Police seek increase in state sales tax to fight crime

The Las Vegas Valley’s top cops asked state lawmakers today to pass a quarter-cent sales tax increase to hire more police officers and continue the successful crime-fighting efforts enabled by the first half of the tax approved four years ago.

If passed, the county’s sales tax rate would be 8 percent.

Sitting side by side in Carson City, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Henderson Police Chief Jutta Chambers and North Las Vegas Police Chief Joseph Forti told the Senate Taxation Committee that the more than 800 new officers hired under the More Cops sales tax have helped reduce crime across Southern Nevada.

“That is what the voters wanted,” said Gillespie, who runs the Metropolitan Police Department. In Gillespie’s jurisdiction of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, crime has plummeted 27 percent since 2004, he said.

The reason is the nearly 600 more cops patrolling the valley’s streets, which deters crime and gives officers time to proactively police their community, he said.

The 93 new officers hired in Henderson led to a 17 percent drop in overall crime from 2006 and 2008, Chambers said.

Before the new tax, “we were an extremely reactive department” with patrol officers rushing from call to call, she said.

“We are actually preventing crimes now,” she said.

In North Las Vegas, the 86 new officers pushed violent crime down 8 percent and property crime down 10 percent between 2007 and 2008, Forti said.

“We have done just what we told the public we would do with the money,” Gillespie told senators.

His predecessor, Sheriff Bill Young, led the campaign for the More Cops advisory question in 2004, saying it was imperative to hire enough new officers to keep up with the county’s booming population growth.

County voters narrowly approved the question, which called for two quarter-cent increases in the sales tax to pay for an estimated 1,700 new officers among the five police departments in the county.

State lawmakers approved the measure in 2005 but required local officials to return to Carson City this year and justify the second phase of the increase, which would add $2.50 to the price of a $1,000 big-screen television and $50 to a $20,000 car.

The latest sales tax increase was supported by members of the Metropolitan Police Department’s two officer unions and Richard Perkins, the former Henderson police chief and Assembly speaker who supported the plan four years ago.

No one testified against the increase.

Perkins, now a lobbyist for Henderson, said lawmakers should obey the wishes of voters and pass the second half of the sales tax.

But much has changed since the 2005 legislative session, most notably the economy.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, suggested delaying or phasing in the quarter-cent tax increase over the next two years because of the dire state economy.

“We all understand that economic times are difficult,” Gillespie said in agreeing to discuss timetables for implementing the tax increase.

After the hearing, Gillespie said the new tax can’t be delayed more than a year.

“If delayed any more than that, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think that puts us too far behind,” Gillespie said.

Even if lawmakers don’t postpone the increase, the first new officers wouldn’t be fully trained and on patrol until late next year, he said.

The last of the 600 Las Vegas police officers hired under the first half of the tax will join the force in June. Thanks to conservative sales tax projections, the Metropolitan Police Department has a $140 million sales tax fund reserve to pay and equip those officers well into the future, despite the state’s current economic woes, Gillespie said.

That is not the case in the Henderson and North Las Vegas police departments. Both agencies have police officer vacancies they can’t fill because of shortfalls in projected sales tax revenue. Henderson has 24 open slots. North Las Vegas has 19.

If the economy doesn’t turn around, North Las Vegas’ sales tax fund for the officers would be $3.3 million in the red by 2011, which could mean layoffs, Forti said.

If he filled the current vacancies, the money would be gone even sooner, he said.

“We could fill them, but by the end of next year, I can guarantee we’d be in trouble,” Forti told the committee, which took no action on the bill.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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