Police funding: Sheriff gets no help from city, county

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie is in quite a spot these days.

He’s the elected leader of the state’s largest police force, directly accountable to voters for the performance of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Yet the funding of his agency is up to the elected members of the Las Vegas City Council and the Clark County Commission.

Neither the council nor the commission has much oversight over the department — unlike the cities of North Las Vegas and Henderson, where councils approve police funding and hire their police chiefs. So those elected Las Vegas and Clark County officials tend to make the departments they control a higher priority. As much as anything, this helps explain why Mr. Gillespie is asking the County Commission to approve a sales tax increase next month to boost funding for his agency. If approved by five of the seven commissioners Aug. 6, the sales tax rate would increase 0.15 cents to 8.25 percent.

The commission vote was authorized by the Nevada Legislature this year after much lobbying by Mr. Gillespie. He faces a $30 million budget deficit for the new fiscal year. If the tax increase fails, Mr. Gillespie could lay off up to 250 officers. If it passes, he’ll be able to hire about 100 new officers in the years ahead. (The tax increase would augment the budgets of Southern Nevada’s other city police forces as well.)

If Metro were under the full control of either the county or the city, instead of being a consolidated police force, neither entity would have allowed the department’s finances to reach this point. Instead, the city and the county merrily have continued running up budget deficits, tapping reserves and ignoring the reforms and restructuring that could save enough money to meet Metro’s needs and avert a tax increase.

Last week, the commission began the process of restoring 2 percent pay cuts for workers — cuts that followed years of raises throughout the Great Recession. On July 10, the City Council approved a four-year contract for its firefighters that boosts medical benefits and pay by $7.2 million over the term. That contract, along with a foolish four-year contract approved July 9 for unionized Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority workers, sets a new bar for valley local government bargaining groups. All will expect their own four-year, compensation-boosting deals.

County pay raises, just because? When the state still leads the country in unemployment? And what in the world were the Las Vegas City Council and Las Vegas city management thinking? A long-term contract for firefighters when police might be laid off? Taxpayers can’t be tapped again and again to sustain this game.

Las Vegas police have their own compensation challenges. Officers are exceptionally well-paid, to the point that a sales tax increase will only serve as a Band-Aid. And Mr. Gillespie, who wants pay raises for police employees, certainly knew what he was getting into when he ran for sheriff.

But he needs help to keep his force whole. He needs help to make his budget a priority. Right now, he’s not getting it.

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