Sheriff seeks increased funding from local governments

Faced with a looming budget shortfall of $68 million in a year, Sheriff Doug Gillespie asked Las Vegas and Clark County officials Monday to pony up more money for the Metropolitan Police Department even as they deal with their own deficits.

The agency for several years has relied on more than $121 million in reserve funds to fill budget holes, but that money will be all but gone when the projected $525 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year comes due.

Gillespie said his agency has endured several years of staffing cuts and belt tightening that have reduced services and put fewer cops on the street. Now he wants the governments that fund 60 percent of his operating budget to give more and help stem deeper cuts to public safety.

“Plainly put, there’s no easy answer. You and I both know that,” Gillespie told his agency’s Committee on Fiscal Affairs. “Hard decisions will have to be made, and not all will be satisfied.”

But Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who sits on the committee that includes commissioners and City Council members, said later that the county and city face their own budget deficits.

“If the money was available, public safety would be our No. 1 priority,” Sisolak said. “But there’s no money available, so what do we do?”

The sheriff hopes the three sides can meet in the middle, with greater contributions from the city and county and more budget cuts from the police.

He asked the city and county officials to provide within 60 days a dollar figure of what they “plan to pay for the blanket of security” his agency provides in the 2013-14 fiscal year. He cannot plan his budget until he knows how much money they will contribute, he said.

“If I think you can come up with more, I’m going to push because there is no more important service in this community than what the police provide,” Gillespie said.

He admitted the $525 million projected budget assumes the worst-case scenario and probably will be lower when the budget process starts early next year .

The $525 million figure assumes the status quo, including maintaining the current budgeted staffing levels and union step and longevity raises, which total 4.5 percent. A starting police officer makes $50,460, with a new sergeant making $69,513.
Even with more cost-cutting in the next year, the department will still face a large deficit that must be addressed, Gillespie said.

“I see it as the worst-case scenario, and we need to attack it as such,” he said.

In a statement, City Manager Betsy Fretwell and County Manager Don Burnette said they would work to address the budget shortfall, but that doesn’t mean they have an extra $68 million.

“While Clark County and the city of Las Vegas respect Metro’s work to reduce crime, neither of our entities is financially able to provide Metro an additional $68 million, and it is impossible to predict this early what kind of revenues can realistically be expected next year,” the statement said. “In any case, given the community’s economic conditions, we would hope that Metro seek out further operational efficiencies, reduce its budget, increase revenues or perform some combination of these approaches.”

In recent weeks Gillespie has continued his agency’s staffing cutbacks by ordering a hiring freeze and canceling two scheduled police academies, leaving 104 police officer positions and about 70 civilian positions vacant. Another 26 police officer slots remain empty under the More Cops sales tax fund to avoid supplanting issues because of the other vacancies.

The department will look to trim costs in other areas, too, including gasoline usage and overtime, he said.

If the department doesn’t hire any new officers in the budget year that starts July 1, about another 100 police officers will leave and not be replaced before the next budget year, he said. The agency has about 2,700 officers.

Those losses would be on top of the 238 police officer positions cut through retirements and other vacancies in the past four years, pushing the ratio of cops-per-1,000 residents well below the target of 2.0. That ratio stands at 1.83.

Crime continues to fall, but the sheriff warned against getting complacent and falling behind the criminals. “Playing catch-up is very difficult,” he said.

The sheriff is looking for long-term solutions to increase revenue because property taxes, which fund about a third of the budget, have plummeted and won’t recover any time soon. He plans to ask the Legislature next year to allow the additional quarter-cent sales tax approved under the More Cops initiative. The first quarter-cent, passed in 2005, funds about 550 cops.

The tax was approved by voters in 2004 to boost the number of local officers in the middle of Southern Nevada’s population boom. The funds are restricted for hiring and equipping officers, but Gillespie plans to ask lawmakers to allow the flexibility to use some money for operating budget shortfalls.

Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents about 2,300 rank-and-file officers, said the department’s three unions can’t give enough back to cover a $68 million budget hole.

Las Vegas and Clark County together have at least $200 million in unused money in other funds that could be used for the general fund but aren’t, he said, based on audits by his organization.

If they won’t dip into those funds, city and county leaders will have to weigh the importance of police protection against other needs.

“At some point maybe you don’t mow the grass at the park and fund public safety,” he said.

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

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