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April 25, 2014

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City government:

In cash-strapped North Las Vegas, is vacant fourth floor a leech on resources?

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Steve Marcus

A view of the fourth floor of the North Las Vegas City Hall Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. The floor was originally designed to house the North Las Vegas Police Department but is currently vacant and being used by the city’s IT department for training.

North Las Vegas City Hall

A view of the North Las Vegas City Hall Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The corner office on the fourth floor of North Las Vegas City Hall looks out over the Strip. The air conditioning hums quietly, and the lights click on when someone walks in.

Next to the door, the name placard bears the title and name of a North Las Vegas police official.

But nobody’s home. The whole floor is vacant and has been since the new city hall opened two years ago.

Despite furnishings including refrigerators, microwaves, desks, and $245,000 in additional retrofits, the dozens of offices on the fourth floor have never been used.

A visitor to the fourth floor can see the East Lake Mead Boulevard building that the police still call home. They never have and likely never will use the city hall space.

Nobody else has used it either. The city has never rented the fourth floor to a tenant.

The cash-strapped city opened the nine-story, $127 million city hall building in November 2011 under a cloud of criticism for lavish spending at a time when city residents were struggling through the economic recession.

So the vacancy surprised recently elected North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who beat former Mayor Shari Buck in an election earlier this year and was sworn in July 1.

“When I came in and I started getting a tour, I was just amazed at the amount of square footage that was just dormant,” Lee said of his first glimpse into the city hall in July. “So one of the first things I started to do was say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to handle the properties of North Las Vegas.’”

Although dozens of placards outside of empty offices on the fourth floor bear the names of North Las Vegas police officers — including a corner office for Chief of Police Joseph Chronister — the police say they never would’ve moved into the space anyway.

The police department didn’t move in because the space wasn’t large enough to house personnel or keep police records, and there wasn’t adequate planning to factor in the electrical work necessary for police dispatch operations on the fourth floor, said Tim Bedwell, North Las Vegas police sergeant and spokesman for the North Las Vegas Police Department.

That, he said, means the police aren’t to blame.

“You can’t put this on Chief Chronister’s head because he works for the city manager,” Bedwell said. “We didn’t support moving in there because it didn’t make sense to us. There was no cost savings to move part of the operations because you couldn’t move it all.”

At the time city hall opened, North Las Vegas city government was shedding employees due to the recession, and the building that was built for growth suddenly looked like an empty shell.

City payrolls haven’t grown much since then, and the city still faces severe financial woes.

One city staffer estimated that as much as half of the square footage in the building is vacant or under-used.

Lee said he’s been working on the problem.

“The way to deal with all these properties is figure: What value does the city have in them and what value can they return to the city?” he said. “So the concept was: What do we own, what’re we doing with it, and how can we be more profitable with the asset that we have?”

To that end, he said he’s commissioned a review of city-owned properties to determine their value and potential profitable use.

Critics say that while poor planning may have kept the police from fully using the building, it shouldn’t have prevented police administration from moving closer to the mayor, where the mayor could exercise more oversight over police higher-ups.

“They want to be isolated so that activities cannot be monitored,” said Steve Sanson, president of Veterans In Politics International, who has been a critic of Chronister.

Sanson recently toured the fourth floor, where he saw the unused offices and equipment.

“I want the public to know that all this money is being wasted on that floor, that they haven’t used the floor, the lights are still on, the AC and heat is still being supplied to that fourth floor,” said Sanson, who shared photos of the vacant space with the Sun earlier this month.

Bedwell said the department has been proactive in looking to move out of their 50-year-old building, which city officials say is slated for eventual sale to nearby North Vista Hospital.

“We’ll do whatever the city tells us,” Bedwell said. “We’ll come up with a plan. We were told to make it work, and we gave them a plan.”

According to the New York Times, the city had plans in 2011 to rent offices to another governmental agency, but nothing came of it.

Lee said he’s now searching for a business client to ink a long-term deal to occupy the fourth floor of the city hall, which has a gold-rated Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

“I am working very hard with the hand I was dealt,” he said. “We are just 100 days into this process right now, and we are fast approaching some conclusions to some of these challenges in a lot of areas we’ve had.”

Former Mayor Buck — who was mayor-elect in June 2009 when the city broke ground for the building and presided over the opening in 2011 — did not return a phone call from the Sun for comment.

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