EDITORIAL: Another way to fund police

The latest sales tax increase proposal before the Clark County Commission will be debated as a badly needed funding increase for local police departments. If only it were that simple.

In reality, it’s a bailout for local governments and the elected stewards who desperately want to avoid difficult budget and policy decisions that should have been made years ago.

The commission will consider the new plan Tuesday, after rejecting previous versions of it, because the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department faces a long-term funding crisis. The department’s operating budget of nearly $500 million, down $60 million from its peak, still runs a $30 million deficit. The budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 will be at least $40 million in the red. The force has eliminated more than 400 officer positions since 2010 and will have to cut almost 700 additional positions by 2020 without an infusion of revenue.

The budget problem is rooted in how the consolidated department is funded. Property tax revenues, which comprise about 23 percent of Metro’s general fund, have plunged nearly $60 million since 2009 as a result of the valley’s real estate collapse. Clark County, which covers about 41 percent of the general fund, and the city of Las Vegas, which provides 24 percent of the fund, haven’t increased their contributions enough to make up that difference.

An existing quarter-cent county sales tax, supported by voters in 2004, provides 11 percent of the department’s funding and has created reserves of about $140 million. Sheriff Doug Gillespie proposes increasing that sales tax rate by 0.15 percentage points in two equal phases over the next few years and drawing down the reserve account to prevent future job cuts and allow the department to add more than 100 new officer positions over the next six years.

The plan wouldn’t restore the force to its 2010 peak of more than 2,700 commissioned officers, but it would come close.

It’s telling, however, that other Southern Nevada jurisdictions aren’t contemplating massive reductions in their police forces if this tax increase is rejected. That’s because the city councils of Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite are in complete control of all their services and have the ability to declare law enforcement their highest priority. They’ll cut back other departments before they drastically downsize police.

Although Clark County and Las Vegas have eliminated jobs and pared back programs in the aftermath of the recession, they’ve largely preserved their bureaucracies at Metro’s expense. Their refusal to move the department to the front of the funding line has forced Mr. Gillespie to come before the commission, again and again, to seek new tax money when commissioners and City Council members could make the department whole with existing revenue.

But that would require the commission and council to make cuts and enact major money-saving reforms everywhere else. They’d have to consider outsourcing park maintenance and janitorial, maintenance, security and recreation positions, which pay far, far more than comparable jobs in the private sector. They’d have to consider significant additional government consolidation — the kind that eliminates administrative overhead. And they’d have to revisit the cost of having their fire departments respond to medical emergencies and provide medical transports when private ambulance companies already do the job without public subsidy.

If anyone on the commission or council wants to champion these battles, please step forward. That no one has done so already speaks volumes.

If five of the seven commissioners back Mr. Gillespie’s sales tax plan Tuesday, it won’t merely be a vote to save police jobs. It will be a vote to save every job in every municipality, to save the salary and benefit scales that are among the highest in the country, to save the rigged collective bargaining process that gives neither the public nor elected stewards any control over rising government personnel costs.

As we’ve written before, this valley and this state have many pressing needs, and the private economy, battered by unemployment, can’t possibly pay for them all. School maintenance and construction and mental health services top the short list of critical unfunded priorities.

The Metropolitan Police Department has ample reserves in the short term. And the long-term funding it needs shouldn’t have to come from a sales tax increase.