Pathetic city turnout a signal to combine ballot

The importance of city politics was on display Wednesday at Las Vegas City Hall, the day after local voters again blew off municipal elections.

Las Vegas’ chief financial officer, Mark Vincent, was giving more bad budget news to the City Council. General fund revenues, at about $467 million, are below 2006 levels, and the city’s pared-back work force is about the size it was in 2001. Worse, the city’s costs are headed nowhere but up, primarily because of guaranteed pay raises to unionized employees. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department wants tens of millions of additional dollars each year just to avert layoffs.

So Mr. Vincent and City Manager Betsy Fretwell reminded the council of its ability to raise taxes and fees. Court fees. Business licence fees. Sports field, community center, pool and jail fees. Medical transport, parking and inspection fees also can be raised for the purpose of “keeping pace with the cost of doing business,” Mr. Vincent said. Most significantly, the council could opt to boost property taxes, something it hasn’t done in a decade.

Might those be issues you’d want a say on? Might you have voted if you knew there was a good chance your city council would reach into your wallet and take even more of your money, even though your wages likely aren’t going up anytime soon? (Assuming you still have a job, of course.)

Taxes and fees were indeed an issue in the Ward 6 council race between incumbent Steve Ross and challenger Suzette LaGrange. Months earlier, at a local government summit, Mr. Ross had expressed support for tax increases. Ms. LaGrange campaigned against them. Yet barely more than 5,000 Ward 6 voters cast a ballot in re-electing Mr. Ross. Including two other City Council races, turnout in Las Vegas was an embarrassing 10 percent.

It wasn’t much better in North Las Vegas and Henderson, at 10.4 and 12.4 percent, respectively, even though voters in those cities also had no shortage of reasons to vote. North Las Vegas remains on the verge of insolvency and a state takeover, while Henderson’s insider-driven government commits more gaffes than Joe Biden.

City officials serve hundreds of thousands of taxpaying residents. Yet each city’s elected stewards answer to just a few thousand citizens because most residents don’t care enough to vote. This disinterest makes incumbents largely unaccountable and nearly unbeatable. Well-qualified, well-meaning challengers can’t expect to build name recognition or raise sufficient money in an environment where voters aren’t paying attention. North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck was the only incumbent, valleywide, to lose Tuesday. She was defeated by former state lawmaker John Lee, whose name has appeared on North Las Vegas ballots for more than a decade.

The most obvious explanation for the valley’s historically poor turnout in off-year city elections is voter fatigue. Especially this year, coming off a brutal, year-long presidential campaign that pummeled the state with super-PAC advertising, the public is politically tuned out. The roughly $500,000 the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas spent to collect about 42,000 ballots — around $12 a pop — was a waste of money. And North Las Vegas and Henderson will spend even more in June to stage runoffs for a single race each.

The city councils of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas should make this year’s spring elections their last. State law allows Clark County cities to consolidate their elections with the statewide ballot in the fall of even-numbered years. Doing so comes at a political price for council members and Municipal Court judges: Moving the 2015 elections to 2014 would shorten their terms by about six months. And neither they nor their campaign consultants want to compete with candidates for county, state and federal offices for fundraising and signage space.

But they can no longer argue that voters will pay less attention to municipal races if they’re at the bottom of the ballot instead of the top. Voter interest simply can’t get any worse than what we saw last week.

Municipal politics are vitally important — important enough to be on the same ballot as county commissioners, state lawmakers, the governor and members of Congress. The valley’s city councils should show they’re paying attention and make it so.

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