Candidate profile: Hal Cole
October 5, 2012
Hal Cole, 63, is a general building contractor who has lived at the South Shore since 1959. He has been elected to the council on four previous occasions, serving from 1994-1998, 1998-2002, 2002-2006 and 2008-2012.
I really love this community and I really feel that my experience and institutional knowledge can be a great benefit. There’s been a lot of turnover in the city. There’s new people –city managers, finance directors – all the way down the line. We’ve had a great turnover here. So, I think the council should have a good balance of new faces willing to try new things and some experienced people to say, “We’ve tried that before and here’s been the pitfalls.” I think it’s good balance. I don’t think you’d want five council members that have been here for three or four terms or five council members that this is their first term.
Well, my biggest priority for this city is for us to truly become a world-class destination resort. And that requires a lot of things. It requires rebuilding an infrastructure. We’ve started with Lakeview Commons and our paving program and Bonanza Park. We’ve been doing that, but the real way you’re going to get our infrastructure rebuilt is encourage private development. And this RPU, the Regional Plan Update that the TRPA has done, is a start. It’s not the panacea. We still have some hurdles. If we want to do anything that’s not allowed in the code – and pretty much the code is the same as it used to be –we have to go to the Governing Board and ask for permission. Let’s say at the “Y” we want to take motels that are up and down the strip like the Trout Creek Motel and we want to take that and development and take it out of that area and move it to the “Y”. The only thing that we can do with existing development – like these old motels which I think are our biggest problem – is either make another motel or an apartment building, some kind of residential use. They still don’t allow us to take existing development and – if it’s commercial floor area we need at the “Y,” let’s say we wanted to get a bigger retailer in here – we can’t use those motels for anything other than residential uses. Since I’ve been on this council that’s still the biggest problem and I think a lot of the environmental community is afraid that we’re going to have too much commercial. But I’d rather have the market decide rather than some bureaucrats decide.
Only if the Governing Board, when we bring our town centers there for their approval, we still have to ask for their blessing to do these things. And the voting structure hasn’t changed and I don’t know if the mindset has changed. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the tired old blighted community. And it’s not only blighted and damaging to our economy, it’s also damage to the environment. When we did that gondola village, it was almost 100 percent paved –Lake Tahoe Inn and the golf course and all those things. Now, all the runoff in there is going in culverts and going into detention basins, so I think encouraging new development is better for both. And that’s what I want to see, I want to see our town revitalized. That takes money. And it’s not going to be public money, it’s going to be private money.
I think it’s been good. I think it was a tough first two years because what we had to do is –as the consequences of the downturn and California being completely broke, and not even broke, but in debt, and the amount and the sources of our revenue started decreasing or being eliminated –we had no choice. There’s no magic switch we can turn on in the city that increases our revenues, other than raising taxes and that’s nothing we’re going to do. And there’s very few taxes we have control over. We had to do some big cutting. In the past five years, we’ve cut our workforce by 30 percent. And in a small little town, that’s a lot. So, we were able to accomplish that over the last four years and have minimal – obviously have some impact – but minimal impact to the delivery of services, police and fire and snow removal. Given the fact that we didn’t have enough money to do it, we’ve been able to do it. In 2002 I was on the council and we had no reserve. Can you imagine a family having no savings account or a city having no reserve? So, I was a part of the move to start – instead of reinvesting that money, which would have been what a lot of people wanted to do, just spend it and reinvest it – I felt that we needed to have some savings too. And so we were able to, by 2005, have close to $14 million in reserves from zero. And that’s allowed us between 2005 and now to absorb these cuts and to keep investing in our infrastructure. We still have about $10 million or $11 million in reserve right now, which is at least 25 percent of our operating budget, so I think, given the fact that other cities who weren’t prepared for such a crisis are declaring bankruptcy and some of them have actually eliminated police services and relied on the county services, we’ve done pretty well as far as our budget. I mean, councils are always criticized because there’s always controversial issues and you’re always having to vote one side or the other and people are never in agreement with you, but I’d say this is one of the better councils I’ve ever worked on.
