Las Vegas Sun

March 25, 2017

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Public safety funding up to voters

Just one question remains regarding construction of a new fire station that will overlook the Anthem Del Webb master-planned community: Will there be any firefighters to man the place?

Questions about financing and a site have been answered. Developer Del Webb donated $2.1 million to build the station on a three-quarter-acre site that it also donated.

Construction is not an issue -- last week work crews began drilling and blasting and will be finished in about a year.

Equipment? That, too, has an answer. Del Webb donated money for a firetruck, ambulance and other supplies -- $600,000 altogether.

But the question of staff remains, and it will likely end up being answered by Henderson taxpayers.

At one time the question had a definitive answer. In exchange for the developer's investment, the city had agreed to hire 15 firefighters and paramedics to staff the station.

But now the city is going back on that agreement, saying it doesn't have the money.

The question will most likely end up on the municipal elections ballot June 5.

A final decision about a ballot question to raise property taxes will be made before March 20 by the Henderson City Council. Preliminary word from City Hall is that voters will be asked to approve an $850 million public safety tax that would raise that amount over the next 30 years.

It would mean an extra $84 a year in taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home. It would cover the salaries of 237 new public safety workers. The potential new hires would include 166 sworn police officers, 30 firefighters and paramedics, and additional administrators. They would be hired over a seven-year period.

Those favoring a public-safety tax say that 12 years ago -- the last time the city raised taxes for public safety -- people had to leave Henderson to shop or dine. Now Henderson is the fastest-growing city in the country and the daily population is augmented by people traveling to Henderson to shop and dine.

They argue that police and fire departments have added personnel in proportion to residential growth but have not kept pace with all of the commercial growth.

Critics agree more police and fire officers are needed, but point out that voters in the November election already rejected new taxes to pay for them. That ballot initiative, which would have raised taxes by an equal amount, was defeated by 864 votes, less than 1 percent of the total votes cast.

The critics say the city should find alternative ways to raise the needed money.

The Clark County Debt Management Commission has authorized a public-safety tax for Henderson, a necessary step before the City Council can put it on the ballot. The commission stipulated the maximum rate of impact on taxpayers -- $84 per $100,000 of home value.

Now the City Council awaits a recommendation from a six-member panel that it appointed. The panel will report back to the council later this month. By March 20 the City Council will take a final vote to decide what, if any, question relating to a public-safety tax it will present to voters in the June 5 municipal election.

"Obviously we have to have the firefighters," said Henderson Fire Chief Joe Hill, a 27-year veteran of the department. "It would be catastrophic if we didn't get them."

Hill isn't alone in his sense of urgency. Chief of Police Michael Mayberry shares his concern.

And raising taxes seems to many officials the only way of addressing those concerns.

The city thought it might have caught a break when President Clinton, as one of his last acts, signed a bill that included $2.25 million to partially fund the salaries of 30 new police officers for Henderson.

But the math did not work. City staff reported that the federal money would need to be matched with an immediate $836,000, money which they said the city did not have. And over the following two years, the federal grant would have required another $3.1 million in matching city funds. A city staffer said the city may be forced to forfeit the federal money.

Henderson finance director Steve Hanson says there is simply no money in the city's budget to add police officers.

Buildings such as the $52 million City Hall expansion, Hanson said, are a different matter. They can be paid for by borrowing money and repaying it over time. But new positions have permanent, annual costs.

"If you (borrow money) and hire 50 cops, what do you do when the money's gone?" Hanson said.

Several residents have argued that if the city can request developers to provide infrastructure such as roads, sewer, water and electric lines, why can't it also pay for staffing needs, as in the case of the Anthem Del Webb fire station?

Hanson says the answer, on the surface, is simple: State law prohibits it.

But beyond that, Hanson said, such a plan wouldn't be economically viable.

"If the city told developers that on top of supplying all the infrastructure, they were going to have to pay the salaries of the workers to staff the facilities for infinity, construction in this state would dry up overnight."

The true question, Hanson, said, should be: Are the increased costs of municipal services for a master-planned community covered by the various taxes generated from that community?

