Back in 2004, just as voters narrowly approved an advisory question to raise the sales tax by one-half a cent to hire more cops, a disturbing idea emerged: What if the city of Las Vegas and Clark County – the local governments that fund the Metropolitan Police Department – decided to short the department’s budget by an equal amount and spend the money elsewhere?
Then-Commissioner Chip Maxfield said local governments would still pay for operations, civilian employees and corrections officers, but the department would have to justify funds for more cops, because they’d shortly be getting a new revenue stream.
It was an especially vexing situation, too, since then-Sheriff Bill Young had only decided to go with a sales-tax campaign after city and county officials had refused to pay for hiring the cops that Young felt the department needed.
Cooler heads prevailed at the Nevada Legislature in 2005, however. Lawmakers authorized only one-quarter of a cent sales tax increase, and they demanded that the money be used for the express purpose voters intended, the “hiring and equipping of more police officers to protect the citizens of Clark County.”
Police agencies can only spend the money from the More Cops initiative, the Legislature declared, if “the proposed use will not replace or supplant existing funding for the police department.”
Lawmakers were happy. Cops were (mostly) happy, because they got at least half of what they’d been seeking. And the public was confident local government officials couldn’t swipe funds just because police had a new funding source.
More cops were hired. The crime rate started to fall.
Then the recession hit, and things changed.
Now, facing a $46 million deficit and having cut nearly $60 million from recent budgets and spent down a reserve fund, Metro is looking to collect the other half of the sales tax. But the department wants something else, too: It wants to repeal the part of the law that bans replacing or supplanting existing funds with More Cops money.
Why? Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway says falling property tax revenue has tightened the department’s budget to the point that it can no longer hire cops using sales tax funds without running afoul of the law. A simple trade – making up for reduced Metro budgets by relying more on the More Cops money – can’t be done because of the “supplanting” clause, he says.
It’s not that the department wants to use the sales tax money for bullets or buildings; Callaway says every dime of sales tax money will be used to hire and equip new officers. But if the Legislature doesn’t remove that supplanting language, the sales tax money would just sit in an account until officials see how many general-fund dollars they’ll get from city and county coffers, he says. (You can blame too-generous police contracts for the problem, but that’s only a part of it. Cops have made some concessions in recent years, but erasing a $46 million deficit without new revenue would almost surely require pay cuts.)
Changing the law is just one hurdle the department faces – the cops have to convince state lawmakers to allow for the increase of a tax, which is always dicey in Carson City. The fact that tourists pay a good chunk of it, that county commissioners would be the ones to actually implement it and that it would pay for public safety take some of the sting out of the vote, but not all.
The bottom line? Making policy by forcing agencies of government to beg voters for a sales tax – and then arguing over the details – is a failure of the system. Local governments should be able to prioritize reasonable public safety budgets – including hiring new cops – without forcing Metro to hold the equivalent of a bake sale.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or email@example.com.