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November 29, 2014

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Council support for mayor’s pet project might be slipping

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COURTESY of CITY OF LAS VEGAS

A rendering shows the 303,000-square-foot city hall proposed for First Street and Clark Avenue, at a cost estimated at $145 million.

Mayor Oscar Goodman has faced down his share of threats to his plans for a new city hall.

The project appeared derailed when the Culinary Union attacked it through proposed ballot measures — before the city tossed the initiatives from the ballot. More recently, Goodman conceded financing might not be feasible — before a new federal bond program, which subsidizes capital projects, allowed it to again move forward.

Now, a new city hall faces yet another potentially lethal obstacle, from a most surprising source: Goodman’s own City Council.

If not yet probable, it looks conceivable that the council, fearful of putting the city at long-term financial risk, could vote down Goodman’s plan.

That this is possible is shocking. In public votes, the seven-member council has always backed the deal — and almost always unanimously.

Evidence of the growing division within the council surfaced at its Oct. 7 meeting, when two of the city’s top officers briefed the panel on its latest financing options. Several council members used the opportunity to pointedly question top city staff members, Chief Urban Redevelopment Officer Scott Adams and Finance Director Mark Vincent.

“Today it’s a gamble and a guessing game and I just don’t know how you put the city on the hook” for the large amounts needed to build the project, said Stavros Anthony, the newest council member.

Goodman’s plans are further complicated by the conflicts of one of his biggest supporters, Ward 6 Councilman Steve Ross. As head of Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, a union group whose members will benefit if the project is built, Ross said he has henceforth recused himself from voting on the matter.

City officials say it’s unclear exactly when the new city hall, and the proposed method to finance it, will come to a vote. The most likely time frame is between early November and December, they say.

Whenever it takes place, here’s how the vote is shaping up:

Goodman, of course, will be leading the “yes” votes. And he’s sure to be joined by his closest council ally, Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese.

Ross definitely would have been a third “yes.” He’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the project, but has abstained on the matter since July 1, when Goodman mentioned the possibility that the pension fund of the Laborers Local 872 might finance a portion of the project.

“Just that mere mention conflicts me, so I’m out,” Ross said.

On the other side, Anthony, a staunch critic of the project since he ran for the council this year, is a sure-bet “no” vote. Currently he’s the only one.

That leaves three less-than-clear votes — Steve Wolfson, Lois Tarkanian and Ricki Barlow.

There are strong indicators that each of the three is having reservations. Until now, Wolfson and Barlow had been consistent “yes” votes. Tarkanian initially voted against it, but in March said her reservations about the project’s finances had been assuaged.

Yet more recently, in July, Tarkanian expressed further concerns about the project and its financing. She said then that she would reserve judgment until the vote came. More recent interviews bolster the sense that she is wavering.

At the most recent council meeting, Anthony was joined by Wolfson and Barlow in grilling city staffers Adams and Vincent. At one point, Barlow’s questioning sufficiently perturbed Goodman that the mayor just stared at him when Barlow asked him if he could ask Vincent one more question about the details of the financing.

In an interview, Wolfson said that as of now he isn’t leaning one way or the other.

Wolfson said he’s voted in favor of the project in the past, in part because of what seemed a very attractive overall development package. The city hopes that a new city hall will set in motion a billion dollar-plus series of developments that will include projects in Symphony Park and on the site of the current City Hall.

But as the economy has worsened, causing the city to suffer a budgetary “crisis,” Wolfson said he’s needed to reevaluate.

“The last thing I want to do is put the city in financial jeopardy,” he said. “So I’ll be taking a very critical, second, hard look at the issue.”

If all three vote "no," the project is dead.

But if just two of them flip, that means a 3-3 tie — almost unprecedented on the council, according to city officials. A tie vote could prompt the council to vote again after further debate, or to delay the matter until a majority seemed likely.

Though the city has secured approval to borrow up to $267 million to complete the new city hall, including financing, city officials say the latest construction estimates tag the project as costing $145 million.

Adams and Vincent presented four financing options at the latest council meeting, as well as a fifth, to “do nothing.” They appeared to be leaning toward the option involving the new Build America Bonds. The positives, they said, included very low interest rates because of federal tax subsidies that Vincent has estimated would save the city $82 million over 30 years.

The plan — a “lease-purchase” arrangement, which would give the city the option of buying the building after making lease payments — would still involve the city amassing major long-term debt.

For his part, Goodman said recently he thinks the project is on track, especially with the discovery of the federal bonds.

“I do think that … everyone feels it’s a very good project for the community,” Goodman said. He predicted a unanimous vote in favor of the project, or perhaps one “no” vote, tops.

Last month, Goodman discounted Anthony’s “no” votes generally, including those he’s made on the new City Hall. He’s just one councilman, the mayor asserted. Four votes — a majority — are needed to exercise power.

“The beautiful thing about City Hall is you’ve got to learn the lesson real fast. If you want to get anything done here, you’ve got to have four,” Goodman said.

That lesson soon will be put to the test.

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