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October 22, 2014

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City on the brink: The rise and ongoing fall of North Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

A view of Lake Mead Boulevard looking east from Las Vegas Boulevard in North Las Vegas, May 13, 2010.

North Las Vegas budget crisis

KSNV coverage of Lincy Institute expert's analysis of North Las Vegas' budget crisis, and what it could mean for the entire Southern Nevada economic recovery, May 26, 2012.

North Las Vegas in budget battle

KSNV coverage of North Las Vegas city leaders giving unions concession ultimatum, May 23, 2012

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Firefighters with the North Las Vegas Fire Department on the scene of a fire at Secured Fibres, a recycling plant in North Las Vegas on Friday, March 2, 2012.

For most of the past decade, North Las Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

Construction crews couldn’t build houses quickly enough. New schools, parks and neighborhoods popped up seemingly overnight. Restaurants and shopping plazas overtook desert stretches, and plans were drawn for “casino alley,” a mini-Strip of gaming resorts.

Most residents welcomed the growth. A 2009 survey found that half the population rated the quality of life in North Las Vegas as excellent or good. Three-quarters of residents said they’d recommend living in the city.

Of course, some grumbled about development, rising costs and traffic, but most saw potential and opportunity in the boom. North Las Vegas for years had struggled with a weak economy and bad reputation. The city was known for high crime and aging infrastructure. Critics referred to it dismissively as “North Town.”

Now, after a decade of progress and growth, North Las Vegas appears to be headed back to its rough-and-tumble roots. The city is on the brink of financial ruin. A stalemate between police, firefighters and city officials threatens public safety. Development is at a standstill, and residents are fed up.

“North Las Vegas means ‘bad’ in people’s minds,” resident Ron Gerber griped.

The city’s woes have come to a head as local officials try to prevent a state takeover of the city. State law allows the Department of Taxation to seize control of local government finances in cases of “severe financial emergency.”

City officials earlier this month approved a $425 million budget that slashes funding for police, firefighters, after-school programs and libraries. It calls for more than 200 layoffs. City Council members had to find $33 million to shave from the budget.

City leaders had asked public employees to take concessions to prevent the layoffs. Members of the police supervisors’ union and the Teamsters who represent municipal workers agreed to negotiate, city officials said. Firefighters and rank-and-file police officers stood their ground.

Now, pink slips are going out, and Mayor Shari Buck insists that if no concessions are made, layoffs will occur. The city has until June 1 to submit its spending plan to the state.

The headway North Las Vegas made during the boom years is receding. Residents are losing faith in their community, and North Las Vegas has again become the butt of jokes. Robert Lang, executive director of the Lincy Institute at UNLV, calls it the “Rodney Dangerfield complex.” North Las Vegas gets no respect, locally or nationally.

“It does feel a little like people are kicking us while we’re down,” Buck said. “It’s frustrating for me, having grown up there, because I know what a great city it is. But I also know we have a great future once we get past these little blips.”

Residents worry about the city’s future, and their own, if police and firefighters are laid off. Union officials are quick to point out that services will be compromised with fewer members on the force. Last year, officers lined city streets with A-frame signs reading, “Warning: Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer ensure your safety!”

What fire and police protection in North Las Vegas will actually look like moving forward is unclear. Predictions change depending on whom you ask.

City Manager Tim Hacker sounded an alarm in a resolution he proposed Wednesday. Hacker said that if forced to comply with the union contracts, the city would be unable to employ enough police officers and firefighters to keep its residents safe. He and other city officials are seeking approval to break the contracts under an obscure state law that allows officials to take drastic actions in the face of major emergencies.

Union bosses say services will suffer with budget and personnel cuts. Fewer firefighters and officers will result in a more thinly spread staff and longer response times, they say.

Buck insists residents will see little change. If cuts are to be made, support staff, not first responders, will be let go and shared service agreements with other municipalities will help pick up any slack, she said.

But amid the uncertainty, residents can take some comfort in knowing that homeowners’ insurance rates are likely to be unaffected, even with force reductions. So many factors are considered when determining insurance rates that a relatively small drop in safety personnel is not likely to affect policy costs, experts say.

The future of recreation is as murky as the public safety picture. Heads of libraries and after-school programs are loath to predict what less money will mean because none wants to advertise cuts in hours or programs. They still hope a budget solution is coming.

“There isn’t sense in getting people excited about options we may not have to do,” libraries Director Kathy Pennell said.