No, I don’t want to go down below 25 percent. And what we use reserves for is important. If going below 25 percent had some huge impact on the city and it was a one time thing I could consider it, or if it was a huge crisis – if all of a sudden the state declared bankruptcy, we’ve got no money coming in or we had another road closure or something. I want to make sure we still have police and fire delivering our services, so that’s what it’s for. Harrison Avenue is a little different issue. Maybe we’ll do it, but the first time I really realized that in addition to giving the $1.5 million to the project that we borrowed –and the whole city is paying, every taxpayer is paying that back – that we were going to take $1 million and fund the assessment district. And that’s not usually done. Assessment districts are usually funded by borrowing from the bond market and they pay it back through taxes. And I just, number one, maybe I can agree with that, maybe I can’t. But to be given at City Council, “Oh, by the way this assessment district is not going to be a standard assessment district, the city will finance it and we’ll get paid back.” I mean a lot of businesses in this town would like to go somewhere and borrow money at 4 percent over 20 years or 30 years. Our reserves – we could burn all that just doing those kind of projects. And so, I’m worried about the precedent and I’m also worried about giving up any more reserves because I’m committed to that 25 percent, to have 25 percent in reserve for emergencies. I don’t know how that is going to wash out, but I just felt that the property owners – and I’ve been supporting Harrison Avenue since I was on the Planning Commission –that they were kind of led down a road without actually having check-ins. They should have checked in with the city: “Well, would the city be willing to fund the assessment district or do we still want to go out?” I still think we can borrow the money at a similar interest rate and not have to use our reserves. That’s what I’m moving for, but, unfortunately we have a month to do it. This should have been done six months ago. And the public doesn’t seem to think that’s a big deal. To me it is a big deal to set a precedent like that – to use your reserve as a bank to loan to businesses or whoever, great causes, there are a lot of causes out there – but our reserve is really important for emergencies. We could burn up $10 million in no time loaning it out and funding things and we’d get money back in piecemeal. We’d get it back eventually, but it would mean our city would be crippled if something dramatic happened.
Well, the five-year strategy has been modified a couple times. The original five-year strategy was to borrow $20 million, five million at a pop. And we did do the $4 million we just did, but I don’t think that strategy is going to work. I don’t want to borrow any more money unless we borrow for Harrison Avenue to pay them back. But, I think that was a good idea, but I don’t think it’s financially practical right now. I don’t want to indebt the city any more. But other than that, the way we’ve reorganized, and now our new city manager has reorganized a little bit better. She had parks and rec and public works in the same department so she is separating those away. I think the reorganization is fine. And our five-year plan, the biggest thing I want to see out of our five-year plan is getting a recreation master plan. I wanted to do that two years ago. What I don’t like is all the recreation entities, be they Heavenly Valley or Ski-Doos and Sea-Doos and our rec department and our ice rink, seem to be marketing in a vacuum. They are marketing by themselves. I always thought we should have packages – youth groups and youth camps and the families coming up and maybe the kids want to go ice skating and the parents want to go hiking or mountain biking – set up where they can come and do a multitude of recreational opportunities. And then it will probably allow us, we have to do something with our rec center. It’s an old tired building and it’s right in the center of town right next to our ice rink. If we do the 56-Acre Project that’ll be the center of things. We need the highest and best use of that rec center and then see if we can’t get money, whether it’s U.S. Ski Team having a training center – I’ve heard all kinds of things talked about bringing into town, all of them great ideas – but if we had a master plan that was both Nevada side and the California side, private sector and the public sector, we could market South Lake Tahoe. Recreation is our future, it’s not gambling, it’s not a lot of other things, but it is recreation. We have one of the best recreational opportunities in the country.
Well, that’s what the master plan would help us with –is there private money available to do something there? Is there some outside?. Like the U.S. Ski Team, they invested big money in Vail. I just wonder if there isn’t some opportunities there. I think until we identify the funding sources and identify the willingness of the private sector to do something, then we can decide, is the rec center just going to be totally another city project and we’ll just fix it up and it will still be vacant rooms for playing basketball and for lifting weights and stuff or is it going to be something a little more upscale and a little more modern and appealing to tourists as well as locals?
