Candidate profile: Austin Sass
October 5, 2012
Austin Sass, 60, has a background in sales and marketing. He most recently served as the director of sales and marketing for ARAMARK in Zephyr Cove. Prior to that he was the director of resort sales for Heavenly Mountain Resort. He has lived at the South Shore since 2002. He also lived in the city full time from 1975-1983. Sass serves on the South Lake Tahoe Planning Commission.
I’m running for City Council because I am passionate about South Lake Tahoe. And rather than sit around for the next 10 years and complain about the way the city is being run, I decided to do something about it and I believe I have the background to do it well. That’s why I’m doing it.
Priorities are economic growth, the built environment and leadership. On the leadership side, I think that it’s time that South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County and Douglas County start working together for a collective vision for the South Shore. I believe that the economy is one economy and I think we would be fooling ourselves to think anything else. I’m tired of the war between the two sides, between the two chambers. I think it’s time that we start working together. I would like the city and the two counties to get together and paint out a broad vision for the next 10 years for the South Shore and then I would like to bring in the business community and the environmental community and come up with a solid plan. Without a solid plan there is not going to be capital investment in the city. If you came along and decided that you wanted to purchase the Tahoe Tribune – you like the price, you like the neighborhood, you like everything about the area – the next question you would ask is, “What is my acquisition going to be worth down the line? What is going to happen here that is going to make this appreciate?” Nobody can answer that question right now. And so, until there is a plan put together about where we want to go as a community, I don’t know how you get anywhere. We’re just not going to get the investment. So, we need leadership. I also think that Nancy (Kerry), being a young city manager, could certainly use somebody who has leadership skills in a large organization and has put together large budgets and managed a large staff. I think me bringing some experience in those arenas would certainly help her. So, economic growth. We need a break from the course we’re currently taking, it’s not working. We need a fundamental change in how we look at it. Again, we need to frame the question about all of South Shore. Where are we going? So, some of the things that we need to do to get there –we need to approve the Regional Plan Update, OK? What they are offering up right now is better than anything we’ve had. And, if we keep waiting for everything to be in this RPU, than we’re not going to get anywhere. The second thing is improving the recreational experience through better facilities and better promotion and advertisement of what we currently have. Our hiking trails are probably the most underutilized asset we have in town. You can go 10 miles in any direction and you can find 10,000-foot peaks, alpine lakes, granite rock formations that will blow you away and some trees that will just tumble you by standing next to them. So, I think we need to work on that as well. And then the third thing is the built environment. We look like the 1970s, OK? We’re a throwback to the past. The built environment needs to be addressed. There’s over 2,000 (Tourist Accommodation Units) that are now being occupied by people that are living in them in a month-to-month basis. Those units were not designed for those type of living conditions. They were designed for overnight guests. We have people with microwaves. We have people with hot plates, with hair dryers, computers. Who knows what else is plugged in there? I think it is a recipe for disaster and one day there will be a fire. I would also like to see those TAUs taken down and replaced with low-income housing. I think if we look for the right grant money and private investment, we might be able to replace those housing units with something that would work better. And then we can take those TAUs that are out there and maybe use them for green space, and we certainly need more green space in town. If you go through some other mountain communities, there is a lot more. There is a central downtown in all of those areas, but then there is green space. So, I think that we have way too many malls in town that are 50 percent occupied. I’d like to see some of those consolidated. And the ones that are vacated replaced with open space so that we can have better connectivity and better places for people to spend their time.
I don’t think they’ve led the city. Collectively as a City Council I haven’t seen any leadership. Some individuals have stepped up and led on an individual basis, for example Claire Fortier with the RPU I think has taken a leadership position. Other than that, over the last four years I’m not sure what you can point to to say that the city has provided leadership. I really struggle to see what it is. We have no economic vision. We’re not talking to the other side. What are they leading on?
