Persistent and unanswered questions from constituents about a proposed sales tax increase to pay for police officers forced a delay in a planned Clark County Commission vote Tuesday.
The move to postpone a vote on the More Cops proposal came from Commissioner Susan Brager, who said she still has unanswered questions.
The delay was a setback for Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who had expected the measure to pass Tuesday. Gillespie earlier this year lobbied the Nevada Legislature to allow the county to raise the sales tax from 8.1 percent to 8.25 percent.
Commissioner Tom Collins cast the only vote against the postponement, saying public safety is crucial for tourism.
After the meeting, Brager said she received emails from constituents in recent weeks that pose a lot of “intelligent questions.” Those questions revolve around the budget and whether the tax increase would lead to an actual increase in the number of officers on the job and when that increase would happen.
“Do we need more officers? Yes,” Brager said. “Is there a better way to do it? I don’t know yet until all questions are answered.”
For example: Can the department’s $30 million budget gap be plugged with part of the $124 million that it has in reserves? That money is generated from the quarter-cent sales tax increase that started in 2005 to hire more officers.
Previously, Gillespie has said the reserve is needed to pay for those officers after the 2005 sales tax expires in 2025.
Brager noted that the More Cops title for the proposal is somewhat of a misnomer when factoring in normal retirements and attrition versus the new officers.
“It is new officers, not particularly more officers,” Brager said. “I want us to get to more.”
The sheriff would use the money in the next fiscal year to fill a $30 million shortfall affecting about 250 officer positions. The money also would allow about 100 officers to be hired. But because about 100 officers routinely leave through retirement and attrition each year, a net gain isn’t anticipated.
The sheriff’s next move is uncertain. Gillespie asked for a decision within 60 days so he can start planning his next budget.
“I need to know as the sheriff of Clark County how much money I’m going to have to run my organization, not only this year but future years,” Gillespie said. “If it is delayed more than 60 days, in my opinion that negatively impacts my ability to plan.”
Commissioners made no promises and set no date for a vote.
“I do not have a time frame,” Brager said after the meeting. “I think it depends on when we get all the information we need.”
Commissioner Larry Brown told the sheriff he would like to see scenarios for hiring police officers. In response, Gillespie said he can develop a fact sheet or Power Point presentation.
Members of the public, many upset and some angry, packed the commission chambers. They offered opinions ranging from supporting the department to criticizing the tax proposal in specific or the police in general for a perceived lack of accountability.
Kevin Njus of Las Vegas said he is unemployed and living off his savings. He noted the cumulative impact of potential tax increases the county is considering. Besides the sales tax, the county also faces a decision about a proposed fuel tax increase to raise money for road projects.
“How many taxes do we want to put out there,” he said. “There’s deep pockets out there. I don’t have deep pockets.”
Steve Swanson, director of Veterans in Politics International in Las Vegas, took the sheriff to task for ignoring the police Use of Force Board’s recommendation to terminate officer Jacquar Roston. Roston shot a man in the leg in November after mistaking a shiny sticker on his hat for a gun.
“He turned his back on that Use of Force Board,” Swanson said.
“I think a lot more officers should stand up to Sheriff Gillespie,” he said.
The department also had its supporters.
John Hill, executive director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, said residents are taking back the community, but more police officers are needed.
“I rise in support of this, and I think the department is doing an excellent job,” he said.
Richard Worthington, past president of the Downtown Las Vegas Alliance, said public safety is critical for efforts to improve downtown, with the benefit reaching into surrounding areas, too. The tax also would bring more funds to police departments in Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite.
Violent crime could set back progress and revitalization for years, he said.
Besides explaining his department’s finances, Gillespie also stressed his goal of openness.
“I did not hide that,” he said of the decision to retain Roston. “I came before the public. I held a press conference. I have been straightforward and honest and transparent.”
Commissioner Collins held up a card with six pennies on it. By Collins’ accounting, the 0.15-percentage point increase in the sales tax amounts to about $22 a year for most people.
“I want to help you sell this because I want a safer community,” Collins said.
After the meeting, Gillespie spoke to reporters. Asked why questions remain after months of discussion, he said: “Tough questions coming from constituents tend not to come sometimes until the vote of the particular issue, and I believe that’s what occurred here.”
The new sales tax rate, if approved, would start in October. The state legislation doesn’t give the commissioners a deadline for a decision, however.
Contact reporter Ben Botkin at bbotkin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1.