Tax hikers trying to avoid transparency

Sunshine Week shines a spotlight on governments hiding their spending

By Robert Fellner
  • Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Local governments appear to have found a formula they believe will allow them to increase taxes even while taxpayers face one of the worst economic environments in the country: threaten to take away services that citizens expect — or even do that.

For Las Vegas Metro, it's not responding to minor traffic accidents. For the City of Henderson, it's claiming that higher property taxes are needed to repair playgrounds and roads.

Such “make the public suffer until we get our tax increase” tactics are all too common. Moreover, Metro and Henderson appear to have added a new wrinkle to their attempted shakedown of taxpayers: Don't let the public see where their tax dollars are going.

Here's what's happening. For the last seven years, the Nevada Policy Research Institute has operated TransparentNevada.com, a database of public employee compensation searchable by name, job title and jurisdiction. Each year, NPRI requests public-employee compensation from government agencies under Nevada's Public Records Law. While most government officials have complied with NPRI's requests, a few agencies have attempted to deny, stall or only provide a portion of the data requested. This is data that is needed by elected officials, media members and the general public alike to find out the true costs of government employees’ compensation.

Last year both Metro and Henderson fully complied with NPRI's requests for TransparentNevada data, but not this year.

Metro has yet to reply to NPRI's Jan. 22 public-records request for employee compensation — despite the law’s requirement that public agencies must produce either the requested records or a determination as to when they will be provided, within five business days after the request is received

Metro confirmed the receipt of NPRI's Jan. 22 request by responding with an email asking for a telephone number to be provided so that it could be added to their copy of the request. However, Metro neither produced the mandated response required by NRS 239.0107 or any response at all after that point. Unfortunately, despite NPRI's repeated attempts to elicit the mandated response from Metro, the police agency is not obeying the law.

Last year, NPRI cited Las Vegas Metro salary information as evidence that Metro's budget problems stem from out-of-control compensation packages for its officers, rather than a genuine need for additional tax revenue. For example, 149 Metro employees received more than $200,000 in total compensation in 2012. A natural question is: Did that number increase in 2013 — despite Metro's cries of poverty?

The cops aren't saying, even though the law requires them to. Not a great way for a law enforcement agency to build credibility.

Henderson has provided most of the information requested by NPRI, but not the cost of its employees' health insurance. Henderson city officials have reported that the city attorney, Josh Reid, believes that the cost of its health plans qualifies for a privacy exemption under Nevada’s Public Record Law.

That, of course, is silliness. The cost of these plans does not reveal any personally invasive or sensitive information, like the type of information found in medical records. Moreover, this information does serve the public interest in allowing taxpayers to see where and how their funds are being spent.

Perhaps city officials are apprehensive about the public seeing — at the same time politicians want to raise taxes — that 600-plus city employees had $10,000-plus health-insurance plans in 2012. Or perhaps they want a category of spending costing taxpayers over $17 million in 2012 not showing up on the public record, thus allowing voters to think that Henderson reduced employee compensation.

It's always important to highlight issues of transparency in government, but these issues are especially timely, given that it's Sunshine Week. Running from March 16 to 22, Sunshine Week is a nationwide observance highlighting the need for open government.

No matter what your opinion on the Metro and Henderson tax increases, there's one thing everyone should be able to agree on. Taxpayers shouldn’t give government agencies one more dime if the agency is willing to violate the law by refusing to tell the public how it is spending the money it already takes in.

Robert Fellner is a transparency researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more, visit http://npri.orgA version of this commentary was first published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.


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