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April 19, 2014

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Second thoughts on second half of tax

Lawmakers question whether Metro needs full half-cent sales tax approved in 2004

Some state lawmakers and Clark County commissioners are questioning whether the additional quarter-cent sales tax increase for which Southern Nevada police are lobbying is really needed.

Among the things giving them pause is the amount of money that the largest beneficiary of “More Cops” sales tax revenue, Metro Police, has socked away. At the end of fiscal 2008 Metro had $137 million in the bank courtesy of the first quarter-cent tax increase passed by the Legislature in 2005. And Metro had another $60 million in its general fund.

Metro points to decreasing rates of violent and property crime, as well as calls for service, as direct benefits of that tax money, which was approved on the promise to hire more street cops.

Metro also points to the fact that its bolstered staff has made more arrests.

And while that’s welcome news, it has caused problems for the cash-strapped court system, which needs to hire more public defenders, jailers and prosecutors to deal with increasing caseloads.

With the state champing at the bit to dig into local money to balance its own budget, it’s “politically risky” for a police department that appears flush to push for another quarter-cent sales tax increase, said Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who served 16 years in the state Assembly.

“It’s going to be a very difficult sell in a Legislature that is in the straits this one is in, and dealing with judicial and criminal expenses as well,” she said.

She said it “would have been better for all of us, the sheriff, district attorney and public defender, to go up there with a package that included the total cost of everything — police, prosecutors, all of it.”

In 2005 a Clark County report warned that the ramifications of the More Cops initiative would be “far-reaching in terms of staff and fiscal impacts.”

Lawmakers struggling with how to raise more money for the state budget are going to be reluctant to increase a tax on consumers that does not directly benefit the state budget and may seem unnecessary to some.

“Legislators are going to look at a sales tax as compounding the impact on taxpayers,” said Carol Villardo, lobbyist for the Nevada Taxpayers Association.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, the chairman of the state Senate’s Taxation Committee, said he doesn’t see the tax increase as politically dangerous “because the public always likes law enforcement and the police have a big PR machine.”

But, he added, the debate about the More Cops tax increase will be on hold “until we see how much we need to patch up the general fund, because there is only so much tax the people can stand.”

In 2004 voters approved the More Cops advisory referendum for a half-cent sales tax increase to put a total of 1,200 more Metro Police officers on the street, as well as smaller numbers of additional police for other Clark County jurisdictions.

The Legislature changed it to a quarter-cent and said come back in 2009 to talk about the additional quarter-cent.

Lt. Tom Roberts, a lobbyist for Metro, said his police department and others, including Henderson’s, simply want the Legislature to fulfill voters’ original wish and approve the remaining quarter-cent.

The counter argument is that with the economic collapse, the world is very different in 2009 than it was in 2004 and if the referendum was put to voters today, the outcome might be just as different.

The first 160 officers trained with the More Cops money hit the streets in 2006. About 150 new cops were then expected to be hired with the money every year until 600 had been hired with the quarter-cent tax, and 1,200 with the full half-cent tax increase.

Metro points to crime reductions as a direct result of more cops on the street. From 2007 to 2008, the number of robberies reported in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County dropped 11 percent; assaults fell 11 percent; burglaries decreased 3 percent; auto burglaries were down 8 percent; and auto theft dropped 30 percent.

The number of homicides increased by six, however, and sexual assaults went up about 3 percent.

Metro also saw a nearly 12 percent drop in calls about traffic and a 5 percent decrease in the calls for police to all other types of incidents.

During that same year, Metro’s “proactive calls,” initiated by officers themselves — vehicle stops, person on foot or perimeter checks — increased about 8 percent.

Arrests increased about 1 percent in 2008.

So, calls to police are down and many violent crime statistics are down, but police-instigated actions and arrests are up slightly.

The decrease in crime follows a trend seen nationwide. In January the FBI reported that violent crime in the United States fell 3.5 percent and property crime 2.5 percent during the first six months of 2008.

Lt. Roberts, however, sees the decreases here as validation of the first More Cops sales tax increase and reasons why the Legislature should pass the second half of the increase.

And as for the money in the bank, “the citizens of Clark County should be thankful we have that money, because other jurisdictions are laying off officers,” Roberts added.

He also said the $137 million balance was not unforeseen. “The vision of More Cops was to fund and equip more cops,” Roberts said, adding that “you just can’t hire 600 new cops overnight.”

“It was to build this balance, and that balance is supposed to bring you through the ebbs and flows of the tax revenue streams.”

Over time, he added, costs for police are going to increase, so having a reserve on hand means “we don’t have to dip into the general fund … to make up a shortage in revenue.”

Not having to touch the general fund also means there has been little to no talk about cutting police salaries, which the governor has suggested for a great number of other public sector jobs, including teachers.

In a presentation to Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee on Monday, Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he would cut $19 million to avoid any increase in Metro’s overall budget.

Employee salaries won’t be affected and no one will be laid off, Gillespie told the Sun, adding that he is working concessions with three bargaining units representing officers, police managers and civilians.

But if more cops on the streets increases the need for more taxpayer-financed attorneys, that is not Metro’s concern. That’s what Commissioner Steve Sisolak said the sheriff told him, anyway.

“I asked him, ‘How are we supposed to pay for all these other positions we’ll need to support the police officers?’” said Sisolak, who sits on Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee. “That is a huge drain on our resources, when other areas have needs, too. We can’t keep up.”

Metro’s answer appears pretty straightforward.

“In our opinion, we have relieved the pressure on the general funds (of Las Vegas and Clark County),” Roberts said. Clark County pays about 62 percent of Metro’s general fund budget, and Las Vegas pays 38 percent.

The two local governments can reallocate the money that More Cops saved them from spending on police salaries, Roberts said.

Giunchigliani laughed at that suggestion. “Right now, the county does not have any extra money to spend, period,” she said.

And Roberts’ premise is faulty, she added, because the county wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to run out and hire so many additional police officers. If the county had been more a part of the process, she said, the hiring of cops might have been slower but more balanced with an increase in other support areas.

Sun reporter Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.

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