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May 28, 2015

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Commissioners question spending on death penalty cases

David Roger

David Roger

Chris Giunchigliani

Chris Giunchigliani

County budget

KSNV coverage of Clark County budget talks, April 27, 2011.

During a meeting to examine how to balance next fiscal year’s budget, Clark County elected officials hammered on District Attorney David Roger, questioning whether the county’s top prosecutor tries too many costly death penalty cases.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said he recently received some 50 phone calls and e-mails from constituents after a newspaper reported 80 death penalty cases pending in the county.

That compares to Riverside County in California, about the same size as Clark County, which has 40 pending death penalty cases, according to figures provided to the Sun by the county Public Defenders Office. Los Angeles County, five times Clark County’s size, has 33 pending death penalty cases.

After Wednesday’s meeting, county officials estimated it costs about $250,000 to defend a death penalty case versus about $50,000 for a non-death penalty murder case.

Roger blamed the Public Defenders Office, saying it strategically withholds background information on some defendants until the end of a case. If Roger’s office had the information earlier, it might reduce the number of times the death penalty is sought, he said.

During the meeting, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani asked Roger for a cost, or average cost, per death penalty case.

Roger didn’t know the answer.

“Do we not have numbers?” Giunchigliani asked.

Roger then attacked Giunchigliani as being “anti-death penalty.”

Giunchigliani said the exchange wasn’t a philosophical discussion; it was about the county budget, which has to be cut.

Commissioner Tom Collins echoed Giunchigliani’s complaint, saying he couldn’t understand “why our folks who deal with courts can’t provide us with what it costs per burglary, per car theft, per this, per that and the other.”

Last month, Roger sent a memo to commissioners saying he would not comply with a request to find 9 percent budget cuts, a memo that infuriated some commissioners and county staff looking to every agency to make cuts to offset steep reductions in property and sales tax revenues.

But figures provided to commissioners showed Roger cutting three vacant positions that, if filled, would have cost an additional $516,000.

County Manager Don Burnette praised Roger’s about-face. “I appreciate it. He deserves a lot of credit for doing that,” Burnette said.

Sisolak pleaded with Roger to work with the Public Defenders Office to figure out ways to share more information ahead of time to potentially reduce the number of death penalty cases filed.

Earlier in the meeting, county staff gave commissioners a preliminary look at budget cuts to meet a $100 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year. In summary, the county expects to cut 82 filled positions and eliminate 115 vacant positions to save almost $39 million.

The rest of the shortfall would be made up mostly from the county’s budget reserve, which stands at about $100 million.

Chief Financial Officer George Stevens said cutting the entire $100 million in one year is unfeasible, so roughly half would come this year and half would come in fiscal year 2013.

The largest number of job cuts would come from six main areas: five from Fire Prevention; seven from Public Works; 11 from the County Commission/County Manager’s Office; 12 from the Assessor’s Office; 13 from Real Property Management; and 14 from Juvenile Justice.

Business license, comprehensive planning, and parks and recreation would lose four filled positions each.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he will dig into his $80 million fund balance to offset reductions in contributions from the county and the city of Las Vegas, which funds about 70 percent of Metro’s budget.

The city and county expect to reduce contributions to Metro by $27.6 million. By the end of the next fiscal year, Metro’s fund balance will be reduced to about $40 million, or 8 percent of its total budget.

Collins, meanwhile, made a suggestion he has made several times over the last few years — but now local economists are saying behind the scenes that he’s right. Though it won’t help now because of decreasing property values, he said, the state needs to eliminate the 3 percent and 8 percent caps on how much property taxes can increase in a year.

He also talked about the need to increase property tax rates, which is something politicians are terrified to mention.

“Maybe people can pay more property tax,” he said. “We haven’t had increases in several years.”

Commissioners need to deliver a budget to the state by June 1. They will continue their budget discussion at their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.

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