The More Cops Tax Increase: One Wild Ride
Today is October 1 and I just got back to my desk after spending five hours at the Clark County Commissioners meeting about the More Cops sales tax increase. I know that many of you and the PPA Executive Board were there for the entire agenda item as well. I have to say that, in my 11 years here at the PPA, I have not seen any other issue as misunderstood as this More Cops sales tax increase.
I want to first go back and give you a review of the history of this tax. In 2004, Sheriff Bill Young and his team went to the citizens of Clark County and asked them to approve a sales tax increase of .5%. The voters did indeed approve the increase; this is about the last normal thing that ever happened regarding the More Cops tax. The story continues with the 2005 legislative session, when the legislators took it upon themselves to raise the sales tax in Clark County by .25% with the other .25% already authorized by the voters possible in coming future years, but not before 2009.
As you know, 2009 came and went and the other half of the tax was not authorized. This just doesn’t make sense given the fact that law enforcement, particularly Metro, had done exactly what was expected with the money and hired and equipped police officers (about 600), which resulted in a decrease in crime. Then the 2011 session came and went and again no authorization for the second quarter-cent of the sales tax previously approved by the voters. An important fact to remember is that during this time period, the country, including Clark County, was hit by the greatest recession we have experienced in our lifetimes. This caused the property tax revenues, which are part of the funding equation for Metro, to experience steep declines. As a result of this, Metro stopped hiring police officers and our numbers began to decrease. In the early years of the recession, you all managed to keep the crime statistics in our valley either flat or in further decline, which I credit to all of your hard work, dedication and professionalism. But then in the years 2011 and 2012, crime started to increase because there were simply not enough police officers on the street.
That brings us to the 2013 legislative session. This session’s group of legislators did more for us than any previous one since I have been here at the PPA. After four months of discussion, revision, review and more revision, authorization to enable the second .25% of the More Cops tax increase had still not passed. A special session was called and the More Cops sales tax increase finally was passed. Here is where it gets a little strange again. The legislators authorized an increase of .15% rather than the voter-approved .25%, but we looked at it as at least this was going to be better than nothing, which is what we had gotten in the past. This group of legislators also put language in the bill to ensure that the money from the new .15% increase could only be used to hire and equip cops. You may be wondering why such a restriction was needed when that was always the intent of the bill in the first place. Well, this is because this 2013 bill also contains language that allows the Department to use the proceeds it has accumulated from the first quarter-cent as it chooses for a limited period of three years, ending in October 2016. This is what is meant when you hear that the legislators lifted the “supplanting language” for the money from the first quarter-cent. Finally, you should also keep in mind that although the legislators authorized this new sales tax increase, it can only go into effect if the County Commissioners enact it. So the 2013 bill has language allowing the Clark County Commission to “enable” this tax sometime over the next three years as long as it is approved by a “super majority” vote, meaning at least five of the Commissioners are in favor of it.
That now brings us to late June and early July. Knowing this matter was coming up for a vote with the County Commissioners, I started meeting with them to ask for their support on the More Cops tax increase. It didn’t take long to see that getting this new tax enacted was going to be an uphill battle. Many of the Commissioners wanted to know why the Sheriff didn’t want to spend the $130 million in the reserve account from the first quarter-cent, now that the supplanting language had been lifted. We explained to them that this was a very bad idea because this money raised from the first quarter-cent tax increase was intended to be used to pay the salaries of these new cops hired as a result of the tax throughout their careers. The More Cops tax sunsets in 2025, yet these officers will be with us for years after that and the reserve money is to sustain them through their full careers. This seemed to be a reasonable explanation for most of them.
After many months and many meetings, the County Commission set an August public hearing on whether to enact the new .15% More Cops tax increase. And here is where this thing goes from a little weird to over the top. At the August meeting, the More Cops tax increase was an “action” agenda item, meaning the Commissioners could take action on that matter then. But after hours of public comment, and again, following months of meetings beforehand, the Commissioners decided to table the matter so they could get more information and then address this issue at a future meeting. (Apparently, they don’t fully appreciate the impact you all have felt from working shorthanded over the past number of years.)
This follow-up meeting to readdress this More Cops tax issue, as we all now know, was held on October 1 and it was even more bizarre than the first. We listened to four hours of public comment. I’m approximating that about half of the people who spoke said they were in favor of the More Cops tax increase. The remaining people spoke about police shootings, body cameras, helicopter rides, our collective bargaining contract, tickets they had been issued by officers and a variety of other things that were only related in that they had something to do with the Police Department. Some of those in this latter group were against the More Cops tax increase because there is fluoride in the drinking water, poison in food and other things I can’t even write about. When the public comments ended, I had some ray of hope that we might get back to normalcy, but that did not occur. Ultimately, a Commissioner made a motion to enact one-half of the authorized amount, which would have been an additional sales tax of .075%, but then the guy who made the motion voted against it. This motion failed. Then another motion was made to enact the entire .15% authorized increase; this motion also failed. Finally, a motion was made to table the matter for six months, and guess what? That motion failed as well! (I had to laugh the following morning when I read the very first line of Steve Sebelius’ commentary in the Review Journal, which said, “It’s not clear what’s least effective: a closed-down federal government or a fully functioning Clark County Commission.”)
In any event, it now appears that the More Cops tax increase could be heard again as soon as the first meeting in November. I am sure that any of you who had the pleasure of attending the October 1 fiasco can hardly wait to turn around and do it all over again! I know I can’t.
I wrote this article for two reasons: First, I hope to give you a little look at the long and crazy road this tax proposal has traveled. Second, and most importantly, I want to explain why I told the Commissioners that the PPA would not support the More Cops tax increase if all the money was not used to hire additional police officers. As far back as the fall of 2012, members of my team and I have attended meetings in which we stated that we would not support a tax increase that was used for anything other than the voter-approved use of hiring and equipping more police officers. We maintained that P# 7186 position throughout the 2013 legislative session, and I believe that is why the new law is worded the way it is. The law has several subsections that say the Sheriff must fill all funded vacant positions before any of the new tax money can be used, and that when the new funds are used, they can only be used to hire additional police officers. In other words, my understanding is that this new tax money cannot be used to make up for a budget shortfall. At the meeting on October 1, the Sheriff kept saying that he would use the money to help address a budget shortfall. The County Commissioners asked their deputy DA if she believed this was legal and she said no, it is not. We agree. All we are advocating for is that the money from this new tax be used to ensure the safety of the citizens of our community and the 40 million visitors who come here each year. A byproduct of this is that you will have an adequate number of officers on the street, so you can have enough officers working to more safely perform your jobs. This is a win for everybody.
As always, stay safe and fight the good fight.