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North Las Vegas to pursue 33,000 warrant backlog

If you’ve got an unpaid parking ticket in North Las Vegas, your days on the lam might be numbered.

North Las Vegas is getting serious about its backlog of 33,000 Municipal Court warrants. The City Council on Jan. 7 approved spending $500,000 to address the issue. The majority of the offenses are likely traffic-related. Serious misdemeanors such as driving under the influence and domestic violence are prioritized.

The plan: Hire bailiffs to handle Municipal Court security so the marshals are free to pursue the city’s warrants.

A press release about the change touted the program as saving the city $1.6 million a year. The release comes as the city is trying to change its image to attract business and boost the spirits of employees following a spate of layoffs. North Las Vegas is saddled with a projected $152 million shortfall, a financial future so bleak the city at one point seriously considered receivership, the state’s untested alternative to bankruptcy.

The trouble is, it isn’t accurate to say the city will save $1.6 million a year because of the new program.

“It’s a shell game,” said Chris Stream, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Environmental and Public Affairs and an associate professor in public administration and policy. “The press release is unfortunate, I think.”

It’s not really a savings because although the court budget will decrease, the police budget will increase. That’s because the costs are salaries and the marshals aren’t leaving, they are just doing a different job, Stream said. Heralding the change as a “savings” when it isn’t is a shame since what the city is doing likely makes a lot of sense, Stream said.

City Finance Director Darren Adair said he didn’t see that release, but might have corrected it if he had.

It’s dishonest to say that because the city is replacing its marshal court security program that costs $2.1 million with a bailiff program that costs $500,000 that the city is saving $1.6 million annually, Adair said. City Manager Qiong Liu asked him to give her a number, but he said he had to leave her hanging this time because there just isn’t a way to predict the future fiscal impact. There are too many variables.

It’s more like an investment, Adair said. Although there isn’t a way to point to an exact amount of money the city can expect to generate to cover the cost of the bailiffs, it’s safe to assume the city will be able to recoup some of the $500,000 — very likely all of it — and might even end up with additional revenue, he said.

Each warrant has a dollar amount attached to it, but it wouldn’t be safe to assume that each warrant is about $300 so the city can bank on having an extra $9.9 million, he said. There are many outcomes for a warrant, with the ultimate goal being compliance, so it’s just too unpredictable, he said.

North Las Vegas is transient, offenders could live elsewhere, be in jail on other offenses, have died or simply lack the money to pay.

Also, 33,000 would be about 14 percent of North Las Vegas’ entire population, meaning it’s likely some people have more than one warrant and that warrants belong to people who live elsewhere.

“Obviously the city wouldn’t want to embark on anything that has the risk of not breaking even,” Adair said. “We just can’t afford those risks right now.”

Usually ideas to spend money to save it don’t get traction in North Las Vegas, but this one is different, he said.

Because marshals were handling court security, patrol officers were being pulled from their police responsibilities to handle warrants. The big issue in this instance is compliance with the law and finding a way to achieve that without breaking the bank, Adair said.

“I think it makes sense to put people in the jobs they are supposed to be doing,” Adair said. “You’ve got police officers trying to do a marshal’s job and marshals trying to do a bailiff’s job.”

Previously marshals were out serving warrants four days a week for 10 hours a day. The new system allows them to be out pursuing warrants six days a week for 19 hours a day. There will be a transition period that will likely take a few months as bailiffs will need to be hired and marshals will need to train them.

Funding will come out of contingency fund set aside in the city’s budget each year for unplanned decisions.

The city plans to analyze how the program has affected the city’s budget in a year.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @betsbarnes on Twitter.

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