Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2018

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215 Beltway project may be headed for deadlock

Despite a contract that has been twice awarded and twice taken to court, the $100 million-plus widening of the Las Vegas Beltway now is at risk of being delayed by a year or more rather than just several more months.

Clark County commissioners will soon have to decide what’s more important — getting a major road project started this year and putting hundreds of people to work on it, or saving the money to shore up the county’s budget.

The situation stems from U.S. District Judge Robert Jones’ ruling that the commissioners had not given Fisher Sand & Gravel due process when they awarded the contract to widen the Beltway between Decatur Boulevard and Tenaya Way.

During a July meeting of the commissioners, they hit Fisher representatives with questions about pollution and federal tax fraud charges. It marked the second time commissioners had voted against Fisher, despite Fisher’s bid of $112.2 million being $4.6 million less than Las Vegas Paving’s price to do the work.

Fisher’s attorney, Stan Parry, alleged that the commission’s 5-2 vote had more to do with allegiances to unions than with Fisher’s legal history.

As a result, Clark County and Fisher are drafting an agreement that would prohibit commissioners Tom Collins and Steve Sisolak from voting the next time, which, for the time being, is expected to be in mid-September. Sisolak said their abstentions are voluntary.

But with Collins and Sisolak sitting out the next round, the commission still needs to give four votes to one company or the other. With only five commissioners voting, it looks unlikely that four of them will line up on either side because Commissioners Larry Brown and Susan Brager voted for Fisher last time.

By state law, the only way to get around the four-vote requirement is if two commissioners request and obtain a written legal opinion allowing for the lower majority vote, said Don Burnette, the county’s chief administrative officer. And either Collins or Sisolak would need to be the one to request the legal opinion.

If they don’t go that route, another option for the commissioners would be to put the project out to bid again, which would add several more months to the process.

But the commissioners also could just cancel the project, for the time being at least. As a result of the recession and state lawmakers’ $180 million raid on county coffers, budget pressures are building on the commissioners. Employee unions are up in arms and cutbacks in social services are hurting some of the most vulnerable county residents.

The county is desperate to find every additional dollar it can. Commissioners are still trying to decide whether to tap into a capital fund budget to cover some of the salaries and other costs related to needed county programs. And the fear is that because new tax revenue estimates by the state are lower than expected, even deeper budget cuts could be coming.

So a deadlock on the beltway contract could allow the county to simply put the project on hold in order to hang on to much-needed tax dollars and ride out the economic storm.

But there’s a negative flip side to that option. The biggest argument for moving the beltway project along quickly is that in addition to making that stretch of road safer for commuters, it will provide some 300 workers with long-term, well-paying jobs. And that can only work to boost the valley’s battered economy.

When the time comes to vote in a few weeks, some interesting questions about this commission’s priorities and cohesiveness will be answered.

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