NORTH LAS VEGAS — If you’ve wondered why the North Las Vegas firefighter union feels free to take such an aggressive stance toward North Las Vegas taxpayers, it might have something to do with the fact that very few of the union members are city taxpayers themselves.
According to department records obtained by Nevada Journal, a mere 7 percent of North Las Vegas firefighters actually live in the city.
The majority of NLV firefighters live in Las Vegas or Henderson, while some live as far away as Carson City. Others even live out of state, such as in St. George and Cedar City, Utah.
The situation with the North Las Vegas police union — while not as pronounced — is comparable. About three-quarters of its members, or 74 percent, live outside the City of North Las Vegas, say additional public records obtained by Nevada Journal.
Thus, after the recent North Las Vegas City Council election recount was completed, public records reveal non-residents heavily influenced the election, especially with campaign contributions.
Specifically, during the Ward 4 race between incumbent Democrat Richard Cherchio and Republican Wade Wagner, Local 1607 of the International Association of Firefighters, composed primarily of non-resident employees of the North Las Vegas Fire Department, was extremely active.
The union spent heavily against Cherchio, funding attack ads that even the Las Vegas Sun found notable for their dishonesty. Cherchio, a retired postal worker who’d been appointed to the council, lost to Wagner, a dentist, by one vote.
Because over 90 percent of the firefighters live outside the city, says Cherchio, they easily support cuts to other areas of the city, such as parks, recreation centers and public restrooms, during the city’s financial crisis.
“As long as the cuts come from somewhere other than their paychecks, they don’t care, because they aren’t raising families here or utilizing everything in the city,” said Cherchio.
The ex-councilman noted that while only about 25 percent of NLV police staff reside in the city, the city was able to cut 83 police positions — something the firefighter union was able to avoid.
The firefighter union’s campaign against Cherchio dates back to the spring, when Cherchio proposed public safety layoffs to help solve a $30 million budget deficit. The firefighter union balked at the idea of layoffs, claiming its members had already agreed to “millions in concessions.”
What the unions suggested instead, said Cherchio, was an increased property tax — a convenient solution since most of them don’t live in the city.
“I realize they’re protecting their [turf], but they’re suggesting cutting turf they don’t even live on,” Cherchio said.
Cherchio demanded an election recount, but the recount confirmed Wagner as the victor. Former North Las Vegas mayor Mike Montandon characterized the recount as primarily “procedural.”
“The rules don’t change just because an election’s close,” said Montandon. “It was a rough election, but every election has perceived irregularities.”
Cherchio attempted to highlight the dominant role public safety unions played in Wagner’s campaign, specifically the large amount of donations.
According to campaign finance reports, Wagner’s largest donors were all public employee unions, with the NLV Firefighters’ PAC and Police Officers’ Association each contributing $10,000. The Las Vegas Firefighters contributed the next-highest amount with $7,500, followed by the Henderson Firefighters PAC at $5,000.
By contrast, Cherchio received no donations at the $10,000 level. The largest contributions listed in his most recent campaign expense report were several $5,000 contributions. The only donation Cherchio received from a public employee union was $1,000 from the Teamsters, which represents many clerical city employees. They face additional lay-offs when fire and police unions avoid equitable reductions.
Overall, public sector unions contributed well over half of Wagner’s reported $55,514 in total donations. The police and fire political action committees did not comply with Nevada election laws, failing to file expense and contribution reports on time. While the secretary of state’s office fined the police PAC over $1,300, no fine has yet been imposed on the firefighters.
Wagner defended his campaign contributions, saying such contributions are “part of the political process.”
“I could point fingers at Mr. Cherchio and say he was paid for by his campaign contributors,” said Wagner. “Every candidate has to raise money and people and interest groups always have their favorites.”
Wagner added that Cherchio’s campaign “raised plenty of money” and “messaging, not fundraising” was the difference in their campaigns.
The NLV Firefighters PAC contributed far more money to Wagner’s campaign than it did to higher profile state elections. According to its most recent campaign and expense reports, the NLV Firefighters PAC’s largest expense to a candidate during the 2010 election cycle was $1,500, and it gave only $500 to its own assistant chief, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera.
Cherchio wasn’t the only person affected by the unions’ brutal campaign. Bobby Mockbee, owner of TheInfopeople, a North Las Vegas engraving shop, told Nevada Journal that union campaign signs depicting a flood of crime increases from proposed public safety cuts made the entire area look bad.
“When you see a sign depicting a 50 percent crime increase — which isn’t true — and other doom and gloom signs, it takes an effect on the city,” said Mockbee. “Customers understand [the election], but people coming in from out of town aren’t going to be too happy.”
Mockbee’s business has been in North Las Vegas for over 30 years, and while he said it was too soon to know if the campaign signs have impacted his business, he said wasteful city spending was the real crime on the rise.
“All the city did was spend, spend, spend on everything from public employees to failed construction developments,” Mockbee said. “If they’d spent wiser and had a bit of a rainy day fund, they wouldn’t have to make any cuts.”
Since so many union members are nonresidents, they don’t have to worry about the big-picture impact of the signs, said Mockbee, because “they’re only here for their shift.”
Dozens of North Las Vegas residents testified at city council meetings against the signs “sending threatening messages to citizens,” indicating the union PACs showed little regard for the day-to-day activities of residents, according to Mockbee.
“Some of the workers leave, but the signs always stay, and they don’t have to see their signs when they go home,” Mockbee said.
Recently, the firefighter local agreed to a 5 percent pay cut, preventing 35 pending firefighter layoffs. The city will save $2 million from the concessions, which entailed firefighters foregoing educational, bilingual and uniform maintenance pay incentives. The cuts took effect Aug. 1.
With Wagner now in office, Cherchio said it’ll be worth seeing how close Wagner stays to the unions who helped elect him.
“They agreed to the cut, but he’ll be expected to help them out at some point,” Cherchio said.
Wagner insisted he’d represent the entire city of North Las Vegas as opposed to just the unions.
“I told every person who gave me money, ‘thank you for your contribution towards good government,’” he said. “There’s way too much work to do [for the city] and I intend to do my best for it.”