Tuesday, July 2, 2013 | 4:39 p.m.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie faced tough questions in his appeal to county commissioners for a bump in the sales tax that could be used to hire more officers and fill potential gaps in the Metro Police budget.
Commissioners, though, didn’t take a vote on the "More Cops" sale tax increase at their meeting Tuesday. A vote is scheduled to take place in a few weeks.
Commissioner Mary Beth Scow channeled questions from her constituents, some of whom wanted to be assured the 0.15 percent sales tax boost, which was approved in a special legislative session in June, wasn’t to be used to increase police salaries.
Those salaries already are increasing, Gillespie noted, acknowledging the department restored merit pay and longevity pay in the fiscal year budget that began Monday. Depending on years of service and standing, that could amount to a 4.5 percent annual salary boost for an officer.
With those pay increases, the sheriff said the department’s $489 million budget is expected to end up about $30 million short.
Though the department expects its reserve fund to reach $31 million – and the sheriff has used reserve funds in the past to balance his budget – state law now allows the department to use More Cops tax revenue to balance its budget.
Gillespie has about $124 million already from a previous .25 percent More Cops sales tax hike, but he said that money couldn't be used because it was designated to cover the career-long wages of officers already hired.
However, under the new More Cops bill signed into law last month by the governor, a two-thirds vote by commissioners would add another .15 percent sales tax. Metro could use revenue generated under the new law to hire additional officers but also, with prior approval from the state Interim Finance Committee, to fill other budgetary needs.
Gillespie told commissioners he currently had 22 funded vacancies, and about 50 officers retire each year. But a new police academy is beginning this month and will include about 50 recruits. That should make up some of the personnel shortfall.
Even so, he said, a year from now, people will see “no significant increase” in officers.
Asked about the return of merit pay and longevity pay in this year’s budget, Gillespie said it was done in part with an eye toward future negotiations with the police union. When contract talks break down, arbitrators can decide who gets what. It might bode better for the sheriff’s side if the arbitrator sees the department reinstated those compensation perks earlier.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani asked if the More Cops dollars could cover the expense of body cameras for officers, an estimated $1.5 million, something Gillespie has vowed to bring to the department. The sheriff replied camera funding would come from the department’s “seizure fund,” money collected, for instance, during a felony arrest.
Throughout the meeting, Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Giunchigliani appeared to press the sheriff.
After the meeting, both commissioners said they left with more questions than answers.
In separate interviews, both said Metro was given enough money by the city and county to fund the 22 vacant-but-funded positions. Now both Sisolak and Giunchigliani question how the money was used.
“They aren’t hiring cops they’re already funded for,” said Sisolak, who also sits on Metro’s budget oversight body, the Fiscal Affairs Committee.
Now if he and fellow commissioners approve the .15 percent sales tax hike, Sisolak said the sheriff “will have even more money.” The commissioners' worry is the money will be used to raise wages.
“I’m concerned the public might feel that their sales tax went up, but a year from today they will see no more officers on the street, and potentially less,” Sisolak said.
Combined with the fact that merit and longevity pay are reinstated, he added, “I think citizens will rightfully ask, ‘What did the sales tax increase go for?’”
Gillespie said late Tuesday afternoon he had been “totally upfront” with commissioners about his budget, including those funded-but-vacant positions. (Clark County, with some 7,000 employees, currently has 192 funded, vacant positions, county administrators said, many the result of “normal turnover.”)
“This is what’s missed from the conversation,” Gillespie added. “If they don’t authorize the .15 percent, if they don’t believe me, what is their answer to funding this organization this time next year?
“There’s going to be a $30 million shortfall. So what’s their answer? If not the sales tax, what is their answer?”
More discussion and a vote on the matter is scheduled for the commission’s meeting in early August.