I agree with the five-year strategy. I think it’s time to start implementing some of it. What has been done? They came up with the five-year strategy. When I look at the City Council agendas from bi-week to bi-week, I see no discussion about this whatsoever. So, where’s the plan for economic growth? The budget is being passed and again we’re going to dip into the reserves. Where is it, you know? That’s where leadership comes in. Someone needs to step up and start delivering on this and stop talking about things like signs and marijuana ordinances and the endless discussion about the loop road.
Yes, I would think Lakeview Commons is a success.
I think that answering that question is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the pieces. Without an economic impact study, without an environmental impact study, without funding, how can I tell you what we’re going to end up with and whether the configuration is right or wrong? You know, part of any loop road is going to involve acquisition of properties. It’s going to involve mitigation of loss of business. Without a budget, how do I know if we can do those things? When you look down where Van Sickle park is, is there enough money for an underground tunnel? Is it an overpass? Is it a traffic light? I don’t know. I wouldn’t support a traffic light over there. That’s all tied to budget. The other piece of that is, if we go ahead and build a loop road and end up making Highway 50 three lanes, expanding the sidewalks out, have the retailers stepped forward and said that they are going to expand? Are we going to end up with big sidewalks and no capital investment? And I think that all goes back to a long range plan. I don’t think any of those businesses are prepared to invest seriously into Lake Tahoe without knowing where we’re going as an entire South Shore community. It just wouldn’t be good business.
No one has. There is no impact study. There’s no environmental impact study. There’s no economic impact study. But most importantly, and I’ve said it many times, if I came to you and said I wanted to buy your building, but I have no money and no ability to get a loan, how much time would you spend with me? The answer would be zero. So, we’re spending all of this time because (Tahoe Transportation District) threw a bomb into the community, didn’t anticipate how people would react to it and now we have a select group of people who are politicizing the whole issue for their own future political and financial gain. And they are disrupting the community as much as the TTD did. Show me an impact study. Show me the funding source and then we can have a serious conversation about what is the best thing to do. The environmental impact study may show it’s going to create more runoff, I don’t know. The economic impact study –if this doesn’t lead to more jobs, if this doesn’t lead to better connectivity, if it doesn’t lead to capital investment than I can’t imagine that an economic impact study is going to be favorable. On the other hand, if it says you get a downtown area, state-of-the-art to compete with the Whistler and the Vail and an Aspen so that people can stroll up and down, and the casinos are willing to blow the sidewalks out and the Village is willing to blow it out and Embassy is and everyone on the other side of the street, and now it’s a place where people are strolling from Ski Run all the way to downtown, well, all of a sudden we have something that rivals all of those places. Cause the one thing I know from my experience in the tourism industry is people like to stroll. They like to shop, and they like to search and dine around. And right now, we don’t have that. You can’t compete with those other world-class resorts. And I understand we’re never going to be a Vail and we’re never going to be an Aspen and we’re never going to be a Whistler, but we can become our own thing. And that starts with connectivity and the ability for people to stroll and to walk. That’s what they like to do, shop and eat out. And we don’t have enough diversity right now to do that. So, long story short on the loop road, I don’t think anybody has enough information at this point.
We need the economic impact. We’re a tourist town. People are moving out. College enrollment is dropping. The schools have closed. We need revenue. The solution to a lot of what ails Lake Tahoe is revenue. And unless you get the revenue, I don’t know how you go forward. I mean, the fire department has got 30-year-old fire trucks. The building was built in 1947. How do we make that better unless you bring in revenue? And taxing is not the solution, that’s not revenue. Revenue is more people. And so, if SnowGlobe can bring in 10,000, 20,000 people to fill up hotel rooms, that’s part of what a tourist town deals with, OK? There’s concerts in Vail. There’s concerts in Aspen. There’s traffic on weekends. We all deal with it, OK? It’s part of the game. We just need to do it in the right way. Last time they did it, they didn’t do it the right way. The sound issue was a big problem, the bass issue, the lack of communication to the community. My friends lived across the street and never knew about it until the music started up. And that’s poor planning on the part of the city.
