The ninth floor of the new $127 million North Las Vegas City Hall offers a sweeping view of low-rise sprawl, and from up there the city looks neat and orderly, stretching away nearly to the mountains with Las Vegas Boulevard pointing the way northeast along a corridor of commerce and activity.
But height softens the reality of downtown North Las Vegas. From up there you can’t see the anti-methamphetamine poster tacked to the wall of a nearby motel, or the windblown trash collecting in a chain-link fence around an empty lot, or the bars on the windows of the small houses nearby, or the homeless people drinking beer from water bottles on the corner of Lake Mead and Las Vegas boulevards.
Mayor Shari Buck’s office is on the ninth floor. On a recent visit it still smelled like fresh paint and new carpet, and looked a little bare, as if she hadn’t quite had time to finish decorating. Buck is gracious, accommodating and at ease. She has genuine warmth about her, rather than the practiced affability common to politicians. She smiles often, asks questions, listens to the answers and remembers names. After 12 years in public office and a lifetime spent in North Las Vegas, she knows city business cold.
It’s difficult to reconcile this Shari Buck with the woman often portrayed in news stories and on blogs as a powerless figurehead unable to keep her troubled city afloat, or alternatively as a shrewd insider adept at rewarding her allies and punishing her enemies.
But politics is perception, and like the view of downtown, much depends on your vantage point. Buck’s tenure in public office happens to coincide with one very wild ride for North Las Vegas, veering from the Valley’s embarrassment in the 1990s, to the country’s fastest-growing city in the mid 2000s, to the brink of economic collapse. North Las Vegas’ story is Southern Nevada’s story, compressed and amplified, so its next chapter is of particular interest. Where does the city go from here? Will it even survive?
Buck is optimistic that the worst days are over. “This is a new day in the city,” she recently told a group of business people she handpicked to help lead the city back to prosperity. “I’m hearing it from everybody.”
Of course, it’s her job to be an optimist. Down at street level, it’s hard to sniff any kind of real recovery in the air. Only six months ago, the city’s reserve balance had dwindled nearly to the point that the state could step in and take over its finances, which would have meant a crippling tax increase on North Las Vegans to pay the city’s debts. Its debt service was crushing, and its unions were in open rebellion. The acting city attorney quit last summer citing “the current political environment.” Buck herself was the subject of a recall effort and an ethics investigation, brought on by the bitter political squabbling that runs just beneath the surface of almost every issue here.
In late 2009, the city manager quit and was followed out the door by seven other department heads. “That was like going into the Super Bowl and telling the second-string to come in and win the game,” Buck says. “You have this huge economic crisis unlike anything we have faced in our city, then to lose our whole management team at that time, it did not help.”
It all has to be fixed on Buck’s watch. To date, the City Council, of which Buck is a voting member, has responded by slashing the budget, making new hires in key administrative jobs and waiting for the good times to return, or failing that, for the bad times to stop getting worse.
This spring, the state will check in with North Las Vegas to make sure it is on track to handle its next round of fiscal challenges. By the end of June, North Las Vegas will, once again, be faced with a big budget gap. The good news is, it will only be about $15.5 million, or about half what it was in the last fiscal year. The bad news is, the city will have to close it with cuts to staff and services, concessions from the city’s unions, or both. There are only so many plays in the book.
Buck, 51, isn’t technically a North Las Vegas native; she was born in North Carolina while her father was in the Marines. But her family moved back when she was 6 months old, and other than attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and a year living in her husband’s hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, she’s been here all her life.
The North Las Vegas of her youth, when she was Shari Avance, daughter of police chief Jim Avance, sounds idyllic. “It was just one of those communities where everybody knew everybody,” she says. “You didn’t lock your doors. You walked quite a lot to downtown. We lived closer to downtown North Las Vegas. It was a pretty safe place to live, just very compact.”
Her mother worked as a secretary at the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. As a kid, Buck knew the mayor, the city manager and a lot of beat cops by name. “It was kind of like Mayberry in a way,” she says.
That’s a long way from the city’s beginnings as a haven for moonshiners and anyone else wanting as little to do with government as possible. North Las Vegas traces its roots to 1919, when rancher Tom Williams moved to the Valley from Utah, took a look around Las Vegas and decided there was too much city there for his taste. But Williams liked the Valley, so he went north, bought 160 acres and built a house.
That was the same year Prohibition was ratified. There was law, if not order, in Las Vegas. But in Williams’ outpost, which picked up the nickname Old Town, the locals didn’t really care if you made a living bootlegging whiskey. All a moonshiner had to do was keep it secret from the feds, which they did by going underground. “North Las Vegas was a maze of tunnels,” former Las Vegas Police Chief Don Borax recalled in the book The First 100—Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas. “But I’m not saying where they are or who built them. It was sure one wet town, though.”
