Why did North Las Vegas push for a property tax special election? Officials won’t say.
On the heels of an effort by the City of North Las Vegas to hold a special election this month, Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar’s opposition was clear.
“Having an election during December is just generally not a good idea,” Aguilar said to reporters following a September event on voter engagement. “I don't think it's a transparent process for the citizens of North Las Vegas.”
North Las Vegas officials would eventually scrap plans for that special election that would have asked voters to extend property taxes in September. But little is known about why the city was pushing for the election in the first place, especially as state and local election officials prepare for February’s presidential primary.
For months, the city has resisted providing that information.
The Nevada Independent has sought email records and interviews with city officials regarding the decision-making process for the proposed special election. Although Mayor Pamela Goynes-Brown spoke with The Indy and the city released a limited subset of email records, additional requests for emails from the city manager about election plans included more than 15 pages of redactions. The city attorney’s office also refused to provide a general description of what records were redacted, and key city officials denied interview requests on multiple occasions.
The proposed special election would have asked residents of Nevada’s fourth-largest city to approve extending a pair of property taxes that collectively bring in tens of millions of tax dollars to city coffers and are set to otherwise expire in the coming years.
The Nevada Independent sought the records from the city given the election’s importance to the city’s budget, the effect it might have on the tax bills of homeowners and because the secretary of state’s office raised public and private concerns that the election could upend preparation for the state’s presidential primary in February. The city has tentatively planned to place the property tax questions on the June primary ballot, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"We were puzzled why North Las Vegas would schedule a special election in December, where turnout would surely be very low, to extend taxes on its constituents,” Nevada Independent editor and CEO Jon Ralston said. “We are flabbergasted at the secrecy by the government, which only piqued our curiosity even more. Rest assured we will use every legal avenue available to try to lift this veil of secrecy."
The city said the content of the redacted emails was confidential because they fell under attorney-client privilege, a legal status that is codified under Nevada law, and the attorney work-product privilege, which is designed to protect an attorney’s legal theories and opinions and exempts those types of records from release under the state’s public records law.
Key North Las Vegas officials — the city manager and city clerk — have through a city spokesperson declined interview requests regarding the special election. City Manager Ryann Juden said in a statement that the city operates “based on the best information we are given at a point in time - in this case, that the special election in December was recommended - only to learn later that was not the case.”
A city spokesperson said The Indy should instead reach out to county and state election officials, even though city documents indicate that the city manager and clerk were responsible for preparing and submitting a request to hold the December special election.
Goynes-Brown, the mayor, spoke with The Indy in October but declined to answer certain questions regarding election planning. Goynes-Brown said the taxes are essential for funding public safety in the city.
“The funding for this is to help out with our public works, our fire, our parks, our policing,” she said. “This is just going to help ensure the safety of the residents here in North Las Vegas.”
‘Utter lack of understanding’
Top state elections officials had warned that a December special election would have prompted much lower voter turnout and lead to headaches for election officials who are preparing for next year’s elections.
In a September email obtained by The Indy, a member of the secretary of state’s office said that a December election would have significantly hindered preparations for the presidential primary election in February.
Clark County officials would have been responsible for administering the city’s special election, so they would have to adjust their preparations for voting systems, polling locations and poll worker training and recruitment for the statewide presidential primary election, according to the email sent by Mark Wlaschin, the deputy secretary of state of elections, to other state election officials.
The county would have also had to scale back staffing for the implementation of a centralized voter registration database to prepare for the special election, according to Wlaschin’s email. County officials would also have had to roll back new election rules that were set to begin in 2024 and were already in the works because there were no more elections scheduled for this year.
“This reflects the utter lack of understanding of the logistics required to administer an election on the part of the City Clerk,” Wlaschin wrote in his email.
Special elections tend to have much lower voter participation. In April, for example, the City of Henderson held a special election for a vacant council member seat with turnout about half of the turnout for the same race four years earlier.
Kenneth Miller, a political science professor at UNLV, said a one-issue special election for a topic such as property taxes would likely have even less turnout than other special elections.
“There are cases where special elections will get pretty good turnout, but that's because they're high profile,” Miller said. “Property taxes are important. But they're not the kind of thing that's going to typically attract a lot of media attention and not catch a lot of voters’ attention.”
The state has prioritized increasing voter turnout in city elections. In 2019, the Legislature passed AB50, which ended the practice of holding municipal elections in odd-numbered years as a way to limit election costs and increase turnout. Because North Las Vegas’ proposed election was a special election, it would have been legal to hold the contest this year.
The property taxes
City officials in September initially requested the city council to approve the special election for December. The election would have asked voters whether to continue the two existing property taxes for an additional 30 years. City officials said the ballot questions constituted an “emergency” because the taxes are set to expire in the coming years.
The property taxes in question fund public safety, street maintenance and public park purposes. The public safety tax is $0.20 for every $100 in property valuation, while the street improvement tax is $0.235 for every $100 in property value. Together, the taxes were set to bring in nearly $35 million in the 2023 fiscal year, according to a city budget document.
The public safety tax will expire in June 2027, while the street improvement tax will end in June 2025. City budgets must be adopted and filed with the Department of Taxation by June 1 of every year.
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Black said at a September city council meeting that “city management was told that the special election in December was advisable.”
But at the last minute, the request to hold an election was revoked. Black said he “was informed that the items, as written, may not accomplish” the city’s goals.
Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick said in a September interview the city had not followed certain steps for the tax extension, such as notifying affected entities, including the county’s debt commission. Kirkpatrick said budget preparations for the fiscal year usually begin in November or December of each year, meaning that the property tax questions should be resolved before then.
“It's somewhat of an emergency because you’ve got to plan for your budget,” Kirkpatrick said. “But at the same time, is there a better date that we can all work together to pick? And so let's have those conversations.”
In November, the debt commission approved the city’s request to ask voters to extend the taxes, but the city has not yet formally scheduled the election.