Well, that’s where having good business acumen in negotiations with promoters – you start to look for things like dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. And somebody should have had a communication plan in place there. You can’t just turn on the music, scare someone out of bed and say that’s OK. Where was the contractual terms that said the music would turn off at a certain time or there would be a penalty assessed to them? Where was the clean-up fees? That whole field got trashed and they had to bring somebody in to clean it. That’s what good business acumen does. It looks at everything and anticipates all the things that could happen and you make sure that’s what’s in a contract. And then everybody is happy. And, in the end, the promoter tried to buy food for everybody over at Rockwater and tried to do the right thing. That all should have been set up upfront. And maybe the promoter could have provided a room, maybe at Inn by the Lake. It could have taken over that big room and said, “OK, everybody can have free dinner over here and hang out.” Maybe it was the ice skating rink, I’m not sure. But, you know, think about these things in advance.
I’m pretty familiar with the budget. I think the budget is a big issue. I don’t think they have the expertise to be doing the budget the way they’re doing it. On the revenue side, they’re forecasting revenues without talking to the lodging and the business community. The biggest indicator in town of future business is reservations. There’s something called MTRiPs. All the lodging properties have access to it. It tells you what the revenue is going to be and what the occupancy is going to be going forward. If you know your occupancy forecast than you can more accurately predict the sales tax because the sales tax is a variable based upon how many tourists are in town. And, so, the fact that the city budget office is not talking to the lodging community on a monthly basis and reviewing trends on occupancy is a big problem for me. So sales tax and the (Transient Occupancy Tax), two of the biggest funds for the city, are not being analyzed properly and regularly on a monthly basis. They need to have a better handle on the property tax and then they also need to get the TOT from vacation rental homes under control cause they’re leaving money on the table there. I firmly believe that. On the expense side, I sat down with the city, they are not on a monthly basis reviewing budgets with every single department head. And so, in my life experience, if you tell me as a department head you need $30,000 a month to run your department. Well five days after closing of the month, we look at your bottom line and you spent $24,000. So, my question to you is, “Where is the $6,000 going? Is it a timing issue or did you over overbudget what you needed?” Well, at that point we either take that money to the bottom line or it’s accrued. Second thing is, the city has dipped into the reserve fund to the tune of $5 million over the last five years. You can’t continue doing that. The other thing, which most people aren’t aware of is that, if you look at the budget, there were two one-time takes to the bottom line, one for $800,000, one for $500,000. They overaccrued the workers’ comp line. The actuarial told them they needed $300,000. How did they end up with $1.6 million? Who decided to take the $800,000 to the bottom line to make the budget look better? Who took the $500,000 to the bottom line to make it look better? In the corporate world that’s called a slush fund, OK? Why wasn’t that money taken to the bottom line that year? I think if somebody on the City Council were an active participant in the monthly budget reviews who had the background and the expertise, maybe we could help the city get a better handle on the budget. Now, going forward, the solution to everything is more revenues. If you don’t bring the revenues in, we’re going to keep going like this because, if you tap into the general fund to the tune of $1 million to $1.2 million a year, we’re getting to that 25 percent number. There’s only, I think, $2.2 million left above the 25 percent. So, something has to give. What are we going to cut? The fire department is down to the bare minimum. Planning department has one person. I mean, are we going down Ted Long’s path and prediction that we should be part of the county? It’s not sustainable so you better get your act together and you better get a plan for the future so that people can start buying off into investment here. Because otherwise, if I were on the board of directors of the company called South Lake Tahoe, I’d ask the question, “Where are you guys going to be in three years?” You know, “Where’s the new revenue source coming from? And if there is no new revenue source, well, your expenses are not sustainable.”