The city distinguished itself by being indistinct, a haven of low income and low expectations. If Henderson, a source of magnesium for World War II in its formative years, considered government a benefactor, North Las Vegas viewed it as an antagonist. It was the place you went to be left alone.
Old Town became the city of North Las Vegas in 1946, and the first mayor—a heavy-drinking businessman named Horace Tucker—wasn’t in office a full year before a recall campaign was under way. Although North Las Vegas carries the distinction of putting the first female mayor in Nevada history in office—Dorothy Porter in 1954—the footnote to the story is that Porter, a member of the City Council, began her term when three of her fellow Council members were indicted on bribery charges. Porter herself was the subject of a recall campaign less than a year into her term for “refusing to take steps to provide adequate police protection to the citizens of North Las Vegas,” according to a 1955 story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (Porter’s response, as quoted in the R-J: “Personally it makes no difference to me. I don’t care.”)
In the 1960s, North Las Vegas hired City Manager Clay Lynch away from Henderson in an effort to get serious about transforming the backwater of dusty streets and ramshackle housing into civilization. Lynch set about his task with enthusiasm, annexing land and floating bond issues, seemingly caring little whether North Las Vegans approved or not. His efforts set the stage for the city’s growth, but his dictatorial style didn’t play well. He resigned under pressure in 1975, accused of misusing city funds for personal business. Lynch shot himself in the head two years later.
In the 1980s and ’90s, North Las Vegas suffered from its image as a high-crime, low-income, loosely zoned collection of places you didn’t want to be. The reputation was largely deserved. In 1994, the city’s rate of violent crime was 5.6 times that of Henderson’s, and more than twice the rate in Las Vegas. It kept pace with Las Vegas in its rate of property crimes and burglaries throughout the decade, despite being a much smaller city.
At the same time, the city at last got a taste of suburban respectability with the success of its Eldorado planned development in 1990, which was far enough north of the haphazard-looking downtown to escape its stigma. Builders quickly took notice of the fact that the city had, and still has, a lot of vacant land. North Las Vegas was finally growing up.
In the decade starting in 2000, North Las Vegas grew almost twice as fast as Henderson and three times faster than Las Vegas. In 2001, developers bought 1,900 acres from the Bureau of Land Management even farther north to create Aliante, bringing Green Valley-like master planning to the city at long last. Aliante opened in 2003 and sold 1,000 homes in six months. These were tidy starter homes in a city that lacked them, built to house the people moving to North Las Vegas for the casino jobs, health-industry jobs, manufacturing jobs and green-energy jobs that would follow, all building on the synergy of the Aliante Station casino, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nellis Air Force Base and smaller businesses attracted by that inventory of still-undeveloped land.
By the middle of the decade there was talk of a second UNLV campus in northern North Las Vegas which, at 640 acres, would have been nearly twice the size of the original. The city had a new $29.5 million justice building downtown, and plans for a nine-story City Hall and water-treatment plant—combined price tag: $450 million—in the works. It was a petri dish in which explosive growth put planning theories to the test, and the rest of the country was watching, says Mike Montandon, North Las Vegas’ mayor from 1997 to 2009. “If I went back to a National League of Cities meeting or a mayors conference in Washington, D.C., within an hour I was basically holding court. I could say, ‘We did this or that six months ago, and here’s what happened.’”
All of the country, and all of Nevada especially, knows what took place next: the housing collapse, the recession, the shuttered businesses and foreclosed homes. But somehow North Las Vegas’ misery still feels uniquely local. Between 2007 and 2011, one in four homes was in foreclosure, the highest rate in the Valley. One North Las Vegas zip code, a section of the city bisected by Interstate 215, lost one home in three to foreclosure. The unemployment is 15.2 percent, 3 percent higher than the county and state figures. The city’s fiscal reserves fell low enough to trigger state intervention, and layoffs have led to deep cuts in service and touched off an acrimonious union battle.
Buck’s political career started in 1998, when she was appointed to the North Las Vegas Planning Commission. In 1999, she capitalized on an anti-incumbent mood and won one of two open seats on the City Council. In 2004, she ran against state Assemblyman Tom Collins for a seat on the Clark County Commission in an election that was her political baptism. Collins accused Buck of being in the pocket of casinos and developers; she responded by dredging up 12-year-old charges against him. “Tom Collins, as an adult, has broken the law through drunk driving and assaulting people numerous times,” her campaign material read.
