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Las Vegas: Bright lights, but not a big city


July 20, 2003

We have USA Today to thank for reminding us that Las Vegas may be paradise but Paradise is not Las Vegas.

Neither is Enterprise, Spring Valley, Sunrise Manor, Whitney nor Winchester.

If you haven't heard of Paradise or these other unincorporated Las Vegas Valley towns, you're not alone. You probably tell friends and relatives from other states that you live in Las Vegas (the city), even though fewer than half the residents of the valley can properly make that claim.

Thanks to USA Today, we are reminded of an emerging trend in America of densely populated urban areas that are thriving without becoming cities. And the valley is filled with such areas.

So you say Las Vegas is a city, which has been the case since its emergence as a dusty railroad stop in 1905. That was during a bygone era when cattle calls involved real cattle and not showgirls.

But unless you spend your free time doing tedious microfilm research or dusting off old government files, you probably don't know that Las Vegas and its younger suburbs -- North Las Vegas and Henderson -- are separated by the six unincorporated towns. And if you don't know about the six towns, it's a sure bet you also don't know that the oldest, Whitney, celebrated its 61st birthday in February.

As USA Today reported on June 25 in an article published in the Las Vegas Sun, the towns look like cities because of their residential sprawl and commercial development. It's easier to say you're from Las Vegas when you live in a place such as Paradise, which includes most of the Strip, or Spring Valley, the valley's first master-planned community.

But the U.S. Postal Service won't deliver a letter if it just says "Paradise, NV" and doesn't have the ZIP code, according to Vic Fenimore, Postal Service spokesman in Las Vegas. Fenimore said the Postal Service likes to keep things as simple as possible by using more popular geographic designations such as Las Vegas.

If the Postal Service doesn't pay much attention to town names, it's little surprise that town residents don't either, while proudly calling themselves Las Vegans.

But ask the chairmen of the voluntary town advisory boards that give advice to the Clark County Commission on planning and zoning issues whether they would consider forming their own city or annexing into an existing one. The answer is a resounding "no."

"We have all the services we need, and the Clark County departments to do the job," Paradise Town Advisory Board Chairwoman M.J. Harvey said. "I don't think it's a good idea to consolidate the city and the county. Other than the fire departments, I don't know what services would be practical to combine.

"The city would have more to gain than the county because the county is bigger.

"I don't see any advantage to starting an incorporated city when we would have to take on all the burdens. The expense is more than people would want."

USA Today reported that Paradise, with 186,070 residents as of the 2000 Census, is the most populated unincorporated town in the country. It also reported that Sunrise Manor, population 156,120, and Spring Valley, with 117,390 residents, were the second and fifth most-populous towns in the nation in 2000.

If anything, the newspaper didn't go far enough in describing the hodgepodge nature of the valley's political subdivisions. In addition to cities and unincorporated towns, Southern Nevada has other unincorporated areas such as Lone Mountain in the northwest valley that are under the county's political jurisdiction. What separates these areas from towns is that the residents and landowners have not successfully petitioned the county for town status.

The valley also has townships, which are often confused with towns but have different boundaries and function solely as jurisdictions for justice courts and constables. Townships have managed to survive modern urban upheaval even though they hark back to the days of the Wild West.

All six unincorporated towns are part of Las Vegas Township, though portions of Whitney in the eastern valley are in Henderson Township and a piece of Sunrise Manor in the northeast valley folds into North Las Vegas Township. So you can live in both a city and a township or you can live in a town and a township, but you cannot live in a city, town and township.

Some of USA Today's conclusions about towns don't quite hold water -- or sand -- in the case of the valley's unincorporated desert six-pack.

The newspaper reported that town residents "can't fight city hall because there isn't one." But those residents can raise just as much a ruckus by hounding the Clark County Commission, which serves as their "mayor."

"In general, our relationship with the county has been very satisfactory," Dr. Alan Feld, Winchester Town Advisory Board chairman, said. "We have found that when the town board has strong feelings about a subject, the commissioners are willing to listen."

If there is frustration, it is that the county often fails to name public facilities after the towns where they are built, Spring Valley Town Advisory Board Chairman James Shibler said. Just last month his board wrote a letter to the commission requesting that they be consulted in the naming of future public facilities placed in Spring Valley.

Shibler cited the Desert Breeze Community Center as one example.

"Desert Breeze is a generic name no one can relate to," he said. "If they had named it Spring Valley, that is something people could relate to."

USA Today reported that "fast-growing unincorporated areas reflect a national shift toward turning some government functions over to private companies and away from multiple layers of government." But unless you're talking garbage, as in the commodity that Republic Services picks up from residences (but under separate contracts with the cities and county), a town resident in the valley gets virtually the same amount of government service as a city dweller.

