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September 30, 2014

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As county hits the brakes, Las Vegas charges ahead

Citing fiscal responsibility, Giunchigliani proposes closure

Clark County is moving to shelve its fledgling redevelopment agency so millions of dollars can be routed back into schools, libraries, public safety and indigent health care.

Redevelopment agencies oversee efforts to improve blighted areas that have been designated as redevelopment zones. Once the zones’ boundaries are drawn up, any increase in property tax revenue that comes in after that point goes to the agency. The agency is then supposed to spend that money on improvements and expansions of businesses within the zones. The agency also offers tax abatement and other incentives to recruit new businesses into the zones.

County commissioners set up the Clark County Redevelopment Agency in August 2003 and the agency now oversees three redevelopment zones, the largest being an area that stretches east from Joe W. Brown Drive to Maryland Parkway, between Karen Avenue and Sahara Boulevard.

The agency is now taking in about $10 million annually in property tax revenue. In these rough times, that money should be funneled back to the state to ease budget cuts, said Chris Giunchigliani, the county commissioner who serves as chairwoman of the redevelopment agency.

During last week’s County Commission meeting, Giunchigliani asked county staff to figure out how to “mothball” the agency. Those plans, she said, should include how the county will deal with the agency’s current holdings of $35 million and how the county could continue to employ the agency’s director, Lesa Coder.

Any change regarding the agency would have to be approved by the commissioners.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said he supported Giunchigliani’s proposal as long as it results in more funding for schools.

If the county sends an extra $10 million in property tax revenue to the state, about $4.2 million of that should come back to the Clark County School District.

“For me,” Giunchigliani said, “it’s economics and we’ve got to do our part, and if I can give back to schools, that’s money needed, and to the indigent health fund, that’s needed … Why take money off the tax rolls and hurt those who are here?”

Sound familiar? It’s the same argument the Culinary Union is making as it seeks a ballot vote to stymie Las Vegas’ redevelopment agency.

The union turned in thousands of petition signatures last week to try to place two questions on the June ballot. One would be aimed at stopped the city’s redevelopment agency from authorizing new projects.

“While the city continues to deny that it is diverting money from schools and public safety and the impact of that during a major economic recession it’s refreshing to see the county say that, in this budget crisis, they’re not going to divert money from those areas,” Pilar Weiss, the union’s political director, said.

Mayor Oscar Goodman said there’s a big difference: The county’s redevelopment agency “hasn’t worked; ours is working beautifully.”

Sure, statutes prevent a redevelopment agency from sending funding directly to schools, but that agency’s work can result in future tax revenues that will “be a windfall for the school system,” Goodman said.

“Right now,” he added, “what we’re trying to do — and my only concern — is jobs. We need jobs so people don’t go into foreclosures. We need jobs so people can buy groceries.”

He said 9,700 construction jobs and 7,500 permanent jobs have been created by city-bolstered redevelopment since 2004. The mayor also can point to Union Park, where plans have been made for billions more in development.

The county’s redevelopment agency, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to show for its nearly five and a half years of existence. About all it has managed to create are “design standards” for its redevelopment zones, which also include parcels at Maryland Parkway and Twain Street, another at Boulder Highway and Sahara Avenue, and the largest between Sahara Avenue and Karen Avenue.

The agency had some fairly grand redevelopment plans. A “pedestrian zone” was envisioned for the Karen/Sahara zone, where Giunchigliania said drug dealers from California now make weekend sales pitches. A new road might have gone down the middle of the parcel, she said, to take some of the traffic off Sahara Avenue to the north and Karen Avenue to the south.

“I think developers are starting to see there’s something to be done there,” she added. “I still believe it’d be perfect, get a road in the center, do mom-and-pops, mixed-use, small apartments. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

A person knowledgeable about the inner workings of Clark County government said there is more to the county’s move than just redirecting money by pulling the plug on an agency that hasn’t accomplished much, however. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, that person said state legislators will be looking at the caches of money collected by local redevelopment agencies as revenue sources that should be put back into general tax fund. Knowing that, the county is doing what it can to show state lawmakers it is acting responsibly with its redevelopment dollars.

Giunchigliani didn’t even chuckle at that. She said her motivation had “absolutely nothing” to do with the Legislature.

“I came up with the idea. In this case, I’m ‘the county’ because the redevelopment zones are in my district, and I think in tough times, we should look every place we can so we’re not adding to the problem,” she said. “That’s it. Nothing more.”

The source added that the redevelopment agency also “suffered” because the county never saw it as a necessity. With the Las Vegas Strip acting as a huge revenue generator, redeveloping older areas didn’t have the same urgency for the county as it does for Las Vegas.

“There’s some truth to that,” Giunchigliani admitted. “Clark County was one of the last ones in the state” to create a redevelopment agency.

Still, the commissioner believes the county needs the agency and that “there are many blighted areas throughout Southern Nevada.”

“It will come back someday,” she said.

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