Collins won the election, but Buck learned a valuable lesson. “I don’t know that I ever saw myself doing that, but I felt compelled to have to fight fire with fire,” she says. “And that is the ugly side of politics, to have to do those things. But if you don’t, you lose.”
She applied her new knowledge to her 2009 bid for mayor against fellow North Las Vegas Council member William Robinson; the election pitted two established factions of North Las Vegas politics against one another. Buck was the ambitious riser representing the Mormon power establishment that put her two predecessors in office. She sat on the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition and was the chair of both the Southern Nevada Water Authority Board and the North Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency. Robinson, who was elected to City Council in 1983 and was its longest-serving member, was the candidate of black North Las Vegas. When news broke that Robinson had been the subject of an undercover FBI investigation 15 years prior, in 1994, Buck quickly put out mailers with the headline “Councilman Robinson Caught on Tape by the FBI.”
The FBI had never charged Robinson, but such details hardly count during campaign season. Buck denied then, as she does now, having anything to do with digging up the information; but she was willing to use it. “I would say I am willing to let the voters know who I am and who my opponent is,” she recalls. “They need to have the opportunity to make a decision based on fact.”
The former stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher had learned to fight.
In 2007, when the economy began to nosedive, North Las Vegas did the same things as many other cities: nothing. There was a sense among city officials that this too would pass, says Brenda Fischer, the city’s former general services director. “A lot of people thought, ‘Vegas always rebounds. Let’s just hang tight.’”
That’s what North Las Vegas had done in the wake of 9/11, and it worked. “The dip after 9/11 was a true ‘V,’” Fischer says. The city bounced back so quickly that by the mid-2000s growth was close to 15 percent. As a result, North Las Vegas had fat fiscal reserves in the mid-2000s, more than 19 percent of the general fund at the height of the boom. (A rule of thumb is that city government should keep three months of operating expenditures in reserves, or about 15 to 18 percent. As a matter of policy, North Las Vegas kept reserves at a minimum of 18 percent of the general fund.)
But the 2007 recession, it soon became clear, would not unfold in the shape of a “V.” As 2008 and 2009 came and went with no recovery in sight, North Las Vegas emptied its piggy bank to pay the bills. In fiscal 2009, the City Council abandoned the 18 percent reserve benchmark, lowering it to 10 percent that year and then to 6 percent in fiscal 2010. North Las Vegas ended calendar year 2011 with 5.2 percent in reserve, squeaking by the 4 percent threshold at which the state can decide that things are dire enough to take over.
Even as reserve funds dried up, the city moved forward on two massive public-works projects that have become shorthand for lack of foresight: the new City Hall and a $321 million sewage plant, both of which were planned in 2005, and both of which broke ground in 2009, two years after the recession grabbed the city by the throat. Last year, city officials restructured North Las Vegas’ bond debt, essentially promising to pay more in the future for a break now so they could keep the city going. The lethal combination of increased debt and declining revenues led Fitch Ratings to drop the city’s bond rating twice in 2011.
The city has sliced its budget by $150 million since 2007, equal to almost 50 percent. Layoffs began in 2010. It used to take the city a day to replace burnt-out street lights; now it takes a week. It may take several weeks for crews to clean up graffiti, work that used to get done in 48 hours. Street-sweepers now hit an area monthly, rather than biweekly. Code enforcement is down to a handful of employees and only responds to complaints, instead of looking for infractions. When the city voted to close both of its recreation centers and lay off 21 employees in August, sign-waving seniors and tearful kids packed the Council chambers, pleading with them to find another way. Only a $2 million concession on pay and raises from the police union kept the centers open.
North Las Vegas once employed about 2,100 people; now the number is about 1,400, about 800 of whom are police and fire employees.
Even as other city services wither, police and fire unions have been spared deep cuts. That’s a policy-level decision, Buck says, the kind she was elected to make. “If my No. 1 goal is to attract business … then I have to make sure those businesses are coming into an area with low crime where they are going to feel comfortable that the employees they are bringing into our city purchasing those homes are going to be safe.”
But it’s more than that. In North Las Vegas, it’s understood that Buck supports the public-safety unions and they support her. The police union backed her initial bid for office in 1999, and she’s been a reliable vote in its favor ever since. In 2010, when the Council voted to eliminate more than 200 jobs to help balance the budget, Buck was the sole dissenting vote, holding out because the cuts included 16 firefighting jobs.
Public-safety unions in North Las Vegas brook no dissent. In July, when the city’s budget shortfall was serious enough for the Council to consider laying off 83 cops and 40 firefighters, the North Las Vegas Police Officers Association put up signs around the city “welcoming” criminals to friendly North Las Vegas. They warned citizens that they could no longer “guarantee” their safety, as if they ever could. Citizens were outraged by the signs; Buck said little.
