It’s rare even in the insulated executive chambers of some local governments to find the kind of tone-deafness now on display in Henderson, where city officials (briefly) restored “professional allowances” to some city workers while at the same time planning for a potential property tax increase and (literally) taking food out of the mouths of senior citizens.
City Manager Jacob Snow — who’s own $750-per-month professional allowance is built into his contract, and will continue apace — apparently thought it was a good idea in April and May to start paying allowances to about 66 top nonunion managers. Ranging from $250 to $550 per month, the allowances were meant to make up for the long-ago elimination of cost-of-living-raises, car allowances and other pay that was cut to deal with the effects of the Great Recession.
In normal times, this would simply have been a bad idea. The effects of the recession still linger over Southern Nevada, and restoring even the nearly $44,000 that was paid out in April and May defeats the purpose of making cuts in the first place.
But these are not normal times. In fact, the very month the first allowance checks went out, the city was embarking on a listening tour of Henderson, to educate the public about the dire straits of city finances, including a $2 million deficit in the operating fund, and an even larger $17 million deficit in the fund that builds and maintains city roads, street lights and the like. Snow himself referred to the city’s “crumbling infrastructure.”
City officials said the allowance program was canceled after just two months when the city realized its operating fund deficit had grown worse (Snow has ordered an additional $5 million in budget cuts this year). But the fact remains, the allowances were authorized when the city knew for a fact it faced deficits and was considering raising property taxes.
And that’s not even the worst part.
In order to deal with the short-term operating deficit, the City Council last week cut the operating hours of the Heritage Park Senior Facility and other recreation centers. It raised fees for everybody — including seniors and kids — at city pools. And it eliminated entirely a Saturday lunch program at Heritage Park, and raised the “suggested donation” for meals there from $1.50 to $2.50.
It’s so bad, I’ve found myself in full agreement with Victor Joecks, the executive vice president of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute. “I don’t know how a city resident looks at this and feels anything other than outrage,” Joecks told the Review-Journal’s Arnold Knightly, who broke the allowances story. “For them to have a series of budget meetings where they’re going around and bemoaning how they have no money and at the same time they were getting professional allowance bonuses is disingenuous.”
As a Henderson resident, I am outraged. And I can think of plenty of words to describe what happened, although few could be printed in a family newspaper.
Ordinarily, I’d be sympathetic to Henderson officials. The recession has taken a toll on city finances (Property tax revenues have dropped from $85.7 million in 2009 to $58.5 million this year, and property tax caps mean revenues won’t return to pre-recession levels for years). The city maintains the second-lowest employee-to-resident ratio in the valley (behind only cash-strapped North Las Vegas). Leaders have maintained the lowest property tax rate in the valley without an increase since 1991. And while Henderson employees were well-paid to begin with, the city has eliminated cost of living raises and other pay from nonunion workers and sought concessions from those represented by unions.
But trying to sell residents on a property tax increase and cutting services used by some of the most needy residents, while at the same time giving out unnecessary allowances to employees, has turned that sympathy into suspicion. (Indeed, some workers declined the money, showing more sensitivity than their bosses.)
The city isn’t a jobs program for its workers; it exists to provide services to its residents. By doing the precise opposite, Henderson’s leadership has lost serious credibility. Restoring that faith is now Job No. 1.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs daily at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.