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Tourist town seeks independence in Nevada

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File-This April 15, 2011 file photo, shows high-rise hotels at Laughlin, Nev. The tiny town on the Arizona/Nevada border known as the RV capital of the nation is having a vote to incorporate next month.

File-This April 15, 2011 file photo, shows high-rise hotels at Laughlin, Nev. The tiny town on the Arizona/Nevada border known as the RV capital of the nation is having a vote to incorporate next month.

The Las Vegas Review-Jounral, Jeff Scheid) LAS VEGAS SUN OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES, Associated Press

LAUGHLIN, Nev. — Something strange is happening in this remote tourist haven. In notoriously anti-government Nevada, residents in Laughlin are clamoring for more bureaucracy.

The battle to incorporate this popular oasis for recreation vehicles, low-budget gamblers and desert-weary Nevadans looking to spend a day splashing in the nearby Colorado River is an interesting case study in how Westerners view government

Laughlin is roughly a two-hour drive through empty desert from downtown Las Vegas, where Clark County Government Center is located. The town of 7,000 residents rises out of nowhere and features a picturesque waterfront, stucco homes and towering casinos that attract 2.3 million tourists each year.

Like many in the West, Nevadans tend to lean libertarian and prefer small government. Much of the state is unincorporated and many Nevadans live far from government centers. The last city to incorporate in southern Nevada was Mesquite in 1984.

State revenue officials warn that an incorporated Laughlin wouldn't be able to earn sufficient revenue to pay its bills and could face a $4.3 million deficit its first year. Rampant foreclosures, unemployment and bankruptcies have seen property taxes decline across Nevada in recent years.

Pro-incorporation residents counter they shouldn't be ruled by urbanites in Las Vegas who prefer to devote tax dollars to the Las Vegas Strip. They are fed up with having to drive 100 miles to obtain building permits and get an audience with their elected officials. They want their own mayor, city council and independent police, fire and parks departments.

That the solution to their government problem is more government isn't lost on some residents.

Terrence Yurick, 66, a Laughlin retiree who is running for mayor of the proposed city, said he wants elected officials he can directly influence.

"The county is too far away," he said. "Trying to manage a town that is 100 miles away, it doesn't work."

If the community incorporates and then fails, Laughlin can't go crawling back to Clark County. Under Nevada law, the state would likely take it over and raise property taxes to balance its budget.

Cornelius Duvalle Brewer, a retired train worker who has lived in Laughlin for 27 years, is worried incorporation will require higher property taxes, pricing him and other residents out of town.

"If you incorporate too early you are going to lose all the things that make this town great and that's security, the low taxes that you have here and the amenities that Clark County gives us," he said. "There is no way, the few people who live in this town, we can afford all of that."

Laughlin grew by just 247 residents in the last decade, according to U.S. Census data. Pro-incorporation residents claim the city would grow faster if it weren't stifled by the county's rules and inefficiencies. They point to growth in Bullhead City, across the river in Arizona, which added 6,000 people during the same decade.

Laughlin residents pay the second highest property taxes in Clark County. Of that money, $8.8 million goes toward police services, a price many Laughlin residents say is too high.

Hair salon owner Cheryl Crow moved from Las Vegas to Laughlin 24 years ago to raise her children in a community where everyone knows their neighbors.

Living far from urban life has its consequences, she said. Clark County once threatened to take away Laughlin's school buses and has done little to improve sidewalk access across the town.

"We have been the ugly stepchild for so long," said Crow, 64. "You can't get anything done with Clark County. It's a nightmare."

Crow, president of a local Republican women's group, said she doesn't support unnecessary government, but she also doesn't want her elected officials to live so far away.

"We are very, very concerned about our quality of life," she said.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who represents Laughlin from Las Vegas, conceded that he doesn't have an office in the town, forcing his constituents to drive two hours to see him.

"Yeah, it's a long drive, but people choose to live in Laughlin because they like the remoteness of it," he said.

Sisolak said Laughlin residents won't find city life any cheaper.

"When you are a city, you have to shoulder all of your own costs," he said. "The housing market is very depressed down there. It's a small tax base."

The Laughlin incorporation vote will take place June 12. If it fails, Laughlin's nearly 2,700 voters will continue to pay property taxes to a faraway government. If it passes, a newly elected mayor and city council would have a year to open their city hall with the state's blessing. The Nevada Legislature has the authority to repeal the city charter or delay the incorporation if it determines Laughlin isn't financially solvent.

The city won't be able to benefit from the casino's property taxes, the area's main source of revenue. State lawmakers voted to exclude Laughlin's casino strip from the proposed city. Under this arrangement, the incorporation would divide Laughlin, with Clark County police, fire and other departments continuing to provide services to the Strip, while areas a block away would fall under the new jurisdiction. If that's not confusing enough, individual casino owners would be able to opt into the city, creating an undecipherable maze of county versus city property.

In all, Laughlin has the potential to earn $6.8 million each year in taxes, permits and fines without the casinos, according to county officials. But the state Department of Taxation estimated Laughlin would have to spend twice that each year to operate its own animal control, planning, police, fire, parks and public works departments.

"The lack of revenue leads to deficit spending from day one," a state fiscal report concluded.