And the unions let it be known that any City Council candidate foolish enough to even consider layoffs in their departments would know their wrath, vowing to spend up to $100,000 in opposition. First-term Councilman Richard Cherchio, seeking re-election last summer, found out they weren’t joking after he voted to lay off detention-center workers and asking the police union for concessions. He lost his seat by a single vote in an election that is still being contested in the courts.
“The fire and police unions work on the basis of public intimidation, fear and lies, and they have an endless cache of money,” Cherchio says.
As R-J columnist John L. Smith aptly put it back in 1997, “When it comes to politics, North Las Vegas is a lot like a dysfunctional Mayberry, R.F.D. Squint a little and you can see Aunt Bee skulking around destroying Otis’ yard signs and Barney lobbying Floyd to vote for the incumbent. Because everyone seems to know each other in the working-class neighborhoods, the campaigns tend to take on the atmosphere of a family feud.”
Although the city has grown like a weed since Smith wrote those words, its politics haven’t matured. Public office in North Las Vegas is still a nasty game of infighting among the few who care. (Turnout for elections here is pathetically low: 11 percent in the most recent municipal contest.) And it’s oddly ideology-free. It isn’t Republicans versus Democrats, or even libertarians against government; it’s an insular City Hall power structure versus a small-but-dedicated group of outsiders who don’t like City Hall.
If you had to put a face on the antis, it would probably belong to Bob Borgersen, a 73-year-old Aliante resident who looks a little like the actor Hal Holbrook. Borgersen is a Chicago native who moved to North Las Vegas after retiring 17 years ago, back when the city still had its best years ahead of it. He bought houses to rent out. Those, and the stock market, were supposed to see him through retirement. “Don’t come to me for financial advice,” he says today, laughing through the pain.
On a chilly January night, Borgersen and six others gathered in his living room to make their case. You’ve got to be fast to note their grievances, because they come rapid-fire, from dead landscaping and dirty bathrooms at the library to nepotism at City Hall to unions run amok. Buck, as you can imagine, takes center stage in most of their complaints. “We’ve just got an era of corruption all the way through,” Borgersen says.
Distill it all and you get something like this: This is a defining moment in the city’s history, and it calls for an ethical leader who can stand up to the special interests—particularly the police and fire unions—and make hard decisions about city staffing and the city budget. Buck is too beholden to unions, developers and her friends to be that person.
Her brush with the Nevada Commission on Ethics offers a handy recent example. Last fall the commission launched an investigation of her for not adequately disclosing her husband’s interest in the City Council election between Cherchio, the Ward 4 incumbent, and dentist Wade Wagner, a friend of Buck’s whom she openly supported. The commission also raised the question of whether Buck advocated to certify the results of Wagner’s one-vote victory prematurely, rather than holding another election.
In January, the commission ruled that she had acted on the advice of a city attorney regarding the disclosure issue—the “I only did what I was told” alibi. In late March, it ruled that while she had advocated to certify the results in Wagner’s favor, she hadn’t done it willfully and won’t be fined or punished. In the meantime, Wagner is on the City Council, and Cherchio is pressing forward with a lawsuit against the city for seating him.
Buck refers to the people gathered in Borgersen’s living room as “a certain group.” It’s not quite anger in her voice as she says it; more like acknowledgement that being the mayor means being the person to blame. It’s part of the job, but at times it’s just nasty. “We should have grown past those things,” she says. “You look in the smaller towns of Mesquite or Boulder City, that goes on there. That’s more expected in a smaller town.”
At the annual State of the City luncheon in January, Buck stood before a crowd of several hundred at the Texas Station casino. They dined on aquaculture shrimp raised in tanks by a company in North Las Vegas and watched a slick video designed to lure new business to the city, about a cowboy lost in the desert who stumbles into the wonders of North Las Vegas. Dressed in a black-and-white checkered suit, Buck looked the part of the leader of a city back on course. Her speech was light on policy, but heavy on optimism, healing and good news. “We are moving forward and planning our economic recovery, employing a long-term vision of fiscal conservancy and efficient use of our resources,” she said. “I have reached out to business and community leaders to form an advisory council to provide these additional resources.”
That group recently met for the first time, in a conference room on the ninth floor of the new North Las Vegas City Hall. After introductions, a PowerPoint on how the city gets shortchanged by the state’s revenue-distribution formula and a few comments about the city’s image problems, the business and community leaders who would save North Las Vegas adjourned in 90 minutes. They had voted on one action item: setting a date for the next meeting a month later.