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August 28, 2015

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City on the brink: The rise and ongoing fall of North Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

A view of Lake Mead Boulevard looking east from Las Vegas Boulevard in North Las Vegas, May 13, 2010.

North Las Vegas budget crisis

KSNV coverage of Lincy Institute expert's analysis of North Las Vegas' budget crisis, and what it could mean for the entire Southern Nevada economic recovery, May 26, 2012.

North Las Vegas in budget battle

KSNV coverage of North Las Vegas city leaders giving unions concession ultimatum, May 23, 2012

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Firefighters with the North Las Vegas Fire Department on the scene of a fire at Secured Fibres, a recycling plant in North Las Vegas on Friday, March 2, 2012.

For most of the past decade, North Las Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

Construction crews couldn’t build houses quickly enough. New schools, parks and neighborhoods popped up seemingly overnight. Restaurants and shopping plazas overtook desert stretches, and plans were drawn for “casino alley,” a mini-Strip of gaming resorts.

Most residents welcomed the growth. A 2009 survey found that half the population rated the quality of life in North Las Vegas as excellent or good. Three-quarters of residents said they’d recommend living in the city.

Of course, some grumbled about development, rising costs and traffic, but most saw potential and opportunity in the boom. North Las Vegas for years had struggled with a weak economy and bad reputation. The city was known for high crime and aging infrastructure. Critics referred to it dismissively as “North Town.”

Now, after a decade of progress and growth, North Las Vegas appears to be headed back to its rough-and-tumble roots. The city is on the brink of financial ruin. A stalemate between police, firefighters and city officials threatens public safety. Development is at a standstill, and residents are fed up.

“North Las Vegas means ‘bad’ in people’s minds,” resident Ron Gerber griped.

The city’s woes have come to a head as local officials try to prevent a state takeover of the city. State law allows the Department of Taxation to seize control of local government finances in cases of “severe financial emergency.”

City officials earlier this month approved a $425 million budget that slashes funding for police, firefighters, after-school programs and libraries. It calls for more than 200 layoffs. City Council members had to find $33 million to shave from the budget.

City leaders had asked public employees to take concessions to prevent the layoffs. Members of the police supervisors’ union and the Teamsters who represent municipal workers agreed to negotiate, city officials said. Firefighters and rank-and-file police officers stood their ground.

Now, pink slips are going out, and Mayor Shari Buck insists that if no concessions are made, layoffs will occur. The city has until June 1 to submit its spending plan to the state.

The headway North Las Vegas made during the boom years is receding. Residents are losing faith in their community, and North Las Vegas has again become the butt of jokes. Robert Lang, executive director of the Lincy Institute at UNLV, calls it the “Rodney Dangerfield complex.” North Las Vegas gets no respect, locally or nationally.

“It does feel a little like people are kicking us while we’re down,” Buck said. “It’s frustrating for me, having grown up there, because I know what a great city it is. But I also know we have a great future once we get past these little blips.”

Residents worry about the city’s future, and their own, if police and firefighters are laid off. Union officials are quick to point out that services will be compromised with fewer members on the force. Last year, officers lined city streets with A-frame signs reading, “Warning: Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer ensure your safety!”

What fire and police protection in North Las Vegas will actually look like moving forward is unclear. Predictions change depending on whom you ask.

City Manager Tim Hacker sounded an alarm in a resolution he proposed Wednesday. Hacker said that if forced to comply with the union contracts, the city would be unable to employ enough police officers and firefighters to keep its residents safe. He and other city officials are seeking approval to break the contracts under an obscure state law that allows officials to take drastic actions in the face of major emergencies.

Union bosses say services will suffer with budget and personnel cuts. Fewer firefighters and officers will result in a more thinly spread staff and longer response times, they say.

Buck insists residents will see little change. If cuts are to be made, support staff, not first responders, will be let go and shared service agreements with other municipalities will help pick up any slack, she said.

But amid the uncertainty, residents can take some comfort in knowing that homeowners’ insurance rates are likely to be unaffected, even with force reductions. So many factors are considered when determining insurance rates that a relatively small drop in safety personnel is not likely to affect policy costs, experts say.

The future of recreation is as murky as the public safety picture. Heads of libraries and after-school programs are loath to predict what less money will mean because none wants to advertise cuts in hours or programs. They still hope a budget solution is coming.

“There isn’t sense in getting people excited about options we may not have to do,” libraries Director Kathy Pennell said.

Some residents say they don’t worry about cuts. They’ve already learned to rely on themselves for security. They said they feel unprotected even with a fully staffed police department.

“I don’t think we’ve seen one cop yet,” said Bradley Barrett, a card dealer who moved to North Las Vegas from Seattle a month ago. “The frequency of the patrols are non-existent.”

Barrett’s parents have lived in North Las Vegas for three years and complain about a growing teenage vandalism problem. Barrett’s girlfriend, Adele Adamson, says safety will be a key factor when the couple decide where in the Las Vegas Valley to buy a home.

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A view at the edge of the Parks community in North Las Vegas Monday, Sept. 26, 2011.

Buck said there was little she would have done differently during the city's boom years if she had known the recession were coming. She admits the city should have started cutting its budget sooner but stands by other decisions.

“We have done all we can. The difficulty was in how everything came together,” she said.

A souring economy certainly hurt North Las Vegas. The city led the nation in foreclosures. Its tax base shriveled as real estate values fell 65 percent from their peak. North Las Vegas has no urban downtown or large commercial sector to offset residential losses, and it receives the smallest share of consolidated tax revenue in the state.

But the city’s downfall was more than circumstantial. City leaders committed hundreds of millions of dollars to big projects that assumed continued growth. They greenlighted a new City Hall and sewage treatment plant and authorized $500,000 for an architecture firm to develop a new master plan for the city.

North Las Vegas municipal workers are also among the highest-paid public employees in the country, as reported in a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce salary survey.

“Some local leaders believe that North Las Vegas should fail — that the city has it coming because of its one-sided contracts with public employee unions,” Lang wrote in a recent brief about the city’s struggles. “The state of Nevada, however, has no provision for a municipal bankruptcy wherein a city can simply renege on municipal contracts and start over. The process of sorting out financial obligations would be nasty, messy and very public.”

If the state takes over North Las Vegas, the city’s bond rating would drop. So would the state’s.

“It’s not just North Las Vegas’ problem. If we get taken over, the whole state would suffer,” Buck said.

Public relations would be a nightmare. Lang worries people would associate the city’s failure with all of the valley and even the state because the city’s name includes “Las Vegas.” Luring businesses and new residents would become even harder.

“Even the name North Las Vegas is problematic,” Lang said.

North Las Vegas’ own residents agree and suggest that the city rebrand itself.

“If North Las Vegas really wants to get ahead, it needs a different name,” said Gerber, a retiree who moved from California seven years ago. “Rename it North Hills, North Slope, North Ridge and watch how fast it changes.”

A positive image and healthy economy not only would return the city on an upward path, it could make it a power player in the state and entire Southwest.

“Fifty-seven percent of our land is still available for development,” Buck said. “We’re the ones with the ability to still grow.”

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