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EDITORIAL: Cities should take county’s offer on election consolidation

The simmering dispute between the city of Las Vegas and Clark County over uncompensated shared services could lead to an important, money-saving policy change in 2016: election consolidation.

Back in October, the city claimed it was owed $3.7 million by the county for 30 years of Las Vegas Fire Department service provided to unincorporated county islands within city limits. Shortly thereafter, the county completed an audit of the expenses it incurs when it helps Las Vegas and other cities stage off-year municipal elections, which require the use of county voting machines in the spring of odd-numbered years. (The county and the state hold their elections at the same time as federal contests, in the fall of even-numbered years.)

During their Dec. 1 meeting, county commissioners received the report on election costs. They learned that Southern Nevada cities pay just $800,000 toward the county’s actual municipal election expenses of about $3 million, which include programming and transporting voting machines, staffing early voting and election day, printing sample ballots and more. And that figure doesn’t consider wear and tear on the voting machines, which eventually will require replacement at significant capital expense.

So commissioners directed the county’s administration to calculate a fee structure that fully compensates the government for its municipal election costs, and to notify city clerks that their municipalities will be charged much more to have a ballot all to themselves. The move is perfectly fair; there’s no reason county voters should subsidize city elections that don’t affect them.

City officials might complain that county leaders are being petty here, but that’s not the case. Unlike the city, which has indicated that it wants full, retroactive compensation from the county in the fire services dispute, the county won’t seek back payment for this year’s municipal elections or any other ballots. Rather, the county will give cities the option of following Mesquite’s lead and consolidating their elections with the state and county ballots — at no cost to municipal taxpayers.

Municipal elections are among cities’ most wasteful expenditures, because voters aren’t engaged in the spring of odd-numbered years. Turnout in city elections consistently hovers around 10 percent, which protects incumbents from viable challengers and insulates councils from accountability.

Southern Nevada’s cities should move quickly to merge their elections with this fall’s ballot.

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