The way it’s currently envisioned I didn’t like it, I couldn’t support it. To me, if we’re going to spend, with private sector and federal money, close to $60 million and revitalize our stateline Highway 50 and circulation around there, it better be the right mix. What I didn’t like about the other one is we’re going to revitalize our commercial core and we’re going to eliminate about a dozen businesses that have been here for 20, 30 years and been fightin’ the fight under bad economic times. Now, we’re going to put in a whole new commercial core and a lot of local businesses, they’re going to have to relocate. If this is truly a commercial revitalization, let’s include all of our businesses who are there already. And it’s a very small change to take that diversion and go through the two vacant lots we have. The city owns those two next to the Super 8 Motel and the 7-Eleven. We take it through there. So, right away your commercial acquisition costs are way down. And, it’s almost the same route going through the neighborhood. If we’re going to go on the mountain side with the diversion that’s the one I want to do. Then, all the businesses from 7-Eleven all the way down to Holiday Inn Express can stay there and make their property bigger. And Holiday Inn Express really got the short end of that deal. They were going to put the intersection right there so traffic that wants to go down Highway 50 and go to our commercial core, they can’t even get into the Holiday Inn Express because it’s right at the intersection. They’d have to go around the block and come in the back. And they put a ton of money in that thing, so I thought that was wrong.
Well, from their perspective it was all public and open and from my perspective, and I’m involved in politics, a lot of the stuff that was going on I heard second and third hand. Not even the press was there covering a lot of that stuff. And they said “Oh, it was a public process.” I said, “Just because you have a public meeting, but it’s not really advertised and your agendas are not really clear and the actions you take are not being reported that isn’t really public.” If we have one good public forum in this community, it’s our City Council meetings. They’re on television. You guys cover it. So, if we’re going to do something as dramatic as that it needs to be more public. There should have been some check-ins with the City Council: “Here’s what we’re doing.” If they did that two to three years ago and did it on an annual basis the public would have had a lot more buy-in. And if the city had problems with taking out existing businesses we would have addressed it then. But it’s not too late, and it seems like I’m not getting a whole lot of feedback from that proposal I made about moving it a little bit. It seems like the TTD’s OK, the rest of the commercial corridor from Heavenly Village to Crescent V and Holiday Inn Express and the motels and the existing businesses at that triangle, I’m getting a lot of support for it. There are still some people that don’t want us to do it at all. And I hear some people say, “Well, if you’re going to spend $60 million, spend it at the ‘Y’.”That’s not the choice. There is money available for that project and it’s TIGER money and the casinos and Edgewood and Caltrans. There’s a lot of money available if we do that. It isn’t take this or that. It’s either this or don’t do it at all. I want to see our infrastructure improved, so anything I can do that will help our infrastructure and the visitors that come up here feel like they’re spending their money and getting their money’s worth. We are a tourist community, let’s face it. Hopefully we’re eco-tourists and recreation-oriented tourists now. I think that’s a better demographic to be bringing to town, frankly, then when I was a kid and they used to have the Greyhound buses coming up and they’d give everybody five dollars worth of nickels to gamble and they’d stay in little casinos and get in the bus and go home. What did that do for us? We’ve come a long way since then.
What I think the focus is on – and we’re doing that with Amgen, and we just had the K-9 trials – we need to focus on smaller events that are maybe one weekend at a time, but lots of them. The big, major events are nice, but they are a lot of money to produce and they have big impacts on our town via traffic and stuff. I think this all or nothing, kind of, where the tourist economy is going isn’t too good. The more small events we can get here, that maybe bring two or three hundred people at a time and you can get two or three going in the same weekend, those are a lot easier to attract and a lot easier to handle. SnowGlobe was pretty big last time. I mean, I’m still not certain that that’s the right venue. I think MontBleu would be a much better venue for that, for their demographic, for the kind of people – they have DJ events there, and the kind of music they have – and clientele they are attracting. I just don’t think putting it out on our soccer field is the right thing. We’re going to do it one more time and make the changes as far as the sound levels and the directions and give it a try. I mean, it did bring a lot of people to town. I’m still unsure the financial impact to our local businesses, whatever it was. I’m all for the events we have, I just want to make sure the impact of each one is mitigated somehow.
