Las Vegas Sun

December 5, 2016

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Should county go after $180 million appropriated by the state?

Some Clark County commissioners want to consider a lawsuit to recoup the funds

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Sun Coverage

With the Nevada Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional the state’s pilfering of $62 million from a Southern Nevada water agency, some Clark County commissioners want to discuss whether to sue the state for the $180 million taken from county coffers in 2009.

“I’m definitely going to pursue this,” said County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has asked that the issue be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. “We lost all this money and got nothing back. We owe it to the taxpayers to, at the very least, discuss it.”

In 2009, the Legislature approved numerous bills to take portions of the county’s property tax and other revenue totaling $197 million over two years. Lawmakers later approved an “excess government services tax” that reduced the losses to about $180 million.

Sisolak said he was emboldened by the high court ruling that lawmakers had no right to take $62 million banked by the Clean Water Coalition, a multijurisdictional agency created to build a pipeline to Lake Mead. The $850 million pipeline plan is dead.

The court said the Legislature is prohibited from enacting local and special laws for the assessment and collection of taxes for the state. The state constitution requires laws to be general and uniform throughout the state, the court said. According to the ruling, the Legislature violated the constitutional requirement when it singled out the Clean Water Coalition and took money collected only in Clark County.

Sisolak points out that when the state took the money two years ago, it singled out Washoe and Clark counties, but none of the local municipalities in Clark County got hit. “They didn’t take from Henderson or Las Vegas or North Las Vegas, just the taxpayers of unincorporated Clark County,” he said.

Not everyone agrees, however, that commissioners should sue — or even talk about suing. There is the possibility of political retribution by legislators who have never held Clark County in high regard.

“It’s not like the Legislature is ever going to do it again,” one political observer said on condition of anonymity. “But why piss them off in the last stage of the legislative session?”

Unions are also looking into a lawsuit. Nick Di Archangel, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, which represents county employees, said his union supports the county considering a lawsuit. Other public employee groups, he added, have begun researching the possibility.

Commissioner Tom Collins said he welcomes the discussion, but he’s likely to oppose any legal action. Although he agrees the state “messed up” by taking the money only from Clark and Washoe counties, the former assemblyman thinks tax legislation approved 30 years ago allows the state to take “uncommitted” tax dollars, those not specifically designated to a program or project.

And, he added, the “last thing (state legislators) want is for Clark and Washoe to sue them.” He can envision payback from the state in the form of “dumping a bunch of programs back on the counties to offset their losses.”

Collins said he is going to use the discussion of a lawsuit to bring up an unpopular topic — that instead of suing the state, Clark County can raise the property tax rate to prop up its budget.

Property taxes in Nevada are calculated on a rate per $100 of assessed value, which is about 35 percent of a home’s salable value. The current rate is $2.94 per $100. Raising the rate 5 cents on a $150,000 home ($52,500 assessed value), would increase taxes $52.50 a year.

Such taxes pay for police, fire, animal control, juvenile services and graffiti control among other services. “At some point our constituents will say enough cuts in services and they will be willing to pay to avoid more reductions,” Collins said.

Sisolak said in a previous meeting that he would not support a property tax increase at a time when so many county residents are struggling financially.

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