In many cases, they get the same service. Las Vegas shares police and libraries with the towns. The entire valley also shares the same flood control, school and health districts and everyone drinks from the same water system.

There are differences, too. The cities have their own elected officials, city halls, jails and administrators who handle budgets, litigation, planning and zoning. They also have their own parks and recreation departments, fire departments, business license departments, building inspectors, animal control units, business and economic development staffs, emergency management teams and public works departments.

Henderson and North Las Vegas also have their own police departments and library districts. But all government functions that the towns do not share with the cities are provided by the county.

"As far as I can see the services are equivalent to those in Las Vegas," Feld said. "And whenever you have lower taxes, it is also advantageous."

What Feld means is that town residents pay lower taxes than city residents. That has been the case since the 1950s when Paradise and Winchester came into being. City residents can thank the Nevada Legislature for giving the towns an even greater tax break in 1981. That's when the state expanded its property tax base by adding sales taxes and then redistributing revenue to cities and counties in a way that gives greater advantage to political subdivisions with higher assessed property values.

Because all of the Strip hotels south of Sahara Avenue are outside Las Vegas city limits, the county enjoys a lucrative property tax base that the city cannot match.

"The city says the emotional downtown is Fremont Street, but the Strip is the huge economic engine," principal county planner Gene Pasinski said.

For proof, consider that a Paradise resident pays a property tax rate of $2.8966 per $100 of assessed valuation whereas a Las Vegas homeowner pays $3.2514. That means the tax hit on a $100,000 home in Paradise is $1,013.81, or $124.18 less than the $1,137.99 a Las Vegas resident will pay for a comparable dwelling.

Tax breaks are but one reason why landowners have petitioned the county over the years to form towns. Whitney came first in February 1942 when a group of businessmen representing the Whitney Taxpayers Association petitioned the county to create a town along Boulder Highway that was named after a family of ranchers.

The central valley town of Paradise came next when Strip hotel owners and residents outside Las Vegas city limits grew tired of disputes with city officials over water, sewer and other issues.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, history professor Eugene Moehring, in his 1989 book, "Resort City in the Sunbelt," wrote that Flamingo Hotel executive Gus Greenbaum led a petition drive in 1950 to create a Paradise City town while Las Vegas was making a bid to annex the Strip.

"Victory came on Dec. 8, 1950, when county commissioners, anxious to block the expansion of Las Vegas while enlarging their own tax and power bases, acceded to the petitioners' request," Moehring wrote.

Winchester became the valley's third unincorporated town in October 1953 when it was carved out of a portion of Paradise -- the county had formed a Paradise A and a Paradise B, creating so much confusion among landowners and government officials that Paradise A was converted to Winchester.

May 1957 marked a county power grab with the formation of Sunrise Manor. North Las Vegas was preparing to annex a part of that area, but the county would have none of that.

Spring Valley in the western valley gained town status in May 1981 to thwart potential annexation into other communities and blunt criticism that its residents weren't paying their fair share of taxes for county services.

Enterprise in the southwest valley became the valley's sixth town in December 1996 following concerns from residents that their semirural lifestyle would be compromised if annexed by neighboring Henderson. John Hiatt, Enterprise Town Advisory Board chairman, said independence from city zoning is a major reason Enterprise residents would fight any annexation attempt from Henderson.

"A city typically has a different agenda and will also raise taxes," Hiatt said. "There is very little enthusiasm in Enterprise to be a part of Henderson. It is perceived that Henderson is a master-planned community, and that it's not about individual rights."

What separates the valley today from other fast-growing urban areas is that it no longer has a real downtown, no central zone where most commercial activity occurs.

But Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he holds out hope that the valley will consider a governmental consolidation on par with what occurred in January, when Louisville, Ky., merged with its county to form the nation's 16th largest city.

Goodman said he plans later this year to convene a blue-ribbon panel of citizens to look into the possibility of merging the valley's cities and unincorporated towns into one metropolitan government.

"The only way consolidation will take place is if the people want it to take place," he said. "It is something the people will have to want to do, not the politicians. Politicians will never want this because they want to protect their fiefdoms."

The mayor cited the "major league" aspect of consolidation -- making the valley a more sophisticated metropolis -- as a major selling point for a merger.

"Why have three different police departments and three different fire departments?" Goodman said.

But Shibler said he didn't think consolidation would make much difference in the long run.

"I like it that the city is separate from the county," Shibler said. "From what I see of Las Vegas politics, I'm not sure they're responsive to the people."

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