The town manager really devalues and demoralizes the department with his attitude and throwing out things that’s as serious as when we are going to lay off two firefighters and it’s just unfortunate,” he said.
IAFF President Ray Delucchi, who is a Las Vegas resident, summed up his thoughts about cooperating with town officials in a press release issued just recently.
“Pahrump Valley Firefighters IAFF Local 4068 has always negotiated with the town of Pahrump in good faith and has made major concessions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. The town manager needs to do what’s right for the citizens of Pahrump and own up to the false information he is disclosing to the Pahrump news and stop making poor decisions surrounding the Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Services and local firefighters,” he stated.
The town board is expected to disclose their course of action during the Aug. 14 regular meeting.