Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2024

Sheriff faces sales job to gain second half of 2004 voter-approved sales tax increase

Shooting Scene

Steve Marcus

Metro Police investigate a shooting scene in February 2008 near Jaycee Park.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Sheriff Doug Gillespie is hoping the Legislature in coming months will authorize an already-voter-approved quarter-cent increase in the sales tax to generate more revenue for the budget-stricken Metro Police Department.

But he's got a sales job on his hands: A survey shows that officers in his department have received, on average, the biggest pay raises among public employees in Clark County over the past five years.

And now Gillespie wants more money?

There's an explanation, of course. As members of the police union, officers reached into their own pockets to pay for cuts in health insurance, clothing and education allowances, Gillespie said. Give and take is all part of the contract negotiation process.

But even if Gillespie can ease lawmakers past the issue of raises, he's got another challenge on his hands:

Voters in 2004 approved a total of a half-cent increase in the sales tax, but the ballot language demanded the money would be spent to hire more law enforcement officers. There was no mention that it would be used to pay operating costs.

Legislators had to authorize when the voter-approved tax increase would be triggered. They picked 2005 for the first quarter cent sales tax increase to go into effect in Clark County.

And indeed, the millions raised by that quarter-cent sales tax increase, which was called the More Cops initiative, has gone to pay for about 520 new police officers. Today, Metro has roughly $130 million in reserve in the More Cops fund.

That Gillespie, who wants now to trigger the other half of that sales tax – this time to help fill a $46 million budget gap next fiscal year – might find opposition in Carson City is evidenced by the fact that he already is finding resistance at home.

Chris Collins, president of the Police Protective Association, said the union supported the sheriff’s move to have the quarter-cent enacted, but the union hasn’t decided how it feels about granting flexibility to spend that money.

“We’re still evaluating whether we can support that,” Collins said.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who sits on Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee, said he may have a problem with asking for another quarter-cent sales tax increase. He does, however, favor giving the sheriff more spending flexibility, but only with the quarter-cent tax revenue Metro already is collecting.

“I’m not closed-minded, but I’m not sold yet on the new quarter-cents,” he added.

County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she wouldn't favor increasing sales taxes on Clark County residents, either. She would favor giving the sheriff more flexibility with the existing quarter-cent sales tax revenues and using the More Cops reserve.

“It would make more sense to use what they’ve already collected,” she said. “Our local sales tax, higher than 8 percent, is already too high.”

Sisolak said one argument making the rounds is that the sheriff should simply ask for more money from Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, which collectively fund most of Metro’s operations.

“We can only pay what we can afford,” Sisolak said of the county and city. “Right now, it doesn’t appear that an increase is something we can afford.”

But having already talked to some state lawmakers, Gillespie is heartened by the response he has gotten. So far, he said, “they aren’t telling me to get out of the office but that I make a valid point.”

The point, he added, is that the department has seen its allotment of property tax revenues fall $61 million since peaking in 2009.

“And (property tax revenues) are not coming back soon; we all know that,” Gillespie said. “The city and county cannot pick that up long term. So we’re proposing we use the quarter-cent to pick that up.”

He noted, too, that the Legislature in 2009 decided not to grant the second half of the sales tax because of the bad economy. With the recession socking Nevada for a third straight year, few in Carson City talked about the remaining quarter-cent sales tax during the 2011 Legislature, either.

“We didn’t get the quarter-cent in '09, and now it’s going to be '13 and we need it,” the sheriff said in an interview last week.

As he tries to persuade lawmakers to grant collection of the additional quarter-cent sales tax and give him more flexibility in spending the proceeds, a document is circulating through the Clark County Government Center showing the various wage increases for different unions over the last budget cycles.

The document says the Police Protective Association, whose members include about 2,850 Metro officers, received average increases after contract concessions of 16 percent over that time. The second highest average wage increase was 15.8 percent for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, whose members number about a dozen.

Metro disputes the 16 percent number, saying its calculations show the increase should be closer to 13.8 percent.

For comparison, Clark County firefighters, roundly criticized in recent years for taking advantage of a lenient sick-leave system that some say led to exorbitant overtime payments, saw their average wages increase 9.5 percent in the five-year period. The survey doesn’t say, however, that over the past few years, firefighters' pay overall has fallen 3 percent because of a sharp decline in overtime pay.

The same chart shows just two groups whose average wages decreased over five years. Those were public defenders – attorneys who work for people who can’t afford a private attorney – and county management. Neither of those groups is unionized, and both saw average wages decrease 2.5 percent.

Gillespie notes the chart doesn’t outline police union concessions. In 2010, for instance, the clothing allowance for police officers was reduced by 43 percent, and Metro’s insurance contribution for each officer fell by 5.5 percent. Then in 2011, an education allowance was reduced 33 percent.

Also in 2011, the union agreed that no new police hires would be eligible for longevity pay. Clark County administrators say that over the next 25 years, that single concession will save Metro more than $100 million.

County Manager Don Burnette said the sheriff’s ability to attain the longevity concession “will be an enormous benefit for the department and the county.”

Gillespie also said that if it appeared he “acquiesced” to the union, he had ample evidence to demonstrate that was not the case.

“During the 2009 legislative session, the county and city contacted me because they felt it very important to settle the (police) union contract and asked (if) I could speed that up,” he said. “So the union did that and, in my opinion, they could have held out for more but because they understood the circumstances, we settled the contract.”

The wage-increase chart surprised Sisolak, he said, because much has been made of union concessions during the recession. “But you see, really, they’ve still been getting significant increases. I know very few in the private sector who have gotten the same over that time.”

Gillespie stressed the need for the quarter-cent sales tax given the drop in other tax revenues during the poor economy.

“Nobody thought when the More Cops sales tax initiative passed there would be a $61 million loss in revenue,” he said. “The bottom line is people wanted more cops on the street to keep their community safe. That was the will of the people. We just want to enact what they approved.”

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