Some residents say they don’t worry about cuts. They’ve already learned to rely on themselves for security. They said they feel unprotected even with a fully staffed police department.

“I don’t think we’ve seen one cop yet,” said Bradley Barrett, a card dealer who moved to North Las Vegas from Seattle a month ago. “The frequency of the patrols are non-existent.”

Barrett’s parents have lived in North Las Vegas for three years and complain about a growing teenage vandalism problem. Barrett’s girlfriend, Adele Adamson, says safety will be a key factor when the couple decide where in the Las Vegas Valley to buy a home.

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A view at the edge of the Parks community in North Las Vegas Monday, Sept. 26, 2011.

Buck said there was little she would have done differently during the city's boom years if she had known the recession were coming. She admits the city should have started cutting its budget sooner but stands by other decisions.

“We have done all we can. The difficulty was in how everything came together,” she said.

A souring economy certainly hurt North Las Vegas. The city led the nation in foreclosures. Its tax base shriveled as real estate values fell 65 percent from their peak. North Las Vegas has no urban downtown or large commercial sector to offset residential losses, and it receives the smallest share of consolidated tax revenue in the state.

But the city’s downfall was more than circumstantial. City leaders committed hundreds of millions of dollars to big projects that assumed continued growth. They greenlighted a new City Hall and sewage treatment plant and authorized $500,000 for an architecture firm to develop a new master plan for the city.

North Las Vegas municipal workers are also among the highest-paid public employees in the country, as reported in a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce salary survey.

“Some local leaders believe that North Las Vegas should fail — that the city has it coming because of its one-sided contracts with public employee unions,” Lang wrote in a recent brief about the city’s struggles. “The state of Nevada, however, has no provision for a municipal bankruptcy wherein a city can simply renege on municipal contracts and start over. The process of sorting out financial obligations would be nasty, messy and very public.”

If the state takes over North Las Vegas, the city’s bond rating would drop. So would the state’s.

“It’s not just North Las Vegas’ problem. If we get taken over, the whole state would suffer,” Buck said.

Public relations would be a nightmare. Lang worries people would associate the city’s failure with all of the valley and even the state because the city’s name includes “Las Vegas.” Luring businesses and new residents would become even harder.

“Even the name North Las Vegas is problematic,” Lang said.

North Las Vegas’ own residents agree and suggest that the city rebrand itself.

“If North Las Vegas really wants to get ahead, it needs a different name,” said Gerber, a retiree who moved from California seven years ago. “Rename it North Hills, North Slope, North Ridge and watch how fast it changes.”

A positive image and healthy economy not only would return the city on an upward path, it could make it a power player in the state and entire Southwest.

“Fifty-seven percent of our land is still available for development,” Buck said. “We’re the ones with the ability to still grow.”

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  1. "Barrett's parents have lived in North Las Vegas for three years and complain about a growing teenage vandalism problem."

    This has been my experience. You've got a bunch of miscreants in NLV who feel compelled to destroy others property. There's no monetary gain, just a bunch of d'bags causing damage to private property (cars, homes, etc.) for no other reason than they are miserable, unhappy individuals. You couldn't give me a house for free to live in NLV.

  2. So the city wants to balance it's budget on the back of public safety and what does the police department decide to do? Layoff 100 detention officers and civilians in the jail to save 16 patrol officers. And what does NLVPD plan to do with the criminals since there is no jail and they must rent beds elsewhere? Not arrest them? How many beds are they going to rent and at what cost? What happens if they go over the alloted rental space? I read elsewhere that the judges let 70 inmates be released early, so it sounds like there won't be enough rental space. I am so glad I moved from NLV...the town is dying and the state needs to come in and take over.

  3. The downfall has nothing to do with illegal immigration, blight from bank bailouts and government employees making five times the prevailing local wage, nothing.

  4. Maybe a State takeover is inevitable. First thing the State should do is cut salaries and compensation packages down to reasonable levels--even lower than state employees make. Sad state of affairs but let's deal with reality. The bigger the steps in the right direction, the sooner we can recover.

  5. Demographic employment laws require 5 white, 3 hispanic and 2 African American for every ten employees in North Las Vegas. According to Wikipedia, "The median income for a household in the city was $46,057, and the median income for a family was $46,540. Males had a median income of $32,205 versus $25,836 for females. The per capita income for the city was $16,023. About 11.8% of families and 14.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 19.6% of those under age 18 and 8.8% of those age 65 or over. The United States Census Bureau listed North Las Vegas, as well as the Las Vegas metro area, as one of the fastest growing regions in the country."

