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Is Nevada Going
to Take a Beating?

Feds to Battered Tourists: C'mon Down!

by Ken Ward

hen a 48-year-old North Las Vegas man standing outside his home was hit in a drive-by shooting, he received $15,000 in medical compensation. When a 33-year-old bicyclist was robbed and beaten in western Las Vegas, he had his $3,000 in hospital expenses paid for. When a Sparks woman was strangled by her husband, the woman’s sister got $2,900 to cover funeral expenses and psychological counseling.

The payouts didn’t come from insurance companies, family members or charities. They came from a little-known state office called the Nevada Victims of Crime. Last year, the compensation program dished out $2.2 million. During the past decade, more than 6,000 victims of violent crimes have received nearly $18 million.

Social service agencies and support groups praise the program. "They’re great because you know you’re not alone," says Sandy Sharp, whose 15-year-old stepson was beaten to death in 1992. Sharp, who now heads the Las Vegas-based Families of Murder Victims, remains grateful for the financial assistance that paid for the funeral and family counseling.

"It saved our life," she declares.

Elynne Greene, victims’ advocate in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, lauds the state program’s compassion and diligence. "They’ll search out reports. They don’t blow people off. Their goal is to give money away," she says.

How VOC Works

The Victims of Crime program is another legacy of former Governor Bob Miller. Sponsored by Miller when he was  Clark County's district atorney, VOC became law in 1981 and joined similar programs across the country in compensating the victims of violent crimes.

Today, with some 15,000 violent crimes reported in nevada each year, VOC covers a host of victim and survivor expenses. They include costs for medical care, rehabilitation, counseling, replacement services, loss of support, funeral expenses and loss of wages. Funeral expenses are capped at $2,500 and lost wages are limited to $300 per week for a year. The maximum total benefit is $50,000.

Payoffs are made after allowances for worker's compensation, restitution and other collateral sources.

There also are a few areas that aren't covered. Losses sustained from property crime and non-economic detriments such as pain and suffering are excluded. Claimants who are found to be offenders, co-conspirators or accomplices are rejected. No payments are made for lost or stolen money.

To qualify for benefits, the crime must have occured in Nevada and must be reported to law enforcement within five days. Claims have to be filed within one year of a crime-related injuiry or death.Minors victimized by sexual abuse or involved in the production of pornography have until age 21 to file a claim. Victims also must cooperate with law enforcement and must establish financial need.

Historically, half of the claims result from assault and another 20 percent are rape cases. recently, VOC added victims of drunken driving to its eligibility list.

VOC has three compensation officers in Las Vegas and one in Reno (who covers all counties outside of Clark, Nye, Lincoln and Esmeralda). The statewide coordinator is bryan Nix, an attorney and councilman in Boulder City.

Barbara Shell, who directs the witness management division for the Clark Clounty DA's office, said a staff reorganization in the Las Vegas VOC office has substantially reduced claims processing times. "It used to be three month, now it's weeks," she said. "It seems to be getting better over time."

Bracing for an expected onslaught of tourist claims, it's safe to say that the improvement will need to be ongoing.

--KW

Indeed, Victims of Crime (VOC) is on the verge of a major expansion. This year, the program will open its doors to non-Nevadans who are the victims of violent crimes in this state. In making the move, Nevada becomes eligible for nearly $800,000 in federal funds, pushing the agency’s annual revenue to about $3.1 million.

That may sound good. But, as always, there are strings attached to this mini-windfall.

Heretofore, Nevada was the only state that didn’t compensate out-of-state residents. Now, playing by the federal government’s rules, Nevada is assured of receiving a 40 percent spiff, based on the prior year’s disbursements.

Yet that could be a dicey deal for Nevada, where tourists outnumber citizens by a 10-to-1 ratio. While the 40 percent formula is like found money for visitor-poor backwaters like North Dakota or Alabama, that figure could be woefully inadequate in this land of 40 million fanny packers.

If tourists are victimized at proportionately the same rate as Nevada residents, VOC will find its annual case load jumping from a tidy 1,800 to a whopping 25,800.

"There’s legitimate concern about the impact of tourists," says Dan Eddy, executive director of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. "Only time will tell."

