It’s not clear what’s least effective: A closed-down federal government or a fully functioning Clark County Commission.
Commissioners on Tuesday rejected both proposals to raise the sales tax to pay for police officers, leaving the Metropolitan Police Department with a $30 million budget deficit and little hope of seeing any additional revenue, a disastrous end to a catastrophic process that saw the tax divided and subdivided again until we finally reached zero. Meanwhile, Sheriff Doug Gillespie will now have to decide how to fill the budget gap and manage a shrinking force, unless the commission decides to revisit the issue.
That’s a hell of a way to run a police department.
“Today’s a very frustrating day,” Gillespie said. “This was a disservice to the men and women of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the citizens of Clark County, to not act.”
Tuesday’s meeting started out normally: Sane members of the public arguing for the tax increase (on public safety grounds) or against it (saying Metro wasn’t spending money wisely and the public already pays too much in taxes). Insane members of the public took their turn, arguing Wall Street bankers never get arrested by cops, nor does agribusiness giant Monsanto, nor do the people who put fluoride in the water.
Commissioners asked their questions, with those opposed to the tax increase striking a harder tone than those sympathetic. Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak, in particular, drilled into the details of the plan.
And that’s when the train wreck began. Commissioner Tom Collins, who has been an advocate of raising the sales tax rate by 0.15 percentage points, instead made a motion to vote on Commissioner Susan Brager’s half-a-loaf increase of 0.075 percentage points. But Collins then joined Giunchigliani and Sisolak in voting no, leaving the tally 4-3, one vote shy of the two-thirds supermajority required under the law.
Collins immediately made a second motion to approve the larger increase, which he’d supported from the start. That proposal predictably failed, with Collins, Larry Brown and Lawrence Weekly voting aye, and Giunchigliani, Sisolak, Brager and Mary Beth Scow voting no.
Which leaves us with nothing.
At least when the federal government shuts down, it hangs “closed” signs on all the doors. It doesn’t tease you with the promise of action, only to yank the rug out after more than three hours of testimony.
Gillespie, who has been advocating for the tax increase in Carson City and at the Government Center for months, said he will continue budget planning without the new sales tax revenue, but will raise the issue with commissioners again soon. He said the department is at 1996 staffing levels when it comes to the number of cops per 1,000 residents, and that’s just not enough for modern Las Vegas.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for Gillespie to dodge the issue. He’s got more than $130 million sitting in the bank, money generated by a previous quarter-cent sales tax increase enacted in 2005. Although those funds are supposed to cover the costs of officers hired under the More Cops program, he could use the money to plug his deficit. By the time that reserve fund is spent down and a new sheriff has to decide whether to absorb those salaries in the department’s general fund or lay off cops, Gillespie would be long retired.
But instead of doing that, Gillespie took the more arduous course, the one in which he’s vilified by citizen and commissioner alike. “The budget that you all reduced on me … is not getting the job done,” a clearly frustrated Gillespie said at one point in Tuesday’s proceedings. “We are stretched too thin.”
For a couple of seconds, there was a delightful silence in the commission chambers, right before the failure brigade fired up once more.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.