Union steps up fight against city hall

The Culinary union expanded its challenge to a new Las Vegas city hall Tuesday and announced a signature drive for ballot measures that could radically alter, or upend, the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts.

Culinary leaders say they’re worried about the city’s push to finance a multimillion-dollar project at a time when the city is trying to cut costs to make ends meet. They also said redevelopment incentives for downtown projects divert money from other public needs.

“There’s just a disconnect there,” said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226. “We can’t rely on their judgment.”

City officials counter that redevelopment projects create jobs, increase the tax base and are essential for the city core’s long-term viability — and that the tax revenue the union is concerned about wouldn’t exist without redevelopment efforts.

“We’ve created a lot of jobs,” said Mayor Oscar Goodman, adding that he plans to strongly oppose the ballot measures.

“I’m not going to let it happen,” he said. “I’m going to fight this tooth and nail.”

The debate is focused on the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, a somewhat obscure offshoot of the city government created in 1986 and tasked — as similar entities are across the country — with energizing what had become a blighted downtown area.

One of the main tools used to do that is called “tax increment financing.” When the redevelopment area is established, the base property tax revenue is set, and that amount continues to go to the public agencies that received it previously. New revenue from construction and increased property values — the “increment” — is allocated three ways: the redevelopment agency, incentives for defraying infrastructure costs on projects and affordable housing.

“You’re plowing the new taxes back in,” said Scott Adams, the city’s business development director. “If it weren’t for the incentives and the redevelopment activities that generate the construction, you wouldn’t have the new taxes.”

That’s not the way the Culinary union is viewing it in making the case for its proposed ballot measures.

One of the measures, the Las Vegas Taxpayer Accountability Act, is an initiative that would require a public vote on “lease-purchase” city construction projects, which is the financing method being considered for the proposed city hall.

The second, the Las Vegas Redevelopment Reform Referendum, would repeal the existing Redevelopment Area plan, and public votes would be required to move forward any redevelopment projects.

If supporters collect enough signatures — 1,800 for the referendum, 2,700 for the initiative — by the end of January, the measures would be placed on the spring municipal election ballot.

“I think once people understand where their money has been spent … I don’t foresee a problem,” Taylor said. “If people want to come and develop something, that’s fine. But I don’t remember Steve Wynn or the MGM Mirage getting tax subsidies to build. I don’t remember Boyd’s doing that.”

Culinary has been vocal in opposing the new city hall proposal for a block on Main Street next to the Regional Justice Center. The building is budgeted at $150 million, although the city is seeking more than $260 million in financing to account for delays or higher construction costs.

City officials project that new development spurred by a relocated city hall, along with the opening of developments in Union Park — which include a proposed hotel-casino — and the reopening of the Lady Luck casino, will provide the revenue to pay for the building.

“Who are the ones who are going to be employed there?” Goodman said. “Certainly, those in the culinary industry. If they kill the project, if they’re successful, they will be blowing these jobs for their employees, which makes no sense to me.”

He said Culinary’s stated watchdog role isn’t its real mission.

“They say they’re trying to represent the taxpayer, but they want to use the council as a wedge in order to get benefits for their Culinary members,” he said. “That may be cool, if they would come out truthfully and say that.”

When asked if that was the case, Taylor simply said, “No.”

One of the supposed victims of the redevelopment agency is the Clark County School District, since there’s increased revenue from development that isn’t going to schools.

But Superintendent Walt Rulffes said that, handled correctly, redevelopment agencies can be a long-term good.

“It’s a short-term vs. long-term issue,” he said. “If redevelopment is limited to certain areas” for a limited period of time, “eventually, it becomes an improvement to the overall tax base.”

There is a “potential for school districts to have a gap” when new development isn’t of benefit, and a redevelopment area can’t go on indefinitely, Rulffes added.

“If it was under very controlled circumstances, I think the school district would be cooperative and try to make it work,” he said.

The city’s redevelopment area covers downtown, Las Vegas Boulevard to Sahara Avenue, and corridors on Owens and Eastern avenues and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The plan sunsets in 2031. Businesses and developers can qualify for incentives and assistance for projects in the area, such as help with infrastructure costs or grants to remodel signage and exteriors.

After Culinary’s announcement, the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council issued a statement opposing the measures.

“It is our belief that in these times of economic peril, one of the best ways governments can help stimulate the economy is by investing in public works projects that create good-paying jobs with benefits,” said the trades council president, Rick Johnson.

“We believe the projects in question are a small but important investment in downtown infrastructure and in keeping Southern Nevada’s working class employed.”

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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