Months after the Legislature gutted a proposal from the City of Las Vegas to increase a sewer surcharge and property tax to fund homeless services, the council voted Wednesday to increase residential garbage service bills by 5 percent, with an eye toward spending the money on homeless sweeps and encampment removals.
Though the estimated $3.3 million generated in the first year can be used for a variety of citywide cleaning and safety projects, the council telegraphed the focus could be on removing debris and trash left behind by those living on the streets.
“We do deal with day-to-day encampment issues and tons of remains after the encampments are moved,” said city Councilwoman Olivia Diaz. “The city is in dire need of a source of revenue to ensure that when we hear from neighbors that we can expedite resolution to those complaints.”
The council voted 6-1 vote to implement the increase with Councilman Stavros Anthony opposed.
“There is no doubt there is a problem out there and we need to clean these places up,” Anthony said. “We need to do some outreach to residents to let them know we’re interested in raising their trash bills by three or four bucks and what we’re going to spend it on. If we do public outreach and everyone says great, I’m willing to pay a couple of extra bucks.”
The city’s 2017 contract with Republic Services to implement single-stream recycling gave the city the option to increase customers’ trash bills through an “environmental surcharge fee.” The money goes toward environmental programs or projects that benefit the public health or safety
The increase equates to an extra $2.28 per quarterly billing cycle or $9.12 annually, and will be implemented Oct. 1. Though the first year is expected to generate $3.3 million, the next fiscal year will garner $4.4 million.
The revenue is to be placed in a special fund and could be used for projects such as improving storm drain infrastructure or park cleanups. City officials noted that citywide there has been a drastic increase in trash and debris. Five years ago, the city picked up 600 tons of trash but last year it collected 3,000 tons, which cost the city an additional $250,000.
While the increased trash creates fire hazards and storm drain blockages, council members also said trash from encampments is also a health concern.
“It is a public safety hazard,” said Councilman Cedric Crear. “We haven’t had a major outbreak of hepatitis like other cities have because we are trying to keep up. If we do not keep up, we will have outbreaks.”
In June, the Southern Nevada Health District declared an acute hepatitis A outbreak in Clark County after 37 reported cases in the first five months of the year, up from 17 cases for all of the previous year. The district noted that of all the cases, the majority — 65 percent — were from people experiencing homelessness.
Despite Clark County recently reporting a 13 percent decrease in those experiencing homelessness according to the annual Southern Nevada Homeless Census, there is still an estimated 5,000 homeless people with more than 60 percent unsheltered.
In order to bring in extra revenue for homeless services, city officials looked at increasing a sewer surcharge, which is currently about an estimated $255 per household with a pool each year, by about 8.6 percent — roughly $22 — to generate an estimated $5 million. The city also proposed raising the real property transfer tax by 25 cents — it is currently $2.55 per $500 of property value. Officials estimated that would garner an additional $15 million.
However, Assembly Bill 73, the legislation that asked for permission for the increase, was gutted mid-session and turned into a bill that requires the county and governing bodies within the county to form a working group to determine a regional strategy to tackle homelessness.
The group has until Oct. 2020 to report on those potential solutions and come up with possible revenue streams to help implement them.
Even though each municipality is required to work on a regional plan, they are also pursuing separate responses to address immediate needs. In January, the County decided to allocate $12 million from marijuana license fees to go toward homeless services.
City officials have also been looking for alternative sources of funding for homeless services.
While supporting the garbage service bill increase, Councilman Brian Knudsen said the city needs to look at a long-term strategy.
“This is a temporary solution to cleaning up some really hard issues within our community,” he said. “My hope is that the city spends time looking at the systemic issues and challenges that plague our community that result in homelessness.”
As homeless advocates note time and time again, increasing the number of affordable housing units in Southern Nevada would help reduce homelessness.
Earlier in the agenda, the council approved about $200,000 from the general fund to go toward two organizations that work with housing homeless individuals — Veterans Village was allocated $101,000 while the Women’s Development Center was given about $125,000.
Altogether, the money will add 25 rental transitional housing units.