This time, it will be much harder to say no to the sheriff.
During the previous hearings over the More Cops sales tax increase proposal, Clark County commissioners have raised several objections, the most significant of which was this: Why should taxpayers pay a higher sales tax when Metro is sitting on a reserve fund?
Sheriff Doug Gillespie was originally unwilling to spend that reserve money, the proceeds of a previous sales tax increase, because he said it was supposed to cover the costs of officers hired under the tax plan from the day they were hired to the day they retire from the department. That answer didn’t satisfy a commission majority, however, which rejected two previous ordinances to implement a sales tax increase of up to 0.15 percentage points.
But now, things are a little different. Gillespie has hired respected numbers guru Jeremy Aguero, the principal of Applied Analysis, and together they’ve developed a hybrid plan that would see the sales tax phased in while the More Cops reserve money is spent to defray the department’s budget deficit. Under the plan, more cops would be hired right away and the sales tax would be increased over two years, with a 0.075 percentage-point increase in October, and, as hiring continues, another 0.075 implemented in October 2015.
The plan won’t satisfy everyone. Commissioner Tom Collins wanted the whole 0.15 percentage-point increase implemented immediately, but it won’t be. Commissioner Susan Brager wanted only half of the authorized amount, but this plan calls for the full amount. About the only people who won’t be happy are Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak, who have opposed every iteration of the tax proposal. But even if both vote no, the commission still has the five votes necessary to implement the tax.
Gillespie declined last week to predict whether he’d have the votes to implement the hybrid tax plan; he’s been disappointed by the commission before. But the sheriff should get credit for his willingness to compromise and go back to the drawing board to address commissioners’ concerns. He should also get props for being conservative in his hiring. Had Gillespie hired every cop he was authorized to hire under the first part of the sales tax increase that went into effect back in 2005, he’d probably have had to lay off officers by now.
“I’m not going to use my employees, particularly police officers, as pawns in this little game,” said Gillespie, who decided last year not to seek a third term as sheriff in November.
Gillespie’s plan is a reasonable compromise that accomplishes what residents said they favored in the 2004 vote that got the entire sales tax ball rolling: raising taxes to pay for police. But the plan is not perfect: Aguero calculates the hybrid plan will allow the department to add just 101 new officer positions between now and 2020; doing nothing, however, would see the department lose 684 positions by 2020.
The hybrid plan would see 1.77 cops for every 1,000 residents, far lower than the department’s goal of two officers for every 1,000 residents (that ratio falls to 1.48 per 1,000 when you include tourists). But that’s better than losing further ground, which the department has been doing up until now.
In a perfect world, we’d fund police out of the city and county general fund, with local elected officials cutting less important things in order to pay for one of the most important: public safety. But that world is not this one, fraught with politics, both in Carson City and at the Government Center. Maybe this time around, with the department’s budget on full display and everyone’s cards on the table, what Gillespie calls “this little game” can finally be wrapped up for good.
Steve Sebelius is a 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.