Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 | 7:53 p.m.
After 10 months of intense lobbying and debate, the fate of the "More Cops" sales tax hike to pay for additional police officers remains up in the air as Clark County commissioners prepare to vote on the proposal Tuesday.
With two competing proposals on the table — one enacting a .15-cent increase and the other only .075 cents — the board remains thoroughly divided, and its unclear whether either will receive the five vote supermajority needed to pass the proposal. The current county sales tax rate is 8.1 percent.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie began pushing local and state decision-makers in December to implement a quarter-cent sales tax approved by the voters in 2004 through the "More Cops" legislation
The Legislature authorized the increase during a last-second special session in June but reduced the amount to .15-cents, still enough to cover Metro Police’s $30 million budget gap and prevent the elimination of 250 officer positions, Gillespie said.
But as county commissioners dug into the issue this summer before giving their final approval, Gillespie’s lobbying efforts hit a rough patch.
The .15-cent increase was initially up for approval in early August, but the vote was delayed at the last second at the request of Commissioner Susan Brager and her colleagues.
In the two months since, Brager has come out with her own revised proposal to raise the sales tax by only .075-cents, forcing Metro to tap into $136 million in reserves to cover the rest of its deficit.
Other commissioners have raised a slew of questions about the reserve, Metro’s staffing and how the department spends money.
Gillespie is still pushing for the full .15-cent sales increase but has said he’d accept a lesser amount if it means his department receives at least some new funding.
The commission is divided into three camps — those against any sales tax increase, those supporting the .075-cent proposal and those in favor of the full .15-cent hike — a split that will require compromise if any increase is to pass.
The Sun spoke to several county commissioners about where they stand ahead of the vote (Commissioner Lawrence Weekly could not be reached for comment):
Steve Sisolak, a member of Metro’s Fiscal Affairs committee, has been one of the staunchest opponents of "More Cops" since it was introduced in December.
In addition to concerns about costs to residents, Sisolak worries that the increased revenue from the tax wouldn’t lead to an increase in officers on the streets.
“It’s a combination of sales tax, the fuel tax, the water rate increase and all the other expenses that have gone up for families. It’s just too much,” Sisolak said.
Sisolak said he’s a no vote on the tax increase unless Gillespie can show that the plan will lead to an increase in the number of new officers, not just prevent cuts to current staff.
“I’m agreeing that we need more officers,” Sisolak said. “It's not being explained where we’re getting any more officers.”
Although he’s interested to hear Gillespie’s explanations on staffing, Sisolak said it would take “some information unknown to me now” before he considers switching his vote.
Larry Brown said he supports the proposal that was approved by voters in 2004 and endorsed by the Legislature.
“To me it comes right down to what it’s called. It’s called the 'More Cops' initiative,” he said. “That was approved a long time ago to put officers on the street. I think we’ve kind of moved away from the focus of that.”
As Metro deals with tens of millions of dollars of budget cuts implemented in recent years, Brown said the infusion of sales tax money will help stabilize the department.
Brown said he considers an officer position saved from cuts the same as adding to the ranks.
“How do we keep from spiraling downward? The officers per capita numbers are going down. How do we stop that?” he said. “This is the only way currently we can reverse the trend. If we do nothing, there are going to be consequences to public safety. The community is going to feel it.”
Although he supports the full .15-cent increase, Brown said he’s willing to accept Brager’s .075-cent proposal if that means ensuring funding for Metro.
“Something is better than nothing, especially when that something relates to officers being hired on the force.”
Tom Collins supported the .25-cent increase when it initially was proposed in December and continues to support the .15-cent proposal.
He said that is the minimum amount the department needs to bolster its ranks and continue protecting residents and tourists.
“The .15-cents will barely keep Metro Police able to hire and train enough new officers,” Collins said. “They’re going to be behind the eight ball for a while.”
Collins pointed out that while much of the focus has been on Metro’s budget, other valley police departments would benefit from the tax increase.
He chided his fellow commissioners for letting politics get in the way of public safety and said he isn’t in favor of tapping Metro’s reserves to pay for the department’s deficit.
“That money is in the reserve to pay long-term costs the police department is going to have when the sales tax goes away (in 2026). It’s a good business practice to have a reserve,” he said. “What I see is a couple commissioners don’t like the sheriff and they’re letting that get in the way of a safe community.”
Collins said he’s sticking with the .15-cent increase on Tuesday because Brager’s proposal won’t provide enough funding.
“Why would somebody vote for less cops? I’m not going to vote for less cops; I’m going to vote for more cops,” he said. “I agreed to do that in December and I’m doing it next week.”
Chris Giunchigliani said she plans to oppose the tax increase because it won’t do enough to broadly address officer staffing levels at Metro.
“I still believe the sales tax is a regressive tax and it doesn’t get us to where the community wants us to be,” she said. “I think the rate increase that’s before the commission is still about plugging a budget hole rather than truly looking at the needs and capacity of officers on the street.”
Giunchigliani said the department has money in reserves to cover its budget deficit and should come back with a comprehensive plan if it wants to address officer levels.
“Prove that you’re going to put more cops on the street,” she said.
Brager found herself in a critical swing position on the board when she refused to support the .15-cent sales tax and countered with her own lower proposal.
She said she sees the need to supplement Metro’s budget and hire more officers, but she felt the initial proposal was too burdensome for taxpayers.
“I believe that this does give us the ability to continue to provide safety in our community. This is a good step in the right direction,” she said of her .075-cent proposal.
Brager said her constituents have expressed strong opposition to the .15-cent tax increase and she wants to see more accountability in Metro’s budget.
Although she’s only considering the .075-cent increase now, Brager said funding the other half of the request could be considered at a later date if the sheriff shows it will put more officers on the streets.
Until then, she said her compromise proposal is the best way to balance the needs of the department and taxpayers.
“I hope it passes. I believe it’s important, but I cannot do the .15-cent increase,” she said.
Mary Beth Scow
Mary Beth Scow said she’s reluctant to vote for a tax increase but will consider supporting Brager’s reduced .075-cent proposal if the sheriff can prove the new revenues would only be used to hire additional officers, not close the department’s $30 million deficit.
“I’m still feeling like i would like to see the sheriff go into the reserves to fill the budget hole,” she said. “Should we pass the 'More Cops,' I have to be assured that the money will only go for new cops.”
Scow said she hopes Gillespie will address that issue publicly Tuesday. If he can answer satisfactorily, she said she’s inclined to support a small increase in the sales tax.
“People are having a hard time right now. I’ve been getting a lot of questions and a lot of concerns about raising the sales tax,” she said. “But I’ve heard a lot less about the .075-cent increase.”