The Las Vegas Valley has long cried out for local government consolidation. Las Vegas, unincorporated Clark County, Henderson and North Las Vegas are separated only by lines on maps, not geographical barriers or vast stretches of undeveloped land. It makes little practical or financial sense to have four separate fire, parks, business licensing and animal control departments, as well as three police departments and three library systems, and their separate, costly administrative structures.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, local governments are still tapping reserves to balance budgets while, simultaneously, handing out pay raises to employee bargaining groups. Merging some services to gain efficiency and eliminate administrative overhead would help put cities and Clark County on a more sustainable financial path.
So it was highly encouraging to see last week’s news that North Las Vegas and Las Vegas are prepared to study partnering in more functions. The cities already share jail services. It’s a long-overdue discussion given the cities’ miles of adjacent borders and North Las Vegas’ deep financial problems. The collapse of the valley’s economy has brought the city to the brink of a state takeover.
But the discussion will start with notable limitations. The cities’ leaders say outright consolidation is off the table and, because they believe their deficit-spending governments are understaffed, they’re not especially interested in efficiencies that eliminate positions.
Personnel costs — salaries, health benefits, pension contributions and other forms of compensation — consume nearly 90 percent of local government budgets. If these expenses are off-limits, shared-service efficiencies can be gained from only a tiny slice of their budgets.
Provided the city councils approve the agreement Nov. 6, an 11-member committee will be created to study potential shared services. The appointed members of the panel would have six months to make recommendations to the councils. North Las Vegas is retaining former Clark County Manager Thom Reilly as a consultant through the assessment, and Mr. Reilly will advise committee members as well.
Full consolidation of any service would require the approval of the Legislature, which won’t meet again until February 2015. But the real reason why the cities would launch such an effort and immediately rule out obvious options is simple: No one at any level of government is eager to relinquish their power or their turf. Indeed, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee told the Review-Journal’s editorial board that it’s important his city retains its identity.
The most important part of this agreement is an independent financial analysis of North Las Vegas, paid for by the city of Las Vegas. North Las Vegas has replaced all its top managers, and no one at City Hall seems to know just how bad its financial problems are. Credible numbers could significantly change the consolidation discussion. If North Las Vegas’ flirtation with insolvency can’t compel local governments to consolidate, nothing ever will. Middle East peace seems more likely.
But government change is always incremental. At least the cities are talking. Here’s hoping this assessment leads to something bigger and better — not to mention cheaper — down the road.