We had a $5 million deficit in 2005. And we’re going to spend about ($500,000 to $700,000) this next year, and then the year after that I expect it to be zero unless everything goes to hell. That’s why the reserve is so important to me. I take this macro look at things and I’m really worried about the U.S. economy, let alone the state and our little city here. If we keep these huge deficits, our U.S. dollar is just going to diminish in value on the world market. And that’s going to trickle down everywhere. I think we’ve come a long way to balancing the budget and our city, like I said earlier, there’s not a magic bullet that we can increase our revenues. We increase our revenues by doing what we’re doing, with Lakeview Commons, trying to make our infrastructure such that when people come here they say, “You know what, you ought to go to Tahoe, it’s new and its got a lot of things going on,” because bad news travels fast. Someone shouldn’t come to Tahoe and spend $1,000 a weekend for their family and go home and say, “Well, that was a waste of money, that place is tired.” We want to make sure that the visitors experience is good and then the local businesses and our community pride will also be increased.
A small amount, because I’d have to balance it. This austerity versus delivering services is a tough tightrope to walk. If we had to take a few hundred thousand dollars out of (the 2013-2014) budget and it meant that we would keep our police and fire force intact. I keep saying this, but I don’t know where else, what other positions we can layoff or how else we can do anything. We looked at consolidating the fire department. I’m really not in favor of having the police taken over by El Dorado County. I was up here when we incorporated our city and we incorporated because all of our decisions were being made in Placerville and we had one vote. And the west slope was really concerned about the west slope. They put a ton of money down there, Cameron Park up and we’re kind of the afterthought here. So, I really don’t want to see too much of our decisions being sent to Placerville. I want our decisions local. People complain now with five local-elected officials. Imagine if you only had one vote out of five for the whole city. I don’t want to go that direction.
Nothing major. I do think this is big. One thing I didn’t mention is we’re fighting the (Total Maximum Daily Load) battle with (Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board) and it’s a worthy cause, but it’s inorganic particles that are suspended in the lake, microns, and they effect lake clarity. But I think the biggest thing affecting our lake, for both our tourists and our locals, is the near shore – the amount of algae and millfoil and aquatic invasive species here. When I was a kid, there was not a Tahoe Keys, all the way down the South Shore that lake was so clear and so sandy, and now you walk out there – I just don’t even like to go any more – you sink in this sludge now. We need to clear our near shore. If we’re going to put all this money, whether its state funding, and be mandated by the Lahontan and TRPA, we should be focusing all that energy on our near shore. I mean it’s nice if you’re out on a boat and you can see 100 feet rather than 60 feet, but it’s much more damaging to everybody to have your kids playing in the lake and come out with junk all over them. To me that’s the biggest thing we need to do.
The most dramatic thing the city could do is to the private ownership there, there’s 29 parcels and probably 10 or 11 people controlling the whole thing. If that thing doesn’t get either abated or developed we could say it’s a health and safety issue and do an abatement process. I mean, that would be huge, but that’s the one thing. I do believe that, unless the U.S. economy really tanks – we’ve bottomed out, real estate prices are stabilized, I see the inventory in the real estate market is starting to decrease, our sales tax is up, our TOT is up – if we’re truly bottomed out and we’re starting a long, slow recovery, those people with all that money invested are not going to sit on that forever, they’re going to have to do something. The market will correct it eventually, but in the meantime it can’t go on any further. If we do implement the Tahoe vision plan and the loop road and Highway 50 becomes two lanes with a lot more sidewalk and a lot more pedestrian-oriented, we have to do something. And it seems, first of all, the people that own that see what’s happening, they’re going to want to do something because all of a sudden their property is worth a ton of money or the city is going to have to do something.
Not much. We’ve tried to facilitate. There’s been some serious investors coming to buy that, but they have to deal with a dozen different owners. They can’t come and say, “How much is the project?” Well, you have to buy individual parcels to find out. The lots were never consolidated when they allowed them to put in the foundation. That’s crazy. I can’t build a house on two or three different lots. I have to consolidate my property. I don’t understand how that happened. I’ve been looking over the minutes of the meeting and it seems it was mentioned, it was mentioned that, “Oh, we’ll do that next, we’ll do that right away.” But it’s this typical thing where we’re in a hurry, we need to do that now. That’s one reason I came back on the council. I was just shocked at that. That didn’t have to happen.