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Mayor skeptical, optimistic about North Las Vegas’ future

Mayor John Lee summed up his take on North Las Vegas’ future in four syllables Thursday, but had to invent a word to do it: “Skeptomistic.”

“I am skeptical and optimistic about our future,” Lee told hundreds gathered at the Aliante for the city’s 18th annual State of the City address. “I believe in our team, but I understand the severity of the challenges.

“Never forget, I am a plumber and I have dealt with lots of crap over the years.”

Lee didn’t stray far from the beaten path Thursday, spending much of the middle portion of his first State of the City address highlighting progress on the city’s recently introduced economic development proposals.

The first-term mayor, speaking a week after city leaders unveiled a projected seven-year, $152.6 million deficit, remains optimistic the recession-rocked city can claw its way into the black.

Years of anticipated eight-digit budget shortfalls, nine-digit debt service payments and junk-rated municipal bonds have left him a little skeptical they will be able do it alone.

City leaders expect Park Highlands, a long-planned 1,500-lot development west of the Interstate 15 corridor, will help bolster sagging city property tax revenues.

They’re hoping a similar boom at the nearby 22,000-acre APEX Industrial Park can provide a much-needed boost to the city’s flagging consolidated tax income.

They’ll look to College of Southern Nevada’s recently formed North Las Vegas Advisory Board for a more educated workforce; and to the city’s fledgling shared services board for advice on how to hold down costs and keep new revenues within city limits.

Later this month, officials plan to unveil a “comprehensive reorganization plan,” meant to shore up limited resources at City Hall.

Lee, who didn’t elaborate on the reorganization plan, admits none of those initiatives will prove a silver bullet.

“The city is facing a very short window of time to make decisions,” he said. “We find ourselves in the middle of the fourth quarter down a few touchdowns. It does not mean we have to throw all Hail Mary’s every play, but the time clock is running out.”

Lee’s hoping a little bit of elbow grease and a lot more regional cooperation can help turn the state’s fourth largest city around.

He’s betting state and regional leaders will agree.

While city staff turn over every rock in search of new revenue, the former state senator has been reaching out to his old colleagues at the state Legislature for guidance on the city’s financial future.

“Last week, the Las Vegas and North Las Vegas Shared Services Committee members heard national financial experts explain how state receivership would damage the entire state,” Lee said. “These experts explained how California, the sixth largest economy in the world, was brought down by the financial crisis in Stockton and San Bernardino.”

Financial insolvency in North Las Vegas could put the city into a state receivership, a broadly untested alternative to municipal bankruptcy that would see state tax officials take over the city’s finances.

“If the 13th and 17th largest cities in California can bring their state to its knees, what do you think the third largest city in our state can do to Nevada?” Lee said.-

Recent bankruptcy filings in Stockton and San Bernandino led each city into protacted battles with municipal creditors and Calpers, California’s state-run pension fund, over the security of unfunded city employee health and pension plans. Analysts fear ripple effects from the pair of financial failures could contribute to negative municipal bond returns in 2014.

Lee dove head-first into a half dozen other topics — from the possibility of landing a medical school near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to the return of Nellis Appreciation Days — before dipping his toes into ongoing contract battles with the city’s public safety unions.

A trio of union officials representing the city’s police officers, police supervisors and firefighters have taken the city to court seeking an estimated $25 million in pay raises frozen during a city-declared “fiscal emergency” in July 2012. Discussions to settle the smallest of the three lawsuits fizzled out in August.

City Finance Director Darren Adair predicts a court decision favoring the city unions would put the city into state receivership overnight.

Thursday’s half-hour-long speech included a scant two mentions of the continuing standoff with city bargaining groups.

Police Supervisors Association President Leonard Cardinale suspects that’s by design.

Cardinale, who joined the city’s two other major unions in backing Lee’s election campaign, said the mayor is fighting with one arm tied behind his back.

“I truly believe (Lee) wants to fix North Las Vegas, but you have a number of people down there still who don’t,” he said. “These type of people have told me that union (negotiations) are not the city’s No. 1 priority.

“But according to Fitch and Moody’s (bond rating agencies) it is, so I’ve said to them that they may have to rethink their priorities.”

Contact reporter James DeHaven at 702-477-3839 or jdehaven@viewnews.com.

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