Friday, July 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Horse trading has long been a part of politics. But trading inmates for broader agreements on taxes might be something new, even for Nevada.
When the city of Las Vegas agreed to house North Las Vegas inmates, saving its cash-strapped northern neighbor as much as $16 million a year, Las Vegas included a caveat: It could terminate the agreement if North Las Vegas went rogue in the fight over how tax dollars are distributed between cities and counties.
It’s an unusual clause in the written agreement, according to local government officials, that would seem to give Las Vegas an advantage in any political fight that breaks out over how the state divides money.
A state committee is studying how to change the formula used to divvy up tax dollars between cities, counties and townships throughout the state.
In the eyes of some local officials, the consolidated tax, or “c-tax,” — a combination of sales, motor vehicle, cigarette, liquor and property taxes — is grossly unfair. The formula is based on the assessed property values from 1981.
North Las Vegas, the symbol of municipal woe in the Great Recession, has been one of the most vocal critics of the funding formula.
“We believe our base is $8 million to $15 million low,” said Tim Hacker, North Las Vegas city manager.
Boulder City, for example, got $557 per resident through the c-tax formula in 2011. Las Vegas got $388. North Las Vegas got $171.
Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, is heading the interim committee to rejigger the formula. Kirkpatrick insists the formula will be based on fair policy, not politics. No one, she has made clear, is going to get a big check. To her home city, she has said that the resulting legislation won’t be a salve to the city’s financial woes.
But the fight over c-tax is sure to be a heated one during the 2013 Legislature. The formula has turned political in the past, and it is a zero-sum game — no one can win unless someone else loses. For every additional dollar North Las Vegas gets, for example, that’s a dollar less for everyone else.
But North Las Vegas also needs to save money now.
To that end, it reached an agreement with Las Vegas to house its inmates at the Las Vegas Detention Center. By closing its own jail, North Las Vegas will save $11.5 million the first year and grow to $16 million annually after that, according to city officials.
So the two issues — the jail and the bargaining position on the c-tax — got combined.
According to the agreement — the hammer that could be held over North Las Vegas’ head — Las Vegas could pull out of the agreement within 120 days if “Las Vegas has reasonably determined that North Las Vegas has not collaboratively worked and cooperated in good faith with Las Vegas to have the Nevada Legislature create a fair formula or methodology for the distribution of consolidated tax distribution.”
Hacker said the agreement doesn’t cede the city’s authority.
“We’re definitely not going to turn over our negotiating status. It’s not going to push us away from table,” he said.
Mark Vincent, Las Vegas finance director, said the jail agreement benefited both parties — Las Vegas had some empty space in its detention facility and will get about $6.8 million a year in rent.
But he acknowledged the clause about the c-tax was Las Vegas’ idea.
“This agreement was driven more by the need for North Las Vegas to reduce its cost,” Vincent said. “On a separate plane, when we’re working with the interim committee on the c-tax, we wanted to make sure we’re working collaboratively through that process.”
Hacker stressed that no one is looking to hurt anyone else.
“From a good public policy perspective, the interim committee is evaluating the formula. It’s not the intent to dramatically help or hurt anyone,” he said. “We want to create a more equitable situation.”
Despite the policy focus, politics often wins the days.
Indeed, the lessons from 2001 — the last time the state changed the formula — are still fresh.
Back then, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins adjusted the c-tax formula to benefit Henderson. Perkins, of course, not only represented Henderson but was its police chief.
Kirkpatrick, who has sometimes sparred with elected officials of her city, insists that politics won’t come into play.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to the policy,” she said.