EDITORIAL: More Cops tax remains wrong solution to legitimate problem

The More Cops tax is back before the Clark County Commission, in a form that appears to have what its previous incarnations didn’t: the five-vote supermajority required for passage.

But this scaled-back, countywide sales tax increase to boost police budgets isn’t worthy of approval because it has the same flaw as its predecessors: It burdens taxpayers to bail out fiscally unsustainable local governments that have no interest in making hard decisions and prioritizing their spending.

The commission will hold a hearing Tuesday on the sales tax proposal, after which it could vote on it. The plan calls for 0.05-percentage-point increase in the county sales tax rate, which would boost the levy from 8.1 percent to 8.15 percent.

Consumers will barely notice the tax increase if it’s approved. It would boost the sales tax on a $150 retail purchase from $12.15 to $12.23. But police departments will notice the returns. The tax is expected to generate more than $19 million per year for police. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the consolidated city-county force, would be the biggest beneficiary at about $14.6 million per year. North Las Vegas and Henderson would collect around $2 million per year, while Boulder City and Mesquite would receive well under $1 million per year.

The money is supposed to support the hiring of additional police officers, per the terms of the ballot question that compels commissioners to persist in seeking the tax increase. In 2004, during a decidedly different economic climate, Clark County voters barely approved a nonbinding advisory question authorizing a half-cent sales tax increase to fund the hiring of more police officers. State lawmakers went along, authorizing half of that increase, a quarter-cent, in 2005. The Great Recession hit before the second quarter-cent increase could take effect.

But police and local governments clung to that 2004 vote, which saw the More Cops question pass with 51.5 percent of voters in favor, as a timeless mandate for higher taxes despite worst-in-the-nation joblessness and lingering housing woes. Instead of seeking a new, post-recession advisory vote on a sales tax increase to boost police hiring (which would have bombed), they went to state lawmakers seeking the second half of the tax hike. Lawmakers and Gov. Brian Sandoval obliged in 2013, giving the County Commission the authority to enact up to a 0.15-percentage-point increase through next year, but denying commissioners the ability to pass it with a simple majority vote. Approval requires the support of five of the seven commissioners, a number the panel thankfully couldn’t reach for either a 0.15-percentage-point increase or a 0.075-percentage-point boost.

Then, just weeks ago, a compromise was struck by Commissioners Larry Brown and Steve Sisolak and new county Sheriff Joe Lombardo. In exchange for passing a 0.05-percentage-point increase that sunsets in 2025, Mr. Lombardo agreed to use the money to hire only officers, not support personnel, to not ask the commission for a further increase in the sales tax rate and to resume responding to noninjury vehicle accidents. Metro had stopped responding to such crashes to make more officers available for more urgent calls (or to create more pressure for a sales tax increase).

Although we applaud Mr. Sisolak, Mr. Brown and Mr. Lombardo for working toward a solution to a community problem — Metro does indeed need more officers — and Mr. Lombardo deserves special thanks for making concessions that will better address public safety, this is the wrong approach entirely. Tapping taxpayers again and again is a light lift. The idea that Clark County and the city of Las Vegas can’t identify $14.6 million in savings to increase their contributions to Metro is ridiculous. They simply don’t want to.

The city, county and their various collective bargaining groups are back in pay-raises-for-everyone mode. Just this week, an arbitrator, in siding with the county, approved a contract with the Service Employees International Union that gives thousands of workers a retroactive pay raise of more than 4.5 percent on top of other compensation increases. Instead of scaling back its Fire Department and allowing private ambulance company American Medical Response to handle all patient transports at a savings to taxpayers, the city crowded out AMR. If both the city and county would merely take one suggestion we’ve been offering for years — the outsourcing of park and building maintenance to the private sector — they could boost police funding without a tax increase.

We already have the best-paid local government workforce in America (including Metro officers), and that comes at a cost. And don’t get us started on the city of Henderson, which just increased recreation fees, provided its police with a 2.5 percent raise that will cost about $1.2 million per year going forward and has too many institutional problems to list here. Henderson doesn’t need more police or more tax money, yet it’s about to get both.

Police funding is not a crisis in Southern Nevada. The money is there. The More Cops tax means more of the same for every local government in the county. We can’t afford that.

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