Well, I think you have to have a long-term plan first and foremost. Things that I think that can be done in addition to driving revenue from typical tourism: Of course we need to shift from gaming to the recreation-centric. The second thing is the community college. We need to make that into a destination college. And I think that Kindred Murillo has got plans with her board to try to do that. If we become a destination college people are coming from all over the world. With children in college, I know how much money gets spent there on lodging and on dinners when parents come to visit. So, that’s a win-win. We would also have to have special programs, like our fire program. So get the fire program and maybe you have a search and rescue program – a series of programs where people say, “Wow, that’s where you go to get your training.” So, I think that’s something that we can do. The other thing we can do is that, if they go down that path and build residential student housing with that, we can start to use that housing for sporting events. And, I think starting a sports and recreation commission with the sole purpose of figuring out how we can drive people to town and drive revenues would be very appropriate and I think that we need to do that. Right now we don’t have the facilities for a major tournament. You don’t have contiguous fields. You don’t have locker rooms. The college has some of that. And so, if we can get the college, if the college can figure our how to get the lodging in, then maybe there is a way to start doing that. The other thing is high altitude sports centers and research centers. And that might be another program that could come from the college. What better place to have an environmental research center than up here. And a curriculum that went down that path would accompany the research center. I would love to see some of the lands at the airport be used for some things like that. But, companies aren’t going to come here until they know where we’re going and that we have a grasp on what our future is. They’re just not going to do it.
Get a mediator. Get the parties into the same room. Start talking about what everybody’s goals are. Figure out how to consolidate. One of the biggest problems that we have is that the City Council voted twice on the hole in the ground. The first was to allow the project to go forward without securing financing. The second was allowing them to start construction without the consolidation of the parcels. And now you have all those different parcel owners out there, all with their own agendas, and if you don’t bring a mediator in and figure out how to get them on the same page I don’t know how you can effectively sell the whole project. So, that’s what I would do.
Yes. I think the city has a lot of fault for what happened. And the city still owns its street that runs down there. So, if a $25,000 investment was going to get this whole thing cleaned up, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring in a mediator. But, first, the city staff needs to sit down with the parties and start to determine what the issues are. And then you bring the mediator in, because they may not be open to a mediator. Who knows what their agendas are?
Well, you know, I think that I’ve got the professional experience. I’ve been in the corporate world for a long time. I’ve dealt with, as I said earlier, these budgets, these type of staffing issues, managing a large organization. There hasn’t been anyone on City Council with that type of background in a very, very long time, if ever at all. I think that while, not all five council members should be that way, having one is a great idea. Number two, we’re talking about recreation. And all the other candidates are talking about shifting to recreation. None of them recreate. Having somebody on here that skis, that hikes, that bikes, that golfs, that lives here because they enjoy the outdoors, it’s always better to have somebody that understands something than not understand something. And, if you’re not somebody that’s passionate about these things, I don’t believe you’re really looking at it the way that you should be looking at it. And I don’t know how you can really understand, you know, when Tom Wendell expresses his concerns about bike paths, if these guys don’t bike or they haven’t ridden a bike for 40 years, do they really get it? You know, it is like me trying to explain to you what it’s like to drive on England roads. And then, local experience. I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of our community. You know, both on volunteering my time and so I now understand through the planning commission what’s really involved in getting a project done. What’s it like to work with the TRPA? What’s it like to work with Lahontan? Through the school bond oversight committee I understand grants now. I understand funding. I understand budgeting. I understand construction. And then tourism. Of all the candidates who understands tourism better than I do? I mean, I’ve been in the ski industry. I’ve been in the traction industry. I’ve been in the lodging industry. I’ve been in the gaming industry. So I get it all. And I did it all at a management level, so I think I understand what makes tourists happy when they get here, what we need to do to get them here. And so, I think those are things that, when I look at the current field, I think we’re missing out. And we’re definitely missing the business acumen and the honesty. And the last thing is there has got to be good ethics up there. There really has to be. And this current council was cited by a grand jury for a lack of ethics. And they should have answer to that. We can’t afford to have people in elected office that are not going to be ethical in their behavior and make sure that there is no cronyism. It’s very important. As you know, there is too much apathy in town.