More hard times ahead for Clark County

The ailing real estate market continues to bedevil cash-strapped local governments in Clark County, with depreciating properties expected to produce about $200 million less in tax revenue in the coming year.

Although smaller than last year's $470 million drop, it means another year of strained budgets for governments that already have trimmed staffing and services in the stubborn recession.

The treasurer recently calculated the dip, which included money lost from the record number of property owners who appealed their assessed values this year.

The financial pain is spread across 40 entities, including Clark County, the cities, libraries and school district.

The county government expects a $36 million decline in property taxes for the next budget year.

In all, the county could lose $120 million for the year if lawmakers approve Gov. Brian Sandoval's state budget plan, which calls for taking county revenue while diverting some state-funded programs to the county.

"We just have to cut deeper than we have in the past," County Manager Don Burnette said. "We can't grow more revenue. We don't have that ability."

In February, Burnette told the heads of three dozen departments to draft plans for snipping their budgets by 9 percent. The cuts would save an estimated $40 million and result in about 400 layoffs.

However, county managers, union employees and nonunion workers are now set to take 2 percent pay cuts that will save about $11 million and possibly prevent some layoffs. Rank-and-file workers will keep getting cost-of-living and merit raises.

Burnette said more measures must be taken.

This year's property tax loss isn't as severe as last year's $46 million, but the county no longer has reserve funds to plug holes, Burnette said.

The slumping real estate market proved a mixed blessing for those who watched their properties depreciate but who enjoyed smaller tax bills.

About 10,600 property owners challenged their taxable values this year, contending that the county assessed them higher than the sites were worth. The appeals shaved about $60 million in revenue. The volume topped the 8,300 appeals filed last year and the 6,082 filed in 2009.

Those years dwarf the 1,370 filed in 2008. That year, property tax revenue peaked at $2.3 billion. It has tumbled to $1.6 billion in 2011 -- a $700 million plunge in three years.

As anticipated, commercial property has depreciated sharply, in large part because of high vacancy rates.

But those who own business property are getting a break.

The tax cap for commercial properties has been lowered to 6.7 percent from 8 percent to offset the poor market, said Assistant Treasurer Becky Coates, explaining that the law allows for reducing the commercial cap in tough economic times.

The lower cap had a relatively small impact this year, with about $1.5 million less being collected, Coates said.

County schools will receive $48 million less in property taxes, the amount that officials predicted. The drooping revenue is part of a gaping shortfall that could reach $407 million if Sandoval's proposed funding cuts for education go through, officials said.

Anywhere from 3,800 to 5,600 jobs could be slashed, said Michael Rodriguez, school district spokesman, adding that he didn't know how many actual layoffs could occur.

He noted that the district already has sliced $375 million from its budgets since 2007.

"This would push the total cuts to a half a billion to three-quarter of a billion dollars," he said.

The city of Las Vegas is in better shape than the school district or county. It pulled in about $11 million less in property taxes, but its sales tax revenue increased and it got concessions from its biggest unions. The city must fill an estimated $8 million shortfall, which managers hope can be done through further concessions from labor.

The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District will take a $3.6 million hit, though officials consider that good news because they were bracing for a loss twice as big.

Still, it will require stocking fewer titles and cutting back on maintenance and miscellaneous services, said Jeanne Goodrich, the library district's executive director.

The district is about to negotiate with its employee union for a new labor contract, with the hope that some concessions will be made to save jobs, Goodrich said.

"It's fair to say there certainly will be some impact on our employees," she said. "We're looking carefully at everything."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@review or 702-455-4519.