LICENSING FEES FOR NEWS RACKS FALL SHORT

News racks stacked with adult-themed materials are hardly noticed by locals who visit the Strip, even though a cluster of the boxes displaying half-naked women are on nearly every block.

But Clark County residents might begin to take note when they learn this: According to the county, taxpayers fork out $270,400 a year to help maintain news racks on the Strip, 99% of which are advertising "strippers direct to your room," escort services and the like. Fees charged to the adult businesses producing the material yield $67,600

Clark County commissioners are scheduled to hear a proposal Tuesday to reduce the burden to taxpayers by implementing a steep hike in licensing fees.

They also are likely to get an earful from the American Civil Liberties Union, whose representatives suggest the fee increase might be a creative attempt to bump off an industry the county has fought for years.

"The county has such a dismal track record in terms of following the Constitution, I think anyone with a semblance of knowledge of what has happened would have questions about this," said Allen Lichtenstein, an attorney for the ACLU of Nevada.

The civil rights organization’s beef is with the manner in which the new proposal was drafted. The increase, which would raise the annual fee from $25 to $100 per news rack, only applies to businesses advertising in resort corridors such as the Strip.

The fee is to remain $25 per news rack for businesses that set them up in other commercial areas or in residential neighborhoods.

Lesley Henley, a Public Works deputy, said the staff hours to regulate and maintain the news racks on the Strip far exceed those for the racks placed in quieter areas of town.

News racks on the Strip are "more intensively enforced than news racks in Summerlin," Henley said. News racks in other parts of the valley "are not as intensively inspected for graffiti," he said, adding that "the resort corridors have much more pedestrian traffic and tourist traffic."

Lichtenstein said he has requested but has not received a detailed report from the county regarding revenues from business fees and expenditures related to the administration of the program and maintenance of the news racks.

Government agencies cannot make a profit from fees charged to businesses protected by the First Amendment, Lichtenstein said.

He suspects the increased fees are intended to force some adult businesses to pull their material from the racks.

"The whole issue of news racks and regulation of news racks has been one where the county is on record as being concerned with content," Lichtenstein said. "This particular proposal does seem to have an affect on what kind of content is out there. It raises constitutional questions."

Henley dismissed the allegation, noting that the fee has been set at $25 since 1992. In the meantime, the number of news racks has increased to 2,770. Two staff members process permits and check the conditions of the racks. Two supervisors spend roughly half their time regulating the boxes.

The funding that is not covered by fees is taken from the county’s general fund.

"What this boils down to is a policy decision for the board of county commissioners," Henley said. "To what degree do they want to subsidize the program and compete with all the other needs funded by the general fund?"

ACLU representatives believe if the proposal passes, business owners will sue the county, and their organization will join the litigation.

The county’s track record against the ACLU over civil rights matters is not good. Courts ruled in favor of the ACLU when it fought the county over the right to hand out sexually themed handbills on the Strip. The ACLU also won a lawsuit on behalf of union workers, who picketed on the sidewalk in front of The Venetian.

"It would be unfortunate if everyone had to go through the time and expense of court," Lichtenstein said. "But it’s not the first time the county’s unwillingness or inability to follow the Constitution has required judicial intervention."

Gary Peck, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, emphasized that the lawsuits aren’t to protect adult businesses, they are designed to protect the public’s First Amendment rights.

"The isn’t a ‘smut peddler’ issue," he said. "This is a constitutional First Amendment issue that affects not only people who seek to place adult material in news racks. It would affect the ACLU if we wanted to place our newsletters in news racks on Las Vegas Boulevard."

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@reviewjournal.com or (702) 384-8710.

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