GUEST COLUMN: Does South Lake Tahoe really need a city?
Our well intended civic leaders have done it again, another mess that could have been avoided by asking the right questions. On Aug. 11, the city council approved a lease of the ice rink to Tahoe Sports and Entertainment, a private company. Like most decisions it seemed like a good idea at the time.
This decision was another reaction to make budget cuts. The ice rink costs money to operate, so the thought was to get a private operator who might make a profit and pay the city a rental fee. Seems simple on the surface. However, what is the role of the city? I thought it was to provide public services that best can be provided by the whole rather then individuals. You know, police fire, parks and recreation. After all we do pay taxes for services, don’t we?
This is just another reaction by current government officials.
What questions should have been asked before the ice rink was leased? The first and perhaps the most obvious is, “Can we do it?” The ice rink was build with measure “S” funds pasted by the voters of South Lake Tahoe. The bonds that were issued to build it are municipal, tax exempt bonds. Municipal, tax exempt bonds are sold at much lower interest rates then taxable bonds, a factor in considering the cost to build the project. Under current IRS rules, the lease executed by the city is considered a sale, a sale to a private company. You can not issue tax free municipal bonds to build faculties for private business.
The city’s suggested solution to the problem is to pay off the municipal bonds and refinance the bonds with taxable bonds, at higher interest cost. Seems simple, no tax free bonds, so it’s OK for private use. Except the tax free bonds were authorized by the voters, would they, the voters, have approved the project with the added cost of taxable bonds?
If the city refinances with taxable bonds do the voters have to approve the change? I say yes, at least the city can surly expect a lawsuit from a tax payers organization on the issue. They are changing the voters’ will to make money for the city. On the other hand, have they gone so far that the lessee will now sue to get the lease? Are there other damages yet to be discovered?
We shall see. The point is someone needed to ask and to ask you have to understand the issues. Experience helps. Perhaps rather then schemes like this, to avoid providing services that cities are suppose to provide, like recreational opportunities, the city should instead consider disbanding. Yes, I said we should at least consider the elimination of what many see as an unnecessary level of government in this modern day and age. When the concept of cityhood was devised it took seven days to get a letter from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe.
We are spending millions of dollars to maintain a city when in fact the job could be done for a lot less on regional, county bases. The good voters of El Dorado Hill, our neighbor to the south, decided that when they voted down cityhood a few short years ago. When they looked at law enforcement they concluded the county sheriff was doing a fine job and their was no need to add a layer of so called executives to the payroll. The fact is the 20,000 or so that live here could save $15 million to $20 million a year by dissolving the city and returning to the county. The sheriff alone estimates a savings of $1.2 million annually.
One argument I have heard for cityhood is local control. Really, does any one really feel we have local control? If you make a 9-1-1 call it goes to Placerville and it’s rerouted to the end source. If we have a fire, almost all other fire districts are involved. The most important issue, planning, is really controlled by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency – a multi-county, two-state agency. Our major road, U.S. Highway 50, is a state highway and the city is so broke it can’t fix the local roads. How many times have you seen a car stopped by the police on U.S. Highway 50 only to see two police cars, the sheriff and the highway patrol all there? An elected city official recently told me the city does good and he cited the folks who stop him at the supermarket to ask for a stop sign or something. While that’s nice, we pay close to $30 million a year for the pleasure, and most don’t get the stop sign anyway. No, the wild west is done, computers, iPhones and instant communication are now the standard. The need for rural life to unite to protect itself is over. Other then ego, why continue with the cost of a city? Can we have a health debate about cutting back government?
-Ted Long is a former councilman, planning commissioner and past president of the Sacramento Valley division of the League of California Cities. He currently serves on the Latino Affairs Commission and as foreman of the El Dorado County Grand Jury.
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