Clark County Commissioner Susan Brager said Thursday she’s willing to support a scaled-back version of the proposed More Cops sales tax that could trim the proposed rate increase in half.
A proposal backed by Sheriff Doug Gillespie would increase the sales tax rate by 0.15 percentage points to plug a $30 million budget shortfall and keep police officers on the job.
In an editorial board meeting with the Review-Journal, Brager said meeting the Metropolitan Police Department’s needs can be accomplished with a combination of a 0.075 percentage-point increase and the department dipping into reserves accumulated from an existing sales tax that started in 2005 for hiring officers.
“I think we’re at a concern, not a crisis,” Brager said.
But Brager’s proposed compromise isn’t enough for commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, the most outspoken opponent of a More Cops tax increase.
“I think he should take it all out of the reserves,” Sisolak said, referring to more than $100 million in the Police Department’s reserves. “I think people are just overburdened.”
Under the proposal, Gillespie would have to apply $15 million to the shortfall from the reserve account for the existing More Cops sales tax. That would leave the department with a $15 million budget gap for the city and county to plan for before the next fiscal year starts on July 1, 2014. The reserve account is expected to have about $26 million when the tax expires in 2025.
From there, the new sales tax would go toward hiring officers, both for the Metropolitan Police Department and other local police departments in the county.
The proposed tax would generate about $24 million annually, $17 million of which would go to the Metropolitan Police Department. That would pay for about 125 officers, though it’s unclear if the department’s size would actually increase when accounting for attrition and retirements.
County voters in 2004 supported the concept of a half-cent sales tax increase for more cops. Half of that amount — 0.25 percentage points — was allowed by the Nevada Legislature. The department used that tax to hire 520 officers. This year, the Legislature gave the county the authority to increase the tax by another 0.15 percentage points.
In August, commissioners delayed voting on the proposal after Brager said she had unanswered questions about the More Cops proposal.
She said she has talked to the sheriff. “He didn’t say no. But I don’t have a solid yes at this time.”
Gillespie was out of his office on vacation and unavailable for comment on Thursday. Commissioner Larry Brown said he needs to analyze the new proposal and get feedback from the sheriff before he can comment. He had just received word of it on Thursday. When the proposal was previously at 0.15 percentage points, he was supportive, saying it was needed for public safety. The sheriff has demonstrated the need for officers, Brown said.“Public safety remains, I think, our No. 1 responsibility and priority,” he said. “People want to feel safe.”
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she hasn’t seen the scaled-back proposal yet. She said the reserves should go toward addressing the perceived shortfalls with the department’s budget.
“If you do have a shortfall, take some of it out of your reserves,” she said.
Previously, Gillespie has said the reserve account is needed because the existing More Cops sales tax will expire in 2025 when the officers hired with that money still have several years left in their careers.
Giunchigliani said Thursday that planning for that future is a “balancing act” that also needs to account for the department’s present financial needs.
Commissioner Tom Collins said he disagrees with the approach of digging into the department’s reserves, as it would jeopardize the integrity of the department’s budget for the future.
That would mean cuts in other areas, he said.
“In order for the Police Department to maintain whatever they have, in the future the city and county would have to come up with a lot more money, which means other services would be deprived,” Collins said of the scenario of dipping into reserves.
Commissioner Mary Beth Scow said she has not reached a final opinion yet, but also noted a couple of positives: a lower burden for taxpayers and belt-tightening by the sheriff.
“Those two would help move this along,” she said.
The proposal and the figures need to be examined, including how many more officers it would give the Police Department, she said.
The new More Cops proposal will be introduced at the commission meeting on Sept. 17.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal at the Oct. 1 meeting.
The current sales tax rate in Clark County is 8.1 percent. If commissioners approved the sales tax increase, it would start in January 2014.
Contact reporter Ben Botkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-405-9781. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1.