December 8, 2023

In North Las Vegas, New City Hall Is a Reminder of Flush Days

It is not hard to spot the vacant strip malls; several were never occupied at all.

For more than a year, the city has teetered on the brink of insolvency. But last week, officials began moving into the gleaming new City Hall, a building that cost roughly $130 million to build. There are marble floors and granite tabletops, solar panels and scores of televisions, in addition to an outdoor concert plaza.

Officials have grand dreams about the grand first floor’s serving as a one-stop shop for people paying their taxes or getting permits for new homes and businesses. But nobody is quite certain when the lines will start to form. Ask the city manager, Timothy Hacker, if North Las Vegas has hit bottom yet and he answers cautiously: “We’re darn near close.”

As cities across the West grapple with huge numbers of foreclosures and dwindling populations, the North Las Vegas City Hall stands as an odd symbol of the shimmery golden past’s contrasting with the murky gray present.

This was once one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It was just two years ago when the Police Department would complain that it did not know of all the new streets (with sunny names like Pink Petticoat and Carefree Beauty). But now the city is perhaps among the most brutally pummeled places.

Nearly a third of all homes are in foreclosure. The houses that are occupied are worth less than half of what they were two years ago. But people here still focus on what it could have been and maybe, just maybe, what it could still be.

This year, the city was facing a $9 million deficit and the prospect that it might not be able to make payroll. State officials began murmuring that they could move to take over the municipality if it became fiscally insolvent. One official said that unless the city “hit the jackpot,” bankruptcy was imminent. This fall, the city reached a deal with unions to delay cost-of-living raises, averting a crisis for now.

But the future is still grim — the city’s bond rating was downgraded again last month, and officials acknowledge that they could be in the same precarious position next year, when the city faces a $15.5 million budget gap. They hope that a new veterans’ hospital and an outpost of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, will help the economy, but they know those additions will not provide the same kind of quick cash that property taxes once did.

“It will take us 20 years to get to where we were three years ago in terms of collecting tax revenue,” said Al Noyola, the city’s interim finance director. “We have to get to a point where we aren’t relying on housing to drive our engine.”

When North Las Vegas started to draw up plans for the new City Hall some five years ago, cash flow was no problem. The city was hiring more and more workers to deal with the population influx, and workers were jammed up against one another in several gray, squat, 1960s-era municipal buildings. At the time, the plan was to tear down the existing City Hall and build a new police station.

During the good times, the city created parks filled with features that would make even the wealthiest towns envious — a life-size stegosaurus in one, fully lighted tennis courts in another. It created recreation centers with top-of-the-line equipment and built new libraries in rapidly expanding corners of the community. And it drew up plans for City Hall, with a wellness center where bureaucrats could work out between their civic tasks.

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