Now not time to preserve reserve: Metro should pony up full $30 million

Ask yourself this question: If the Clark County School District were facing a $30 million budget deficit and had $137 million sitting in a reserve account, would elected officials spend months debating a tax increase, or would they tap the savings?

Answer: There wouldn’t be a reserve account in the first place. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, lawmakers have poured every available dime into public schools. With many acute education needs unfunded, Southern Nevada’s K-12 leaders can only dream of having such a savings account.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie enjoys such a luxury, yet he presses on with his campaign for a sales tax increase to augment the budgets of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and other Clark County police forces. Metro has a $30 million deficit that Mr. Gillespie wants to fill with a 0.15-cent increase in the county’s sales tax rate. At the same time, Metro has $137 million in the bank, surplus money generated by the “More Cops” quarter-cent sales tax boost approved in 2005 — money Mr. Gillespie doesn’t want to touch.

Three months ago, when the Legislature gave the Clark County Commission the authority to increase the sales tax rate again to fund police services, lawmakers also gave Mr. Gillespie the ability to use his substantial reserves to cover all operational expenses, not just the costs of new officers hired in the past eight years. Mr. Gillespie’s desire to maintain those reserves is rooted in good intentions. But asking taxpayers for even more money so his force can avoid sacrifice and preserve its fiscal cushion, when so many taxpaying businesses and residents have exhausted their savings and credit to survive this weak economy, is completely unfair.

The commission has delayed action on Mr. Gillespie’s request; the tax increase requires the support of five of the seven commissioners, and the votes weren’t there this summer. Commissioner Susan Brager is the swing vote and the member most committed to fully understanding the issue. Because of her diligence, skepticism and questioning, she has discovered that Metro’s reserve balance is $137 million, not the $124 million previously reported by police, and determined that Mr. Gillespie has the ability to use his reserves to balance his budget, when at one point he maintained he couldn’t.

Last week, in a meeting with this newspaper’s editorial board, Ms. Brager unveiled a compromise plan. She proposes forcing Metro to spend $15 million from reserves and having the commission and the Las Vegas City Council come up with another $15 million to fill the department’s budget hole this year, and increasing the county sales tax rate by 0.075 cents — half of what Mr. Gillespie wants — to augment police spending. The commission would vote on the plan Oct. 1.

It’s a credible, well-thought-out proposal. But the commission should reject it. As Ms. Brager herself told the Review-Journal: “I think we’re at a concern, not a crisis.”

Las Vegas police should take from their ample reserves to balance this year’s budget and avert officer layoffs, and the City Council and County Commission should spend the next seven months thinking about how to save the taxpayers some money instead of adding to their growing burden.

The commission does not exist in a vacuum. Across the state, the stewards of dozens of government entities are pleading for more funding, largely because of unsustainable personnel costs. Water rates will continue to increase to fund critical Southern Nevada Water Authority projects. Our power bills will continue to rise because of an accelerated transition from coal to more-expensive renewables and natural gas. And the Clark County Commission just voted to increase the county’s fuel tax, a levy badly needed to maintain and improve the valley’s roads and limit the spread of traffic gridlock. To elected leaders, these are distinct pots of money to be considered separately. To taxpayers and businesses, one pot matters most: their checkbooks. In the state with the country’s highest unemployment rate, any potential tax increases should address only the highest of high priorities.

Which brings us back to the valley’s schools. If taxes must rise, the Clark County School District is at the front of the line. Last week, the Review-Journal reported on the Clark County School District’s huge facility woes, from over-capacity elementary schools to malfunctioning air conditioners that forced a 1½-day closure of Durango High School. Enrollment in the country’s fifth-largest school district is growing again, and the system is out of portable classrooms. More elementary schools will switch to year-round schedules next year, and a redrawing of attendance zones looms. The school district can’t even consider expanded full-day kindergarten and reduced class sizes in early grades until it adds classroom space and can keep up with required maintenance.

Last year, voters rejected a $700 million property tax increase for school district capital projects — a revenue stream that wouldn’t touch maintenance issues such as air-conditioning and building leaks. The school district must go to voters again in 2014, but ask for much less — perhaps as little as $100 million — for a handful of new elementary schools, and develop a separate plan to boost maintenance spending. And Gov. Brian Sandoval and lawmakers must press to make tax dollars go further through prevailing wage and collective bargaining reforms.

There is no vast reserve to draw from. This is a crisis.

A $30 million budget deficit for a well-paid police department that just scrapped a new, $40 million radio system and opened a new headquarters while keeping $137 million in the bank? Not so much.