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Southern Nevada cities get creative in cutting budgets

If you want to know how deep local governments must dig for ways to cut costs these days, go ask the folks at the Henderson Senior Center.

Better ask them soon, though, before they get tired and cranky.

Starting Feb. 22, Nevada’s second-largest city will stop serving free coffee at its downtown senior center. The move is expected to save about $25,000 a year in coffee, cups and creamer.

“It’s a shame,” said Millie Deyo, who frequents the center for both coffee and company. “But I guess that’s the economy.”

The valley’s three cities face budget shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars, so officials are searching for savings everywhere they can, from the big, ugly stuff down to the tiniest line item.

Some of the small cuts seem obvious: Use less paper, buy cheaper pens, shut off the lights when no one is around. Others, like grinding old Christmas trees into free mulch for city parks, should score points for creativity if nothing else.

Las Vegas has been scrambling for the past two years to find ways to plug its budget deficit. The city is asking employees to accept $41.5 million in pay cuts over the next two years.

A review of all city operations found small pockets of savings, too.

Instead of printing hard-copy binders of material for City Council and Planning Commission meetings, the city relies on electronic agendas and online documents. Only two sets of binders are printed: one for Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian and one that is shared by the city attorney and planning staff.

That saved about $57,000 for printing, binding and staff time spent dealing with it.

Las Vegas came up with 84 recommendations for increasing efficiency and in some cases cutting staff. Canceling membership in organizations such as the American Society for Public Administration and the International City and County Management Association saved $15,000 a year, and staff looked at ways to cut costs by curbing travel, extending the life of vehicles and equipment, and spending less on office supplies.

North Las Vegas has weathered five rounds of budget cuts since December 2008. Now the city must trim an additional $33.4 million — and might be forced to cut up to 273 positions — to make it through fiscal year 2011.

In a climate like that, small savings add up quickly and “could equal a job or two,” Mayor Shari Buck said.

Trimming here and there also “helps when you have to make the big cuts,” Buck said. “You know you’ve already cut everywhere else that you can.”

In that spirit, the city has decided to no longer provide free bottled water and other refreshments at City Hall, a move that will save an anticipated $97,500 through fiscal year 2011. The city is suspending its internship program, for a savings of about $300,000, and eliminating “nonessential” city-paid cell phones, which will save about $150,000.

North Las Vegas executives, including City Council members, department directors and city managers, no longer will receive physical exams paid for by the city. Eliminating the exams will save $52,500 through 2011.

Buck said she doesn’t think many council members took advantage of the free physicals anyway. In her case at least, she said, the exams didn’t seem necessary.

“I can tell when my cholesterol is high,” she said.

There is one cost-saving move Buck isn’t crazy about. She’s not a fan of “the very cheap pens we buy now,” she said. “It’s a little frustrating trying to write when the cheap pen won’t work.”

Clark County also is squeezing out savings wherever possible as it faces its own record shortfall.

Whenever possible, documents are now printed using both sides of the page. Estimated savings: $600,000 to $700,000 per year.

Since August, lights have been shut off by 6:30 p.m. in most offices at the County Government Center, shrinking the yearly energy bill by $25,000.

Also, art lovers must get by without wine and catered food at the monthly receptions held to introduce new art displays in the county’s rotunda. Those luxuries were halted last year. Bottled water, cheese, crackers, pastries and fresh fruit are offered instead.

Cutting out the fancier cuisine saved hundreds of dollars a month, said Catherine Borg, the county’s visual arts coordinator. She doubts that wine will return to the art premieres.

“Times are going to have to be awfully good,” Borg said.

Henderson just launched its second round of budget cuts, and this time the city won’t be able to provide some services to the public.

The Parks and Recreation Department is absorbing the biggest hit, so officials there had to get creative to wring every cent they could from the shrinking budget.

The city used to accept on-site cash payments for its before- and after-school recreation program. By banning the practice, the city expects to save about $20,000 a year because it will no longer need to hire an armored car company to go pick up the money.

Then there is the free mulch. Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Kim Becker said Henderson was able to stockpile 33 tons of the stuff and save about $1,500 by “recycling” 3,501 Christmas trees from the community.

One-third of the free mulch came from a single tree, a 109-foot behemoth at M Resort that was said to be the tallest cut tree in the nation.

But for at least one regular at the Henderson Senior Center, cutting the coffee went too far.

“They should leave the coffee alone,” said Ralph Rennert as he sipped a diet Coke at the center Thursday morning. “Why should they take stuff away from the seniors?”

Deyo, who has been coming to the center for 11 years, worries some seniors might not come back after Feb. 22.

“I think people will quit (coming) if they can’t get the coffee. They will feel like they can’t socialize,” she said.

“Or they’ll just bring their own in a thermos,” offered Margaret Parker, who takes her coffee black. “Unless they tell us we can’t.”

One thing is clear: Until the economy rebounds, you can count on more creative cutting by governments in Southern Nevada.

All Henderson departments have been directed to identify another round of reductions totaling 15 percent of their budgets.

“We’re sharpening our pencils,” said Dirk Richwine, the city’s recreation supervisor. “The pencil’s going to get pretty darn sharp.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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