Published June 22, 2012
NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – There are no signs of rioters, wind-damaged homes or flooding. The brand new City Hall features gleaming marble floors and the public recreation centers offer Zumba, karate and Pilates classes.
Despite all of its suburban trimmings, North Las Vegas is officially a disaster area.
After five years of declining property taxes, massive layoffs and questionable spending, leaders of the blue-collar, family-oriented city outside Las Vegas declared a state of emergency, invoking a rarely used state law crafted for unforeseen disasters.
No matter that the statute, which allows municipalities to suspend union contracts and avoid paying scheduled salary increases, doesn't actually include fiscal emergencies among the list of potential disasters.
"It says, in case of 'emergency such as.' You can't list how many different types of emergencies there are in the world," City Council member Wade Wagner said of the move, which will save the city $9 million.
There are many cities across the nation grappling with declining property values and growing expenses like North Las Vegas, but few, if any, have declared financial emergency.
Stockton, Calif., and Los Angeles explored similar emergency declarations and were met with legal challenges. In Buffalo, N.Y., court officials upheld a wage freeze in 2006 that allowed the city to address its four-year $127 million deficit and avoid financial disaster.
North Las Vegas is among Nevada's hardest-hit cities, at a time when the state is dealing with the nation's highest unemployment rate and an unrelenting tide of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Every few months, the state threatens to take over the city.
Even so, the financial disaster declaration is unprecedented in Nevada, raising questions about whether North Las Vegas is overreaching at the expense of its employees and reputation.
"It makes it sound like our buildings are all on fire and they don't have water to put it out or something," said Jennifer Meyers, who moved to the city before the housing collapse so her kids could play in the street without worrying about crime.
"It doesn't sound like a place you would want to move to," she said.
Union workers, long among the highest compensated government employees in southern Nevada, claim the city won't be able to defend the emergency designation in court. The police union filed a lawsuit Friday claiming the city was misusing the law.
"Everybody in the city is basically using all their time and all their effort to try to break the unions," said Sgt. Leonard Cardinale, president of the North Las Vegas Police Supervisors Association.
Public perception turned against the city's public safety workers after some union leaders put up billboards last year that read: "Warning: Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer guarantee your safety!"
It isn't hard to make the case that North Las Vegas, Nevada's fourth-largest city, is in trouble.
As its population more than doubled to 223,394 in 2010 from 115,488 in 2000, the city doubled its staff, built a new park each year and, in 2009, started construction on a sparkling $130 million City Hall.
For nearly two years, the city, where residents have long paid the highest tax rate in southern Nevada, has teetered on the edge of insolvency.
One in every 195 homes is in foreclosure, the state's highest rate. Once the nation's fastest growing city, it lost more than 3,000 businesses in three years after the recession hit in 2007. Its total revenue has plunged from $817 million in 2009 to $298 million this year.
Hundreds of municipal workers have received pink slips and still the city struggled to close a $30 million budget gap. As a final body blow, Fitch Ratings downgraded the city's bond rating last month to a "BBB" with a negative watch.
By 2013, the city will have shed more than 800 employees since the recession began.
City officials concede they are far from the urban disasters brought on by Hurricane Katrina or the Los Angeles riots, but argue all the same that North Las Vegas' fiscal crisis shouldn't be downplayed.
Without the emergency declaration, the city claims it would have to lay off 217 public safety workers to afford the salary increases required under its police and fire union contracts. Libraries would close and recreation centers would no longer offer swimming and Spanish classes.
"We are in a fiscal emergency," Wagner said. "North Las Vegas is ground zero basically for foreclosures in the nation. There are only a handful of places that have been hit as hard as North Las Vegas.
"So because our property taxes have declined so much, we really had to invoke this," Wagner said.
Since then, residents have urged City Hall to keep its libraries and recreation centers and sacrifice public safety, which accounts for 66 percent of the city's budget. In all, the city expects to go from 1,000 public safety employees in 2011 to 721 in 2013. The City Council voted Wednesday night to turn its jail services over to the city of Las Vegas in a move expected to save $16 million annually.
Residents like Bob Borgersen are fed up with the unions and the council for not being able to compromise as the city continues to struggle. He blamed the council for not saving when its property tax income was flush.
"It's bad. The property values have gone down to nothing," he said. "They didn't think ahead, unfortunately."