Why is Culinary alone?

City’s redevelopment agency has been taking money away from teachers, firefighters and police

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Much controversy has arisen over the Culinary Union’s recent opposition to the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency (LVRDA). City officials are claiming that the Culinary Union is operating under false pretenses. They claim that Culinary is really not concerned about the unnecessary burden that the LVRDA places on taxpayers within the redevelopment zone, but that the union is using the issue to secure a labor agreement with downtown developers who receive LVRDA subsidies.


This has been the crux of the LVRDA’s response to Culinary’s attacks. Regardless of Culinary’s motives, however, the union is right to guard the interests of taxpayers.


Few attempts have been made by city officials to defend the merits of LVRDA operations. This is understandable. Redevelopment agencies in Nevada appear to exist primarily to channel tax dollars into the pockets of large-scale private developers. This model of redevelopment creates serious opportunities for corruption as it empowers city officials to dole out public funds to their friends (and campaign donors) in the private sector. Indeed, many problems result from the way the redevelopment model is structured in this state and, as demonstrated in a recent report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the LVRDA has been a poster-child for how not to do redevelopment.


The problems associated with the LVRDA’s activities are particularly deplorable given that many policymakers are currently complaining about a lack of funds in Nevada and have considered raising taxes. It’s enough to make one wonder why Culinary is the only union actively protesting against the LVRDA. Redevelopment agencies such as the LVRDA systematically channel money away from police departments, fire departments and school districts in order to provide subsidies to private developers.


It’s odd that the unions representing employees in these other industries have not jumped into the fight. By now, Clark County teachers should have recognized that they are being asked to take a 6 percent pay cut, in part, because the City of Las Vegas is diverting tax revenues that would otherwise have gone to the school district to the LVRDA. Essentially, the city is forcing Clark County teachers into accepting this pay cut so they can do things such as give $20 million to a private developer to build luxury condominiums for the urban elite.


Firefighters and police working for the city recently had to accept cuts in the cost-of-living adjustments specified in their negotiated labor agreements. Yet their unions have declined to weigh in on the city’s plans to build a new $267 million city hall through the LVRDA. Nor have the unions highlighted the $1 billion in subsidies and financing costs that the city has promised to pay to preferred developers for private construction projects in the downtown area. Notably, that amount rivals the state government’s supposed budget “shortfall.”


NPRI recognizes that a significant share of the spending problems experienced by state and local government in Nevada have resulted from overly generous compensation schemes for public employees. Examples include comparatively high base salaries, extensive abuse of overtime pay, pay increases that are not based on merit and unrealistic benefits packages that guarantee public-employee retirement payments grossly out of line with those in the private sector. 


Public employees’ unions have worked to systematically extract these extravagant levels of compensation from taxpayers. Hence, public employees’ unions have been a leading reason for the current fiscal crises across the state. The unions themselves are responsible, in many cases, for the need to trim salaries and/or lay off workers.


However, this unintended consequence of collective bargaining has rarely discouraged workers’ unions from seeking perpetually higher levels of compensation from taxpayers in the past. Thus, it is particularly odd that union employees currently threatened with salary reductions have not seized upon the gluttony of redevelopment agencies in an effort to avert these reductions.


In the present scenario, one has to wonder why teachers, firefighters and policemen haven’t pressed their respective union officials to weigh in on the redevelopment debate. So far, they have been content to allow Culinary to do that job for them. However, when the chips finally fall into place, they may find themselves regretting their passivity.


Geoffrey Lawrence is a fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute

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