Incline Village General Improvement District candidates debate issues at forum
October 16, 2018
From financial priorities to the Parasol Building proposal, candidates for the Incline Village General Improvement District Board of Trustees spelled out their stances on some of the most critical and controversial issues facing the community.
Four candidates are running for two seats on the five-member board. Incumbents Tim Callicrate and Kendra Wong, who have spent the past four years on the opposite end of more than a few decisions, are aligned on opposing sides.
As are candidates Sara Schmitz and Bruce Simonian, with Callicrate and Schmitz running together and Wong, the current board chair, and Simonian joining forces. The outcome of the election has the potential to shift the balance of power on the board.
All four were present for a candidate forum Monday, Oct. 15, hosted by the Tahoe Daily Tribune in partnership with Sierra Nevada College. The candidates fielded question posed by the Tribune and community members for two hours before a packed room of more than 140 people.
Financial priorities & rec fees
The district's $830 annual rec fee was one of the few areas of consensus among all four candidates. All of them advocated for keeping the fee at its current level, while also calling for a prioritization of projects.
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Simonian, who previously served as a trustee, said the district's deteriorating infrastructure, the administration and the rec center in particular, is a top priority. Members of the community have indicated overcrowding at Incline's beaches also is an issue that's front of mind.
On the question of how to fund projects, Wong said IVGID could go out for about $10 million in bonds, which would allow the district to keep the rec fees at the current level. That money from the bonds could fund two or three major projects, she added.
The community has already stated that beaches and Diamond Peak Ski Resort are priorities. Additional outreach is needed to narrow the focus and find those two to three major projects, Wong said.
Bonding is not a bad idea, Callicrate said, but the district needs to gage the community's appetite for taking on additional debt.
A new beach facility at Incline Beach, a permanent dog park and a new facility at the Mountain Golf Course — which was severely damaged in a fire over the summer — are three of the top, Callicrate stated.
Schmitz cited the multi million-dollar effluent export pipeline project as well as the district's aging infrastructure as her top priorities.
"When I look at what the community wants they want their existing … facilities maintained," Schmitz said.
She also mentioned the community's long-held desire for a dog park.
Schmitz suggested some of the funding for these projects could come from marketing dollars currently being spent.
On one of the most controversial topics in the community, all four candidates said they had no plans to proceed with purchasing the building commonly referred to as the Parasol Building, which sits on IVGID owned land that the nonprofit Parasol Tahoe Community Foundation leases from the district for $1 per year.
In March 2017 the foundation reached out with a lease modification that would have essentially sold the building to the district, which would use the space for administration offices. While Parasol billed the modification as a win-win, it sparked an outcry among some community members, who considered the proposal a reneging by the nonprofit.
Both Wong and Simonian have been accused of favoring the deal, which they both denied once again Monday.
"We never got a chance to finish the vetting process," Simonian explained. "There was so much contention that the board was hit with, that they took it off the table."
Barring a better option being put forward by the nonprofit, the Parasol Building proposal is dead, Simonian said.
"I'm not spending a dime on it."
Wong said the board at the time felt it had a fiduciary obligation to at least evaluate the offer. However, that was squashed by the public outcry.
"In my mind it's dead because we can't move forward. There was so much negative feedback."
Wong said the experience was frustrating because the district is often criticized for moving too slow or two fast. In this case, though, so many members of the community had made up their mind before the district could even preform its due diligence on the offer, she added.
Callicrate compared the process of trying to evaluate the offer to "giving birth to a horrendous situation." It consumed the district's time and resources and emerged as a contentious issue in the community.
"I don't think it's an appropriate use and a priority at this time," he said of the building.
Schmitz echoed Callicrate's comments, and added that the time spent on the proposal was misguided. Instead, she said the district should focus on taking care of its existing facilities an on priorities that the community has identified, such as a permanent dog park and updating the beach house at Incline Beach.
Transparency, or a perceived lack of it, is a source of frequent criticism directed at the district.
Asked if the district is transparent, Callicrate said the answer is both "yes" and "no." While most of the financials are posted online, there are five privileged account that are not, according to Callicrate.
"We're a government there should be no privileged accounts," he said.
Transparency has improved greatly with the hiring of Misty Moga, communication coordinator for the district, he added. But there is more the district could do to improve transparency.
Schmitz seconded that point.
"Do I think we have opportunities to improve transparency? Absolutely," she said.
Schmitz also said the district could make the information that is available, particularly the financial information, easier to digest.
Simonian, on the other hand, said IVGID is far more transparent than most of the other local governments he has worked with. There is a perception of corruption that just doesn't exist, he added.
"My question to people is 'what are you looking for? What's that bottom line and what are you attempting to achieve?'" he said. "We have people that are just chronically litigious looking for things that have cost this district time, money and morale."
Wong conceded the district could try and improve on its capital project reporting, which currently happens on a quarterly basis, but overall there is a plethora of information that the district makes available online.
