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Questions and answers
The “more cops” tax debate is back in the news this week. The latest, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is that the Clark County Commission has opted to postpone its vote on whether to approve an increase in the county’s sales-tax rate, new revenues from which would go to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
The issue is before the Commission after the Nevada Legislature — in a constitutionally dubious move — voted to delegate to the commissioners the power to decide whether to implement the tax hike, which would raise the rate from 8.1 percent to 8.25 percent. Under the Nevada Constitution, the power to raise taxes rests with the state legislature (which can only do so with approval from two-thirds of the members of both houses), and so it’s highly questionable whether state lawmakers were within their right to hand this decision off to the locals without approving the tax hike itself. The Legislature used a similar scheme with AB 46, which gives the Washoe County Commission the authority to raise sales and property taxes.
But the question of constitutionality is not what was on commissioners’ minds when they decided this week, in a near-unanimous vote, to delay their decision. (Tom Collins — last seen calling NPRI’s Victor Joecks “Evil! Very Evil!” — cast the only vote against the postponement.) According to the Review-Journal, it was Commissioner Susan Brager who made the move to postpone the vote, and she did so because she “still has unanswered questions,” primarily having to do with Metro’s finances.
Well, as someone who has followed this issue closely, I’d like to take a stab at providing some answers for Commissioner Brager and her colleagues.
The ostensible reason for the proposed sales-tax hike is to allow Metro to hire new police officers, without which, we’re told, the safety of Southern Nevada residents simply cannot be ensured. Check out this video that Metro produced last August, which ominously warns of the dire consequences in store should the department not get its way.
On its face, the argument that more cops would lead to better public safety — although not for everyone — is somewhat intuitive. But Metro has set up a false dichotomy, because the options aren’t limited to raising taxes or having fewer officers.
There’s a third option — using the resources the department already has in a more efficient way. Fortunately, we’re able to gain some insight into Metro’s current level of efficiency in that regard, thanks to a website we at NPRI operate, located at TransparentNevada.com. The site includes all kinds of information on government spending, including public-employee compensation.
And what does one find upon perusing the numbers for Metro employees? For starters, there’s the captain who received more than $585,000 in total compensation in 2012. Then there’s the lieutenant who raked in more than $354,000. And the assistant sheriff who got more than $294,000. Those are just three of the 149 Metro employees who took home more than $200,000 last year in total compensation. And those 149 are among the 2,204 individuals who received more than $125,000 in total compensation.
But just as egregious as those astronomical compensation levels is another gem that Nevada Journal, NPRI’s investigative-reporting arm, unearthed recently. Steve Miller reported that Metro annually spends more than $1.8 million paying people for work they do for their private unions — which provides no service or value to the taxpayers who pay those salaries.
This practice — known as “union leave time” — would be outrageous under any circumstances. But it’s particularly maddening in light of the department’s current cries that it’s underfunded.
If Metro really is facing a shortage of police officers, wouldn’t ending union leave time and reining in exorbitant employee pay levels be a good way to make money for new cops available?
Public safety is important, and working to ensure it is a legitimate and vital function of government. But amid calls to raise taxes to that end — and let’s not forget that raising the sales tax won’t come without negative economic effects, either — Nevada taxpayers should insist that those tasked with that job can be trusted to spend public resources responsibly.
Metro’s track record provides plenty of reason for skepticism.
Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.
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