  6. "A 2009 survey found that half the population rated the quality of life in North Las Vegas as excellent or good. Three-quarters of residents said they'd recommend living in the city."
    --------------
    My assumption is 3/4 of these people have a skewed understanding of what "quality of life" really is.

  7. You know, guidelines that an employee of this city should have to "live in the City". When NLV was growing, they had to offer extra to entice better, sad, but fact. Now, they must correct this, and those that have enjoyed it, should take it in the shorts, stop this crazy argument. Slash to the bone, then start recovery.
    Green Valley exists cause nobody wanted the stigma of living in Henderson Haze. Different regions of NLV have branded themselves to get away from the NLV stigma.
    If I were "in charge", look for the loop hole that will fix the problem and I certainly wish it were bankruptcy, the ability to clean off the existing contracts and start a new. NLV, like so many communities, is being held hostage by it's own. The statements made by residents that say they have never seen a patrol, try getting a break-in even evaluated in a timely manner. Priorities have been moved to a point that the regular citizen has no protective rights, unless there is a gun involved. Sad, simply because it is a known fact that break-ins don't stop and it leads to larger crimes. We are being taught to hate our own system.

  8. Breaking/renegotiating the contracts, to lower both short & long term costs, is necessary. I find it hard to believe we couldn't find equally qualified employees for 10% less & a 401k benefits plan.

    A name change sounds a little silly, but might be a good idea in combination with a reset of public employee contracts, just to demonstrate a break from the past.

  9. Many eons ago when a person decided to go into public service jobs vs going into the private sector there were many considerations. Generally they paid less, less prestige and you kind of knew what you would make for your career. There wasn't a huge opportunity for advancement and for many public employees they worked holidays, night shifts, weekends when their private sector counterparts were at home on Christmas, didn't work weekends, could attend their kids little league games, etc. I find it uncomfortable that some of those private sector workers are now some of the most vocal opponents to what public sector employees have as a rightful benefit to during their careers. Eh, just "break the contracts"....I think those same people would be screaming, kicking and yelling if they were in the public sector and worked with a understanding that their contract was in fact a contract to be honored.

  10. Branding the city with a new name is only covering up the real problems and sticking your head in the sand hoping they will go away. It won't happen. Until the real problems are solved, the city will continue its backward spiral. The problems are a low tax base caused by foreclosures, low sales taxes and over-blown employee salaries. The unions won't budge, because they claim the city has hidden money and they have gone without a raise for four years and neither will the city.
    The solutions are cut-backs, layoffs or both! The mayor and her counsel have given too many promises in the past to the unions to get elected. The last election was laughable and the signs put up by the union were offensive! It is not like it was in 1976, when the police and fire made less than a eight hundred dollars a month and the city counsel was giving itself 100% raises and telling the employees to go pound sand. Today your wallets are fat. Police and fire base pay is above the national average and so are the benefits. Now the city is or is not out of money! All signs indicate they are going broke! All the unions should forget about the mismanagement of funds and let this contract go and not take raises for a few years. Jobs may or may not be saved, it depends on how well the economy rebounds. But until all agree the problems are real and do exist the stalemate will continue. The unions should forget about a bargain that was struck in booming times and realize campaign promises were made to be broken. Until then....Good luck!

  11. North Las Vegas should be broken up in to 2-3 smaller incorporated areas or cities. The most successful area should be renamed because just the name NLV has such a bad reputation. Let the less affluent area/areas retain the NLV moniker. The new affluent area (with a cool new name) would be able to get new smarter investors and survive without the dead weight of the less revenue producing areas. The new affluent area should concentrate on the way the city looks and on high quality education and infrastructure. If they hire young smart and innovative people they could have a huge successful venture. The less affluent areas might follow the plan.

    I guess basically the North needs to clean out the barn of old, dead ideas brought in by people who have over stayed and outlived their usefulness.

  12. @ dukeofdeath , so move the undesirables altogether to create a full blown slum ? or maybe we could fence it in , create a special "camp" for them ? maybe we could include other people we don't like in this camp. then you could have some cool new hipsters move into the "affluent" new city where they don't have to look at others below their self proclaimed social status ?

  13. Where the hell is NLV? They don't have a central business district, they don't have a sense of community and they don't apparently even have common sense. NLV is nothing more than one giant urban sprawling mess that has been mismanaged and mislabeled for years.

