Raiding reserve to pay police sets bad precedent

Clark County Commissioner Susan Brager was correct.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie can dip into an estimated $136 million reserve to come up with $30 million needed to save 250 police officers’ jobs. Legally, he can do it.

But Gillespie is right, too.

“He’s right to be saving most of that money for the long term,” said Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas.

Raiding the reserve would be poor fiscal policy and set a bad precedent, said Kirkpatrick, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1, which enabled Clark County commissioners to raise the sales tax from 8.1 percent to 8.25 percent.

Gillespie had said repeatedly he had to save those reserves from More Cops for future salaries for the 520 police officers hired with the initial sales tax increase in 2005.

Brager and others, including me, interpreted his explanation as meaning he was saying he couldn’t, rather than he shouldn’t.

The confusion was based on poor communication rather than a lack of credibility.

“I understand we could use reserves, but I don’t believe that’s a long-term solution,” he said Thursday. “I’ll take responsibility for some people interpreting my comments that you could not legally do that.”

Brager’s vote is needed to approve a tax hike to raise $30 million a year to cover salaries and equipment for 250 police officers and, it is hoped in a few years, to add another 100 officers.

When Brager on Tuesday asked to postpone the vote, her major concern was the conflicting information about restrictions on the use of More Cops sale tax reserves.

The reserve is expected to be between $134 million and $136 million at the end of the fiscal year, according to Karen Keller, chief financial officer for Las Vegas police.

Brager’s latest thought would split the baby. Maybe commissioners should consider a smaller tax increase, perhaps half what the sheriff requested and would raise about $15 million. Then he could dip into reserves for the other $15 million to cover the $30 million needed to save 250 jobs, she told me.

However, cutting the tax would mean 100 additional officers would probably not be hired, Keller explained.

Brager has said consistently she wants more cops. The hitch is paying for them. The city and county cut their police funding, and property tax revenues dropped 36 percent since 2008. Those combined revenues are $459 million. The police budget is $489 million.

More Cops has not had an easy ride. When times were flush in 2004, voters approved adding half-a-cent to the sales tax to pay for more cops. When it went to the 2005 Legislature, lawmakers approved a quarter-cent increase.

This past session, lawmakers whittled the bill’s increase to 0.15 of a percentage point, but SB 1 didn’t pass by the deadline, so a special session was necessary to pass the enabling legislation. Legislators left the final decision (and political ramifications) to Clark County commissioners.

If the 250 jobs are lost, then the 2,555 existing police officers would drop to 2,305 officers, or 1.57 officers for every 1,000 residents (not counting the 40 million visitors). That’s lower than the national average of 2.23 officers per capita.

If the sales tax increase fails, the first to go will be the 40 people now in the police academy because layoffs are based on seniority. While Gillespie hopes the economy improves and property taxes rise, he doesn’t believe any improvement in property taxes would increase an additional $30 million.

Keller said the consequences of using reserve money for ongoing expenses is that in a few years, the fund would be depleted. She estimated that by fiscal 2016-2017 there would be 420 officers whose jobs were not funded.

Gillespie could dip into reserves. But should he? Can he convince Brager it’s poor policy?

We should learn more after the two meet.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at or call 702-383-0275.