Don Laughlin stands on a high-rise balcony outside an opulent suite in his hotel-casino and glances down at the waterfront town that bears his name.
Below him, two whirring personal watercraft slice foamy swaths in the bluish-green water of the Colorado River, the dividing line between the town of Laughlin and Bullhead City, Ariz.
Towering casinos line the shore on the Nevada side, a contrast to Bullhead City, where a patchwork of houses, stores, restaurants and offices show a more diverse growth.
In the past decade, Bullhead City's population has grown by 28 percent to more than 40,000, while Laughlin's has hung between 7,000 and 8,000.
Some townspeople contend Clark County's red tape has caused developers to choose Bullhead City over Laughlin. They say it's vital for their community to be more business-friendly.
They also complain that the county alternates between neglecting Laughlin and imposing its will on the town.
Disenchantment with county authority has fueled efforts to turn the enclave into a city. Proponents acknowledge that many details must be worked out, however, including how to provide all the necessary services to residents.
A bill making its way through the Legislature would grant residents a chance to vote on incorporating Laughlin.
Residents as a whole appear split on the idea. Among the opponents: the town's founder, who argues that the population is too small to support a city.
"It doesn't make any sense with 7,000 people," Laughlin said. "I don't know where they're going to get the money."
BIG CASINOS OPPOSED
Gaming is Laughlin's mainstay. The bulk of the town's 2.5 million yearly visitors go to the casinos.
Most casino officials are either neutral or oppose incorporation. To lessen the legislative battle with this powerful lobby, the bill's backers have excluded casinos from becoming part of the proposed city.
Laughlin wouldn't get the casinos' property tax revenue, but it also wouldn't have to provide services to them, said Jordan Ross, town constable and Republican activist.
"It's a wash," said Ross, who backs incorporation.
At least a couple of casino owners fear their property taxes would increase if they were in a city, Ross said.
They also are concerned that they would lose a county code requiring new hotel-casinos to have a certain number of rooms, Ross said.
The code curtails competition by preventing small operators from opening in the area.
Two years ago, a similar Laughlin incorporation bill that included large casinos died in the Legislature when the gaming companies fought it, Ross said.
Two of the larger operators oppose it this time, too, including Don Laughlin, so it was more expedient to leave out all the casinos from the effort, Ross said.
The plan is to talk with casino owners again after they have had a chance to see how well Laughlin works as a city, Ross said. "In the meantime, there's no need to press it."
So how much would it cost to a run a city the size of Laughlin?
About $7 million to $8 million a year, said state Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, who is sponsoring the right-to-vote bill.
Hardy was citing a preliminary study by a Laughlin economic development panel. The study used Mesquite and Boulder City as models, he said.
Laughlin would contract some services with the county, including police and fire inspections, Ross said. And the county would continue handling regional services such as health inspections.
But the county's fire crews would be replaced, possibly by contracting with Bullhead City or Mohave Valley, another Arizona city about 20 miles away, Ross said.
Almost any alternative would be cheaper than the county Fire Department, he argued.
The county pays about $12 million a year for its Laughlin crews, mostly because Laughlin tends to draw older firefighters at the top of the pay scale, Hardy said.
Collaborating with other governments for services instead of handling them all yourself could be the best approach, Ross said.
"It's thinking outside the box," he said.
SENATE HEARS BILL MONDAY
Hardy said he is confident his bill will pass the state Senate, which will hear it Monday. Its next stop would be the Assembly. And Gov. Brian Sandoval has said he would sign the bill if it reaches him.
After that are a couple of more hoops.
A state committee would do a more extensive feasibility study to ensure the town doesn't get in over its head financially, Hardy said. "The state, county and casinos don't want to bail them out."
County commissioners and a legislative commission would review the results.
If at least one of those bodies gives the go-ahead, the proposal would go to Laughlin residents for a vote, probably in the 2012 general election.
That would leave time to nominate candidates for mayor and city council, Ross said.
The purpose isn't to create a big government entity, but to be autonomous, especially when it comes to issuing building permits, Ross said.
Bullhead City lures developers and businesses because projects get through the review process much quicker there than in Clark County, Ross said.
Bob Bilbray, a local developer, spent years wrangling with the county over a proposed subdivision called Bilbray Ranch, Ross said. By the time he built homes, the real estate market was sinking.
PERSONAL FOR REPUBLICANS
Laughlin is 80 miles from the metropolitan area, with a tight-knit, small-town culture that's much different from the cities, Ross said. It also is staunchly Republican, putting most residents at odds with the all-Democrat County Commission.
Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who succeeded Republican Bruce Woodbury, caused an uproar a couple of years ago when he appointed three Democrats to the town advisory board, brushing aside Republicans who had won in a straw vote, Ross said.
It stoked a collective desire to incorporate because many folks suddenly felt at the mercy of county leaders' whims, he said.
"It's become a very personal issue," Ross said.
Sisolak has defended his actions, saying the board needed a change at the time.
He said the real reasons that town officials want to incorporate is so they can take control of 9,000 acres and a $12 million trust for area infrastructure improvements. The county now is in charge of the land and the funds.
Ross agreed that the land and money were sought, but he didn't feel they were the primary motives.
The land especially would be a boon, because it could be sold or leased to developers, he said.
Even with those additional resources, Sisolak questioned how Laughlin could afford to become a city without the casinos as part of the tax base.
People need to know that if they're responsible for more services, their taxes could go up, he said.
"I'm not convinced that they have the wherewithal to pull this off. I'm happy to let them incorporate as long as people know what they're voting on."
HOW MESQUITE DID IT
Mesquite City Councilman Dave Bennett said Laughlin is large enough to be a city.
When Mesquite incorporated in the mid-1980s, it had 1,200 residents, he said. Wells and Caliente now have only about 1,500 people each.
Mesquite's property taxes initially were increased to pay for services but later dropped as several large casinos opened and the population grew to more than 15,000, said Bennett, who is president of the Nevada League of Cities.
He agreed that the cost of casinos' services mostly cancels the tax revenue they generate.
Still, he was surprised to hear that Laughlin would exclude its big casinos if it incorporates. A smaller tax base makes it tougher to curb tax levies, Bennett said.
Laughlin is wrestling with the same types of problems that drove Mesquite to incorporate, he said. Mesquite was 80 miles from the county seat and experienced lengthy delays in getting building permits.
"I understand where they're coming from," Bennett said.
But Don Laughlin said he is satisfied with county services and thinks the quality could decline with another layer of government.
The town has grown considerably since he opened his Riverside Resort in the mid-1960s, and it needs to grow more before it becomes a full-fledged city, Laughlin said.
Some who support incorporation want to create a government so they can be politicians, Laughlin said.
Others want to change existing rules to allow table games in small establishments.
"People have visions of grandeur about table games," Laughlin said. "Let them have the table games."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland @reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.