Departments struggle with More Cops mandate

When state lawmakers approved the More Cops sales tax in 2005, they wanted to ensure local governments didn’t use the new revenue for anything other than hiring new officers.

So they added language to prevent the governments from “supplanting” the money they were using for their police departments with the More Cops money. But the law didn’t address what would happen when the boom years ended.

“Nobody was talking about what happens in tough economic times,” Sheriff Doug Gillespie said.

As tax revenues dried up amid Southern Nevada’s economic collapse, local agencies such as the Metropolitan and North Las Vegas police departments have cut their budgets.

Those reductions could be a violation of the language of the law, which requires police agencies to maintain or increase their budgets every year, according to a legal opinion released Thursday by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office.

In the wake of the opinion, Gillespie is moving to clarify language in the More Cops law to address funding when the economy goes south. He has already contacted state lawmakers to start the process of clarifying the law’s language.

“I don’t want this to linger,” he said.

In recent years, Gillespie has cut the budget for the Metropolitan Police Department from $549 million to $501 million as tax revenues have plummeted. Those cuts have included eliminating more than 200 police officer positions that had been left vacant.

As police were cut from the general fund budget, Gillespie cut a proportional number of officers from the More Cops fund to avoid supplanting.

But based on the attorney general’s opinion, that would not satisfy the letter of the law.

In the opinion, Deputy Attorney General Vivienne Rakowsky wrote that the law required police budgets to be equal to or greater than the previous fiscal year. She also wrote that the agencies had to maintain the same number of police officers in their general funds as they had when the law took effect on Oct. 1, 2005.

However, a footnote on the opinion acknowledged that lawmakers did not foresee the state’s economic troubles. While a reduction in police budgets and staffing “could constitute supplantation,” the issue could be addressed by the Legislature by amending the law.

Gillespie noted that he couldn’t go back and increase his budget to the $549 million of a couple years ago because the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, which fund about 70 percent of the budget, are facing budget crises of their own because of falling tax revenues.

Chris Collins, who represents about 2,800 rank-and-file officers as head of the Police Protective Association, said the law as written doesn’t fit current economic reality.

“It’s clear that you can’t write a law to force the city and county to spend money they don’t have,” he said.

North Las Vegas officials asked for the legal opinion last year after police and other officials began questioning how the city was managing more than $34 million in More Cops funds and whether the city had violated the spirit of the original initiative.

City management, meanwhile, insisted it did nothing wrong, and said the controversy stemmed from an administrative mistake in moving 32 officers from general funds into positions paid by More Cops money.

An audit completed in June 2010 found the city properly used the funds to hire new police officers in most cases.

But the audit, performed by the Las Vegas office of Kafoury, Armstrong & Co., also noted the city shifted five police officers already on the payroll to positions funded by More Cops without immediately filling their positions — an action auditors characterized as “noncompliance,” in violation of More Cops requirements. Those shifts represented almost $1.8 million charged to the More Cops fund, according to the audit.

It was unclear what effect the legal opinion would have in North Las Vegas. Sgt. Tim Bedwell, a police spokesman, referred calls about the matter to the city. A city spokeswoman said officials there were evaluating the opinion, and declined to comment further.

Mike Yarter, president of the city’s Police Officers Association, said the city didn’t need to request an opinion from the Attorney General because More Cops requirements “were already clear.” It’s also clear, he said, that North Las Vegas violated those requirements when it shifted those officers.

“They didn’t follow the statute the way it was written,” Yarter said. “It was called More Cops for a reason — hire more cops.”

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281. Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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