Commissioners question $9 million in Metro funds

The Metropolitan Police Department started its budget year with about $9 million more than officials anticipated, according to a county analysis of the department’s financial statements.

The news of unexpected money in the Police Department’s coffers comes as Sheriff Doug Gillespie is trying to sell Clark County commissioners on a “More Cops” sales tax increase to pay for officers.

Commissioners on Oct. 1 will decide between dueling options: raising the sales tax rate by 0.075 percentage points or by 0.15 percentage points.

For a $30,000 car, the larger tax hike would cost the buyer $45 extra and the smaller one $22.50.

In making his case to commissioners for an increase, Gillespie has pointed to an anticipated $30 million budget deficit in his department’s budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July. That estimate is facing scrutiny from commissioners.

“It’s clear that he has $9 million more than he thought he would,” said commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who has opposed raising the sales tax rate. “He can stop throwing around the $30 million figure because now it’s $21 million.”

Sisolak had asked for the department’s financial information, which commissioners received Friday from Clark County Chief Financial Officer George Stevens.

In August, commissioners were poised to vote on the 0.15 percentage point sales tax increase, which would help Las Vegas police and other police departments in the county pay for officers. But Commissioner Susan Brager persuaded her colleagues to hold off on voting so she could get more answers to questions.

Then she proposed a pared-down version with the smaller tax increase, which was countered by Commissioner Tom Collins’ proposal for the full 0.15 percentage points.

Brager has said the sheriff should be willing to tap into his department’s account that is accumulating revenue from the existing More Cops sales tax of 0.25 percent. That sales tax started in 2005 after county voters in a 2004 advisory measure supported a 0.50 percentage point increase for officers. The Legislature allowed the county to increase the sales tax by half that amount. Used to hire 520 officers in the following years, the account contains about $124 million.

“This information supports my claim that Metro’s $30 million projected general fund deficit isn’t the crisis it has been made out to be,” Brager said in a statement. “I won’t support the Sheriff’s request to increase the sales tax in order to close his projected budget deficit. If I do choose to support a sales tax increase, I will only do so on the condition that the .075 percent increase only be used to create and fund new police officer positions.”

She added: “I know I can’t direct the Sheriff to move $15 million in police officer expenses to his More Cops fund, and he clearly isn’t interested in doing that, but at the same time I won’t support increasing the County’s $198 million contribution of taxpayer dollars to Metro’s budget knowing he has the ability to deal with his budget situation on his own without having to lay off a single police officer.”

Gillespie referred a request for comment to Karen Keller, his department’s chief financial officer. She said the $9 million difference comes from a variety of one-time and unplanned sources of money.

Examples include: $1.8 million the department received in delinquent property tax revenue, a $1 million insurance settlement from a helicopter crash, and $2 million in savings after winning an arbitration with the department’s civilian employee union.

The department also sold old radios to other agencies for $500,000, and overestimated its anticipated cash-outs to employees retiring or leaving the department. It also saved about $500,000 on its outsourced transcribing and translation services.

The result: the department is standing by its $30 million figure.

“We may be able to offset some of that $30 million with that one-time funding, but that’s only one-time,” Keller said. “It will continue to be a deficit of $30 million.”

She also noted that the deficit could increase in the future as costs increase.

The department has a $489 million annual budget, which is shared by the city of Las Vegas and the county.

The sales tax rate in the county is 8.1 percent.

More scrutiny is expected at the Oct. 1 commission meeting, including from Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.

“The budget hole doesn’t appear to be what we we’re being told,” she said. “We’ve still got to do questioning at the board meeting.”

Gillespie, who is expected to testify at that meeting, has promoted the second More Cops tax increase as essential to retaining the number of police officers in the department and keeping crime under control.

He has not indicated support for either tax rate hike proposal, but he has maintained that the initial 0.25 percentage point increase he lobbied the Legislature for is necessary.

Contact reporter Ben Botkin at bbotkin@ or 702-405-9781. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1.