Council endorses call for police sales tax boost


The Las Vegas City Council voted 6-1 Wednesday to support a proposed one-quarter of a cent sales tax increase to help pay police.

The symbolic vote came at the behest of Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who is trying to rally support for the tax increase before the upcoming session of the Legislature, which must approve the increase for it to move forward.

Clark County, North Las Vegas, Mesquite and Boulder City previously have approved the resolution, according to Ted Olivas, the city's director of administrative services.

The one-quarter of a cent increase could raise as much as $75 million annually for police departments to pay officers, including about $50 million for the Metropolitan Police Department, which is funded by Las Vegas and Clark County.

Gillespie said his department's spending is projected at $502 million in the upcoming year, but revenue projections are $456 million, a difference of $46 million.

He said that if the sales tax increase, already approved by county voters in 2004, is approved by the Legislature, it would provide money to reverse the trend of leaving jobs vacant in the department.

In recent years, the department has left 238 police officer positions vacant, and another 117 could be left open next year without more tax money, he said.

"What I'm saying to you is when we get this money we won't have to eliminate any more positions," Gillespie said.

The argument resonated with a majority of the council who voted in support of the resolution.

"Crime doesn't care we are in a recession; we have a duty and responsibility as local governments to provide public safety and make that our No. 1 priority," Councilman Steve Ross said.

Councilman Bob Beers, the dissenting vote, said that if the city wants action from the Legislature that would help stretch spending on labor further, it should tackle collective bargaining-related statutes first.

Beers, a former legislator, said that under current law, arbitrators in labor disputes are forced to choose between competing offers from labor and management.

Changing the law to authorize arbitrators to craft compromise settlements would deliver less extreme results and help local governments stretch their budgets, he said.

"Every other state it appears in America does it that way. They allow the arbitrator to pick a compromise. We do not," Beers said. "I think the Legislature needs to deal with that first and foremost."

In addition to asking the Legislature to approve the sales tax increase, the resolution requests a change to the language of the law that governs the voter-approved measure.

The change would remove language that aims to prevent local governments from using the sales tax money to supplant their own contributions to the Las Vegas police budget.

What it means, however, is that police cannot spend the sales tax money to hire officers unless local government contributions to the department are increasing.

With the recession causing tax revenue to fall, local contributions to Las Vegas police are falling as well, which makes it difficult for Gillespie to access the sales tax money.

The language changes would allow Gillespie to fill existing positions with the money, instead of creating and filling new positions. "We would take this tax money and use it to pay for those positions so we could fill them," he said.

In addition to helping Gillespie fill his projected budget shortfall, legislative approval of the tax increase would help Las Vegas officials out of a tight budget spot.

Without the tax increase, the city faces projected a $32 million gap between revenue and expenses in 2014. If Las Vegas police get the sales tax, it would alleviate some of the funding burden for Las Vegas and reduce the projected 2014 budget gap to $12.3 million.

"That is critically important, what has to happen at the Legislature," Finance Director Candace Falder said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .

 

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