Hanson said that in the last 12 years Henderson has grown from 65,000 people to more than 200,000. During that time, he said, the city has maintained the same number of police officers per 1,000 residents and the tax rate has not increased.

"So is growth paying for growth? It must be," Hanson said.

But if that's true, critics ask, why is it necessary for a new tax?

Times have changed

Police Chief Mayberry said just 12 years ago Henderson was an entirely different city.

"I can remember when we actually had time to stop in a neighborhood," Mayberry said. "You'd see someone washing their car, walking a dog, maybe mowing the lawn. And you'd actually have time to stop and talk. We have projects, and I knew everyone in the projects."

Such policing allowed Mayberry and others to find out what was of concern to neighborhoods. He said keeping in touch with residents the old-fashioned way often allowed police to solve cases more quickly.

But in 2001 policing in Henderson has changed. There are too many demands on the police department now for officers to spend time striking up conversations with residents.

"This is how we do it, really," Mayberry said. "We look on a map, we see a burglary here and a burglary here and a burglary here. And the crime analysts say we've got some kids in this area that have gone haywire and they're pulling burglaries. We sit in a vacuum and we decide without citizen input what the crime trends are and what's best for their neighborhoods."

Fire Chief Hill said the role of the department has expanded over the past decade.

"We're not a fire department any more. We haven't been for 10 years," Hill said. "We're an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) station. Seventy-five percent of calls are for paramedics. Anything from a car accident to a person falling out of bed at night."

Both chiefs acknowledged response times have slowed in the last 12 years. To illustrate the need for the public safety tax, they compared response times now with 10 years ago.

In 1991 fire trucks responded to 4,796 incidents with an average response time of 5.01 minutes. Hill calls the 5-minute response mark "the golden time." In that time, he said, fire personnel have the best chance of saving lives and homes. As response times edge closer to six minutes, trauma victims suffer brain damage and houses burn down, Hill said.

By 1999, the most recent statistics available, response times had crept to 5.85 minutes on average for 13,132 total calls for service.

In policing, response times to life-threatening incidents have gone from three minutes to about six. Response to lesser situations has slowed even more significantly. Thefts, for example, have an average response time of 40 minutes, when 10 years ago the response was six minutes.

Mayberry says his force is stretched to the breaking point. He attributes much of that added stress to the commercial success of the city.

The Galleria at Sunset mall, which opened 1 million square-feet of retail sales space in 1995, attracts thousands of shoppers on a monthly basis. Close to half of those shoppers come from outside Henderson, according to the mall's marketing data. And today the mall is part of 4 million square feet of retail shopping space in the commercial corridor northwest of U.S. 95 and Interstate 215, ranking it as the largest in Nevada.

The farmer's market on Water Street attracts crowds, as does the convention center. Other events like Artfest and Shakespeare in the Park attract large crowds, with many people pouring in from out of town. Last July 4 about 40,000 people attended the fireworks in Morell Park, or more than half the total population of the town 12 years ago.

Many opponents of a tax increase live in the older, working-class neighborhoods, which have missed the 12-year boom enjoyed by newer parts of the city.

Dene Maves, 41, a working mother with three children, is one of those residents. A teacher's aide in the special education department of the Clark County School District, Maves says she has to budget her money every month and so should the city.

"We don't need more taxes to keep solving problems," Maves said. "There has to be a way for people to do what needs to be done with what we have."

Diane Booker, 60, is a retired medical administrator and one of the most outspoken critics of a tax increase.

"Practically everyone speaking in favor of the question (at a Jan. 25 public meeting), they owned their own companies. All of these people are wealthy people, or the higher upper class, the percentage who'll be able to buy a Rolls-Royce with their (federal) tax cuts rather than the muffler," Booker said.

Both women said the city should look harder to find the money within its current budget to pay for its true public safety needs. But Councilman Jack Clark could not offer much hope for that.

"I've looked and I've looked and I've looked," Clark said, adding that the only remaining option is to turn to Henderson residents for more money.

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