Admittedly, it feels like a sign of the economic times, when the Culinary Union, the 55,000-member collective of hospitality workers, decides to pick a fight with City Hall—along with the recent snow a sign that the city has turned upside down and everybody has lost their minds.
Earlier this month the union announced plans to push for two efforts to curtail what it sees as a Downtown development scheme that’s run amok. The Las Vegas Taxpayer Accountability Act is an initiative designed to require voters to approve lease-purchase agreements undertaken by the city—and more specifically a way to put the brakes on the city’s efforts to build a new City Hall, a project that could cost in the neighborhood of $267 million. Culinary’s companion effort, the Las Vegas Redevelopment Reform Referendum, would repeal the city’s redevelopment plan—and deal a blow to the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, the agency tasked with redeveloping central Las Vegas.
The Weekly caught up with Culinary’s chief, D. Taylor, late last week by phone, while he was helping prepare a Christmas dinner for some 2,500 union members who’ve been laid off or seen their hours reduced. Taylor says that, across the board, Culinary workers have experienced an average of a 10-15 percent reduction in their hours—and that may worsen in 2009.
Taylor says the referendum and initiative came together quickly and were a reaction to current city policies, though obviously the souring local economy has contributed to the timing of the union’s announcement. “In these economic times when the city is talking about cutting down police protection, when the city is talking about cutting down fire protection, when schools are in crisis, when social services have really been pressed in the last few months, we thought the responsible thing to do was the plans [for a new City Hall] should be put aside … I haven’t heard of a quarter-billion-dollar city hall anywhere. At the same time they’re talking about a deficit of $150 million.”
And meanwhile, according to Taylor, since 2002, more than $90 million in property taxes has been diverted from municipal services to be used as subsidies for projects within the development authority’s Downtown boundaries. He cites $20 million to the Allure Condominiums (“I don’t think taxpayers need to pay for upscale condominiums”) and $50,000 to the Olympic Garden strip club sign as two examples of dollars poorly spent.
The referendum on repealing the redevelopment plan, Taylor says, is a straightforward up or down vote, while the initiative on City Hall is meant to restore accountability to taxpayers. “That’s why we’re going that route, because they’re trying to go around taxpayers’ voice. If it’s a good project, people will make up their own mind about that. Nobody believes a quarter-billion-dollar city hall is free.”
The Redevelopment Agency was founded in 1986 to help develop and support businesses Downtown, which is currently designated as a nearly 4,000-acre zone roughly bounded by I-15, Washington Avenue, Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue. It has helped champion projects ranging from the development of Union Park to the opening of a grocery store in west Las Vegas. The agency commissioned a study in 2007 that claims that the 105 projects it has helped develop generate between $343 million and $420 million per year in spending in the city.
Of course, the obvious question here is what direct stake the Culinary Union has in the redevelopment of the city. “I didn’t know that our members just work in casinos,” Taylor replies. “They live in this community. They’re affected by deteriorating schools, lack of police protection, lack of fire [protection]. Our responsibility is for our members’ well-being, not just when they’re inside a casino. We don’t see any other organization stepping up on this, or any politicians.”
Taylor says it’s not the first time Culinary has weighed in on issues of the day, citing both the union’s involvement in school bond issues in the mid-’90s as well as being “heavily involved” in tax debates in 2003. He’s heard no response from city politicians about his plans (although Mayor Oscar Goodman has been reported as opposing the effort), but adds, “That’s not really a factor in what we’re doing.” The union needs to submit 1,800 signatures for the referendum and 2,700 signatures for the initiative by the third week in January to be eligible to have the measure placed on the ballot in June.
He won’t say how many signatures his organization has collected. “We’ve gotten a very good response.”