    It's time to cut the supposed city down to size and keep NLV as the traditional area by Jerry's Nugget. The rest of the neighborhoods need to either reorganize as smaller cities or become unincorporated parts of the county.

  14. @Duke of Death
    Would never work. You still would have the undesirable areas next to the so called "desirable ones"...Nobody in their right mind would want to live on the edge of that transition.
    The reality is NLV will always be a less desirable place to live. It's prone to more crime, more vandalism and more "quality of life issues" than any other place in Las Vegas. New York City had the right idea many years ago when they made a concentrated effort to rid the city of petty, small time quality of life crimes and nuisances. Eventually the impact was that more severe crimes saw a drastic downfall. You'll never see that happen here because the mindset is all screwed up.
    The people think going after the bigger crimes while disregarding the petty stuff is the way to go. The reality is the numbers speak for themselves. Start small and it will have a cascade effect. Until then, NLV is doomed to have more miscreants per sq. mile than any other part of Las Vegas.

  15. "....among the highest-paid public employees in the country." Where is the stewardship from our leaders? And there's the demand that we raise taxes? It's time to CUT TAXES and reduce compensation.

  16. NLV also just released 70 prisoners due to corrections officers calling in sick. If anyone thinks small time, misdemeanor, petty crimes don't lead to more severe crimes, you have no clue. NLV just released 70 miscreants into the community. Most were probably repeat offenders. Good luck NLV, you're sinking faster than a weighted safe.

  17. You can over talk a subject and still get nothing accomplished. From day one, everyone knew what was needed, nothing has changed except, the can has been kicked futher down the road. It's hard to give out pink slips, worse to get one but something has to be done. Here is a solution. 1. STOP all benefits for everyone!!!!
    2. Keep all Safty Employees (stop OT and Comp)
    3. Add POST OFFICERS to boost PD presents (part-time)
    4. Cut 10% of all other staff
    5. Stop all new construction
    6. Stop any new purchases of equiptment (including lease)
    7. Any employee making over $70,000 a year, cut wages 2%
    Cut more if needed but (Take control, rehire at a later date if possible). There is no law saying we the taxpayer have to pay any BENEFITS. I was in business for 25 years, I paid for government benefits but who paid for my sick leave, vacation, overtime, dental, optical, medical, comp-time, birthday, child care, retirement, clothing, laundry, uniform allownce etc. NO ONE! Again take control.

  18. Heard something on the radio about a large number of inmates that had to released from the Jail in NLV due to a huge number of NO SHOWS at work by prison staff. They gave no details.

    Is this the Blue flu? Why is there nothing on this site? Are we to assume that the union is teaching us a lesson by orchestrating a sick out?

  19. If NLV is so broke, where did they come up with $285,000 to hire Tim Hacker? He does nothing to earn that kind of salary. At least the "high paid" firefighters as you all seem to call them, run into burning buildings and save you at traffic accidents.

    Come to think of it, in the spirit of full disclosure, how about starting at the top? Lets see what Shari Buck makes. Why can't she give up her company car and kick back 50% of her salary if she really wants to get the city back on track?

    if we are cutting such a great percentage of fire, police and teamsters, lets cut half of those city council members, starting with TIM HACKER

  20. If I were the city manager I would be asking the state for authorization to file a chapter 9

  21. If you want to really look at the debacle, go back to Mayor Montandon having to buy land fronting LV Blvd and paying above market prices to have that address. Why? Ego, that's why. Same for the large planned facades at LV Blvd/Main and the assemblages at Lake Mead & 5th/LV Blvd. Wasteful spending at its best. Buck inherited the mess, but that doesn't clear her from her incompetence.

  22. This comes as no surprise; NLV is just like all other liberal infested communities, crime ridden no good for nothing free loading pathetic whiners wanting more freebies. It's no secret how most feel about them if the first place, throw up a 50-foot high perimeter fence and lock the gate on the way out, we'd all be better off and we'd save a whole lot taxpayer money not having to deal with them.

  23. Cherchio and Anita Woods are greart Council people. Cherchio was an asset to the City and was a 24/7guy until his conucil seat was lost to Wayne Wagner by one illegal vote. We need the inspired tireless efforts of Woods and Cherchio in the mix. The $500K contract was to Gensler for a Master Plan that would have led to new life for the City. Mayor Buck helped to shoot it down as a political shot at her Council rivals who supported it. The City needed the vision and businesses this plan envisioned--a short sighted move by Buck.