Money, not regrets, will fix cop funding now

Whatever else may be said about the city-county disagreement over funding for the Metro police department, this much is certain: It could have been ameliorated years ago with the push of a green button.

Had the Clark County Commission in 2013 approved the full, legislatively authorized 0.15-percentage-point increase in the local sales tax, Metro could have hired hundreds of new cops. And those officers would be on the streets right now, just as a spike in violent crime makes headlines.

Instead, a commission majority led by Chairman Steve Sisolak refused — repeatedly — to implement the sales tax increase, despite entreaties from police chiefs and mayors from around the valley.

After months of hearings and much political wrangling, the county approved a compromise: An increase in the tax by 0.05 percentage points, one-third of what the Legislature originally permitted.

And now, Sisolak is questioning the wisdom of that vote.

“In hindsight, I would like to get a little more information and reflect back on that,” Sisolak said in an interview. “The rise in violent crime contributed significantly to my change in attitude.”

Sisolak still says he objects to paying for police officers using the sales tax, a volatile and regressive levy. He says he’d much rather use property taxes, the traditional funding source. (Former sheriff Bill Young suggested in 2004 raising the sales tax to pay for more officers, and the idea received narrow voter approval that year in a non-binding initiative.) But state caps imposed during the real estate boom have left property tax receipts lagging.

Still, Sisolak says that presented with the chance to vote for a full 0.15 percentage point tax increase now, “I would strongly consider it.”

Sadly, it’s too late: The legislative authorization to raise the sales tax expired July 1.

That makes for some hard choices.

The city of Las Vegas made one recently, carving out more than $400,000 to fund a one-time allocation for a squad of officers to address crime problems. (Full disclosure: My wife works at the city.) City officials called on Clark County to spend more on public safety, too. Sisolak countered with an offer of $1 million per year in permanent county funding if the city would contribute about $600,000 annually. (Metro is jointly funded by the city and county.) The city, citing budget uncertainties, didn’t take him up on it.

It’s not just cops, either. When Metro hires new officers, it needs civilian employees, while the system also requires additional court personnel and corrections officers, for example.

The bottom line, however, is this: Public safety must be local government’s highest priority. Without it, there will be no economic development. There will be no education reform. There will be no tourism boom on the Strip, or growth and development in the suburbs. No matter what else local governments do, their first priority always is the safety of the citizens.

And while local leaders may say those words, they have to budget for them. That means cutting other, less critical needs to come up with enough money for Metro to address crime around the valley, from answering calls for service to investigating crimes to helping bring successful prosecutions.

It’s unfair to say the failure to properly fund the department over the past few years created the spike in crime. But it’s entirely fair to say that if the county had approved the full More Cops allotment when it had the chance, Metro would have more officers to deal with the problem.

Sisolak says he’s willing to do that now, acknowledging “we need more cops on the street.”

It’s up to the city and county to make that happen.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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