In June, Clark County promised the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department $1 million in additional, permanent funding to enable the department to combat an expected uptick in summer crime.
The extra funds seemed to arrive when Metro needed it most, as local residents have witnessed a recent spike in violent crime.
Any relief to Metro, however, from the news of this grant was short-lived. Only days later the county revoked the award when the City of Las Vegas indicated it could not contribute the additional amount required to maintain the statutory funding ratio.
For Metro, this signaled a political loss and a possible portent for future budgetary disagreements.
For Las Vegas citizens, it suggested that the streets, this summer, will be less safe than they might otherwise be.
This confrontation is only the most recent between Metro and city and county leaders. Increasingly, those relationships appear stressed by Metro’s claims that the LVMPD is and has been dangerously underfunded.
For years, citing common law enforcement statistics, Metro has made its case to the county commission, the Las Vegas city council and the state legislature alike that more funding must be provided to allow the hiring of more uniformed police officers.
As observed recently, Metro’s requests have often been unsuccessful — widening the political divide among local leaders as to how best to tackle the Valley’s crime problems.
Complicating Metro’s campaign is the fact that the recent spike in violent crime is an outlier to an otherwise positive trend in the Uniform Crime Reports. Regularly submitted by Metro to the FBI and the State of Nevada, those reports put Vegas area crime rates for 2015 at the lowest in recent memory — 23 percent below 2014’s and 63 percent below 1994’s.
While Metro’s advocacy has been conducted “center stage” politically, often sparking fervent media coverage, there’s been a behind-the-scenes anomaly.
Generally unreported, Metro has for years banked away many millions in accumulated More Cops sales tax revenues. The very purpose of those revenues, of course, was the hiring of more sworn officers.
So, what gives?
How can it be that Metro repeatedly petitions for more funding when it has multiple millions in reserve?
Clark County’s “More Cops” Sales Tax Initiative actually began producing new funds for Metro as of October 2005. Before that, beginning in 2003, Metro had spent significant time and money designing what became the November 2004 advisory ballot question and then successfully campaigning for its approval.
Residents were repeatedly assured that all revenues generated through the tax increase would, if approved, go only toward the hiring of new, uniformed police officers. The funds would go to local law enforcement agencies throughout the valley proportionally to their served populations.
Thus, once state lawmakers and county commissioners had authorized the initial increase of a quarter of a cent in the county sales tax, Metro began receiving approximately 75 percent of the new tax revenues.
Subsequently, however, not everything has gone as either Metro or the public expected with the More Cops program. By some measures, it has failed to live up to expectations.
For example, Metro has fallen shy of its projections in terms of the number of new officers hired to this point.
As the chart at right indicates, actual hiring levels have not kept pace with the department’s original projections. It is true that Metro had assumed its ballot initiative would eventually yield a higher marginal tax increase — an eventual .5 cent increase in the local sales tax versus the .3 cent increase that law enforcement currently receives.
Metro’s failure to hire in the projected amounts, however, is not a result of the agency’s limited access to funds. Rather, it stems from a conscious choice to not utilize already available funds.
A quick review of the accounting statements for Clark County Fund 2320 (Metro’s More Cops fund) sheds ample light on the amount of funding resources available to Metro. After the 2005 bill was signed into law and its contents subsequently approved at the county level, Clark County Fund 2320 was established to house Metro’s share of future revenues. Since its inception, the balance of Fund 2320 has grown steadily.
The chart at right shows that by 2009 Metro’s More Cops fund had grown to nearly $150 million. Moreover, this balance leaves out funds already expended on new hires over the preceding years. In the context of such figures, the $1 million the county promised to Metro (and subsequently revoked) looks like pocket change.
Despite the quantity of funds available, Metro has chosen to utilize only a fraction of those funds in service to the primary purpose of the 2004 initiative: hiring more uniformed police officers.
Metro has never expended more than 35 percent of its available More Cops funds on police hiring during any given year. While the chart at right’s 2015 bar may appear to suggest otherwise, that year’s 45 percent expenditure reflected $18.9 million taken from the More Cops fund to pay general-fund costs. Otherwise, the data indicates that Metro has been remarkably frugal with its More Cops funds.
For illustration purposes, the available balance not utilized for hiring more officers during 2015 — approximately $132 million — could have funded 1,147 entry-level police officers at an average annual cost of $115,000 for one year.
When asked directly about the fund’s recurring unused balances, Metro’s chief financial officer, Richard Hoggan, responded that the occurrence of a growing fund balance over time is intentional. “The fund balance . . . serves as a means to absorb increased costs from additional officers as well as the costs from increased salary, benefits, and equipment,” he said, adding that “the More Cops fund has been operating at a deficit since Fiscal Year 09-10, meaning that the accumulated fund balance is serving its intended purpose to absorb the deficit spending.”
Hoggan’s comments accurately reflect that the year-end More Cops balance has decreased slightly in each year since 2010. The amount by which the balance has decreased constitutes the referenced deficit for any given year.
But Metro’s apparent frugality may also stem from doubts about the long-term viability of the More Cops money. On several occasions, LVMPD leaders have stated that Fund 2320 needs to maintain a minimum balance to guard against the possibility that the More Cops initiative is not renewed before 2025. In that circumstance, presumably, Metro would attempt to rely on the fund’s remaining balance to mitigate new fiscal challenges.
Metro’s concerns may well be warranted. Were the More Cops funding stream in 2025 to come to a sudden and unexpected halt, it would certainly be a shock to everyone in the county. Long before that date, therefore, the issue is virtually certain to have been addressed.
Metro’s policy of saving in lieu of spending, however, is antithetical to the intent of the More Cops Sales Tax Initiative as passed in 2005, as well as the department’s current rhetoric.
Ultimately, Metro will be faced with one of two scenarios — either the More Cops initiative will be reauthorized by state and county officials or it will sunset in 2025 as planned.
Regardless, by failing to utilize what funds it currently has available towards its publicly held purpose of hiring more uniformed police officers, Metro is doing no favors to either itself or Clark County residents.
Daniel Honchariw, MPA, is a public policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.