You have got to be kidding me!
Judging by his facial expression, that seemed to be the thought going through Sheriff Doug Gillespie’s mind Tuesday at the Clark County Government Center after his attempt to raise the sales tax rate to hire more cops failed for a second time. The rejection came despite Gillespie hiring local numbers expert Jeremy Aguero and compromising on some key aspects of his plan.
You could review the entire 40-year history of the Metropolitan Police Department and not find a sheriff rejected by elected officials the way Gillespie has been denied by the Clark County Commission. And if history is any guide, it may happen yet again.
Things started to go awry almost from the moment voters in 2004 narrowly approved an advisory question to raise the county sales tax rate by a half-cent. The 2005 Legislature authorized just half of that amount, 0.25 percentage points. The recession hit and budgets declined. Gillespie returned to Carson City in 2013 to get the other quarter-cent but was only able to muster 0.15 percentage points, provided the County Commission approved.
But the commission rejected the full amount, with Commissioner Susan Brager, the swing vote, offering to vote for half a loaf, or 0.075 percentage points. Commissioner Tom Collins intentionally moved to consider her plan first, then voted against it, effectively killing it. A subsequent vote on the full 0.15 also failed, with Brager voting no.
That’s why Gillespie returned with a “hybrid plan” that would have implemented 0.075 percentage points Oct. 1, and the rest later, while at the same time spending down a budget reserve he’d previously wanted to hold harmless.
That didn’t happen, either: The hybrid plan garnered four votes, one shy of the five-vote supermajority needed for passage. Brager again offered to vote for the 0.075 approach, but that voted failed as well.
Some questions present themselves at this point.
• Wouldn’t it be better for Collins to relent, vote for the 0.075 percentage-point plan, and then try again in the future for the other half of the tax? Things may change after November’s election, and even under the hybrid plan, the second half of the tax wouldn’t have gone into effect until October 2015 at the earliest. In the meantime, Metro and other county police departments are losing out on money they could put toward hiring officers.
Collins says no way: In his view, the half-loaf approach doesn’t raise enough money, and if the county dallies too much, the 2015 Legislature might remove the tax authorization, reasoning the county didn’t really need it if commissioners didn’t implement it.
• Wouldn’t it also work if Brager relented and voted for the hybrid plan, perhaps adding certain conditions to ensure the money is spent properly? Brager admits she was leaning toward voting yes Tuesday, but she backed off when some of her questions went unanswered. That may help explain Gillespie’s expression.
“I do think that we need more officers,” Brager said. “I wanted something to work on Tuesday.”
Ironically, both Brager and Collins — whose relationship has obviously been strained to the breaking point by tension over this issue — say it’s not over. Both say the issue could resurface during the upcoming production of the county’s budget, which is due to the state by June.
But for Collins, bringing the plan up again would be a way to get another “no” vote on the record, a political arrow that police unions and a Brager challenger could use against the commissioner this fall. For Brager, budget time represents a chance to look for more funds, perhaps fixing Metro’s budget hole and hiring new officers without need of a sales tax increase. “I feel like there is another way to do this,” she said. (This seems unlikely, however: Public agency budgets rely heavily on property taxes, but increases in tax bills are capped by state statute. If money for more cops came at the expense of other programs, it would require equally controversial votes.)
Either way, it looks like Gillespie will need to press his uniform for another appearance before the County Commission, one that’s more likely to end in frustration than victory. Suddenly, his decision not to seek re-election makes more sense.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.