Meantime, there are other potentially troublesome trends. The program spent 93 percent of its revenues last year. This further drew down its reserves, and puts VOC in a precarious position as it opens the floodgates to out-of-state claims.

What’s more, Nevada has one of the most generous compensation packages of any state. Its $50,000 per-case payment limit is more than double the national average. And it allows higher-than-usual amounts for crime-scene clean-up and counseling. Even the period for reporting a crime is more liberal. "Nevada allows five days, compared to 72 hours in most states," says Eddy.

Thus far, Nevada’s VOC has dodged the fiscal bullet. Revenues are still running slightly ahead of expenditures. So the state isn’t pro-rating benefits—yet.

Run by the state Department of Administration, the program is fed by a variety of administrative charges. Court assessments and filing fees account for more than half its revenues. Fines, forfeitures and wage garnishments of criminals round out the income pie.

That funding base, which includes no tax money from the state’s general fund, is the beauty of the program, says Adriene Angelini, a victims’ advocate for the Reno Police Department. As a taxpayer, she appreciates that criminals shoulder a share of the compensation fund’s financial load. "I hate the fact that my tax money goes to pay to keep my dad’s killer alive at Ely," she adds.

Some states, such as Maryland, have experienced shortfalls when general tax revenue is used for victim compensation. California also came up empty in the early 1990s during a big jump in juvenile sexual assault and psychological counseling cases. The state Legislature had to appropriate additional funds to bail out its program.

Tracy Raxter, chief financial officer for Nevada’s Department of Administration, says that VOC’s administrative costs of $497,000 projected for this year are "quite low" in percentage terms. Still, that gobbles up 14 percent of its revenue—and the office hasn’t been audited for eight years.

If Nevada’s VOC gets squeezed, administrators say they have no intention of trying to tap into the general fund, which is pretty well tapped out anyway. More likely, they would seek a boost in the various fees and assessments. Without even asking, court assessment income is expected to rise 8 percent over the next biennium. If funding from the seven other funding sources doesn’t keep up, the agency could begin to scale back its payouts.

To stanch medical costs, officials retained Cost Containment Strategies Inc. to review medical bills. The private contractor has reportedly saved VOC $4 million since 1995. Back in 1993, fee caps were imposed on some counseling and psychological benefits. Only verifiable charges not covered by insurance or other programs are allowed. Applicants’ conduct also must not have contributed to their circumstances (i.e., gang members need not apply).

There are indications that the program may be tightening up in other ways. While VOC officials tout their outreach efforts, the agency’s own statistics tell a less bullish story. Since 1993, the number of claims received by the office has remained virtually flat. Last year’s 1,796 claims for compensation were only up 6 percent from six years ago—lagging far behind the increases in population and crime.

Emory Crews, whose son was murdered in Carson City in 1994, notes that he was never told about VOC, though it had been enacted back in 1981. Even victims’ advocate Angelini, who directs the Reno volunteer support group VICTORY (Victims in Crisis, Turmoil or Recovery) admits that she’s not exactly familiar with the state program’s eligibility criteria. "They do a good job, from what I understand," she says, with the unstated acknowledgment that there appear to be gaps in the information and referral network.

So is VOC another Nevada paper tiger? Or a fiscal disaster waiting to happen? It could be both.

Eddy says it’s not unusual that only about one in 10 violent crimes results in a claim. He also says Nevada’s approval rate (40 percent of claims are typically OK’d) and average disbursement ($2,800) roughly mirror the national numbers.

Furthermore, Eddy is confident that the federal dollars will keep flowing. "[The grants] are truly bipartisan. [Sens. Edward] Kennedy and [Strom] Thurmond were the sponsors when it passed in 1984," he says. The fund, which has been running about $400 million a year, "has never been touched [for other purposes]," he adds.

But he’s not betting the mortgage that Uncle Sam’s largesse will be enough to meet Nevada’s needs as its claim pool swells with tourists. And if funding comes up short, one thing is certain: Nevadans will have to get in line with everyone else because the federal law mandates that out-of-state residents be treated the same as the home folks. NJ

Ken Ward, a Nevada Journal contributor, is a freelance writer. He can be reached at kenricward@juno.com.


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