She added that the Government Finance Officers Association has repeatedly recognized the district's financial statements for readability and understandability.
Overcrowding at Incline's community beaches remains a perennial issue raised by residents and property owners. And it's an issue that all four candidates said could be addressed in bits and pieces.
In the past, Callicrate explained, guests would have to be with the property owner, a person with a photo ID, in order to gain access to one of the beaches. That requirement eased over the years, creating a situation where it might be difficult to put the "genie back in the bottle," he added.
He also called for limiting or eliminating day passes. Additionally, the pop-up structures that take up more space than a traditional umbrella need to go, he added.
Any changes would need community input, and Schmitz said based on meetings she and Callicrate have held with community members, there does appear to be agreement about enforcing the requirement that guests be with a resident when visiting a beach.
Additionally, a large percentage of the people using the boat launches — which then fill parking spaces with trailers— on weekends are not residents, Schmitz said. A residents-only restriction on the weekend could address that issue.
"This is our boat launch and we should have it … for our residents and for our picture pass holders."
As for reducing congestion at the water's edge, Simonian suggested opening up more lawn space at Incline Beach and adding amenities that could attract some people away from the area near the water, which has shrunk in recent years with a higher lake level.
Another option to consider would be increasing the rate for the guest access passes to $15-$20 per person rather than the current $12, Simonian added.
He and Wong both noted, though, that the majority of people using the beaches are residents and their guests.
"The beaches are crowded with us …" Wong said.
She also pointed to suggested summer recreation possibilities at Diamond Peak as another solution for reducing crowds on Incline's beaches. With more options people might be less inclined to spend an entire vacation at the beach, Wong explained.
While nearly all of the questions were directed to all four candidates, each one received a question specifically tailored to them as an individual.
Schmitz, a frequent critic of IVGID management, was asked how she would work with staff given her critical tone. After stating she didn't have a critical tone, Schmitz conceded she and IVGID General Manager Steve Pinkerton don't see "eye to eye on a number of things."
"When it comes to the transparency and financial accountability and being forthright, I would like to see Mr. Pinkerton improve in that skill set," Schmitz said, adding she would work to set clear expectations for the GM.
Schmitz added that she loves IVGID staff and frequently interacts with them when she uses the facilities and attends events.
Simonian was asked why he was running for a seat just four years after he decided to not seek reelection, in part, because he was tired of the constant criticism from some members of the community.
The scrutiny, he said, does take a toll.
"I have a lot of passion for this community," he said. "Being on this board we take a lot of arrows. Four years of arrows, I was wearing an arrow shirt."
Even after returning to private life, Simonian stayed engaged and was motivated to run this go-around because, he said, not enough is getting done with the current board, which often votes 3-2 on divisive issues.
"There's so much polarization, digging your feet in …" Simonian said.
With the board facing frequent allegations of financial malfeasance, Wong was asked if she thought the current board executes proper oversight of the district's finances. Among the examples cited in the question was an over $700,000 expenditure budgeted for a pond liner. Some community members have pointed out that despite the expenditure appearing in financial documents, there is no liner in the pond.
Wong sought to address that issue, saying that retention pond is part of a multi-million dollar effluent pipeline that the district has been saving for years to construct.
"That is going to be a 23 million dollar project and we've been biting off small pieces of that," Wong said.
The district realized it could possibly secure federal dollars for the pond liner, according to Wong, and redirected the money for the liner to a different part of the project: "repairs that we knew were coming down the pipeline …" she said. Federal dollars are still available for that lining.
"Really what we're trying to do is we're trying to save our community dollars because we pay for that pipeline through our utility rates," Wong said.
As to the meat of the question, one reality Wong said she failed to realize when running four years ago was how much work staff puts into ensuring the district spends its dollars responsibly.
Callicrate was asked to answer for social media posts from the past that some have deemed offensive. The issue has sucked up much of the online oxygen in local Facebook groups and elsewhere. Some of the posts deal with the 2016 presidential election and offer commentary on Republican establishment backlash to the nomination of now-President Donald Trump.
In sharing a Facebook post about Jane Fonda allegedly inferring she would "leave America" if Trump were elected, Callicrate wrote: "Bye bye, Hanoi Jane … you traitorous anti American bitch! Should have been locked up decades ago when you kissed the North Vietnamese's arses …pig…."
Callicrate said he can be "hot headed" sometimes and that he wasn't proud of some of his posts. However, some are misrepresenting and manipulating the posts for political purposes, he added.
"The ones that are trying to characterize me as being racist, bigoted, Islamophobe, fill in the blanks, are disgusting because that isn't who I am," Callicrate said, "and I didn't post anything that would have given somebody that, but through the manipulation, Photoshop and missing timestamps and what not, that can be brought forward."
He also clarified that he was hacked three or four months ago, but that was well the after posts in question, which Callicrate said again that he wasn't proud of.