South Lake Tahoe City Council candidate profile: Austin Sass
Age: Mountain 65; not flatlander 65.
Occupation: City Councilman/Retired/Recreationist
Why are you running for council?
My motivation is a passion for my home, South Lake Tahoe. I believe we need a diversity of individuals on council including someone who has experience in the largest segments of our economy, tourism and recreation as well as several members with experience in managing large organizations and budgets.
I have the time and desire to give my all to the city. Many years ago I asked a former mayor how much time was required to serve on council. He told me “council is as little, or as much as you want it to be.” Today, and after serving for four years, I find this statement weak.
Either give it your all or don’t run. This position is 20-25 hours per week and we need council members with the time and desire to serve our city. You can be assured that I am committed and passionate about our future.
What are your qualifications?
There is no substitute for experience. I have four years as a councilman, three years on the TRPA Governing Board, four years on the Tahoe Transportation District, four years on the Recreation JPA, and 20 years’ experience working in and managing multi-million dollar budgets and organizations. In addition, I have worked in the local ski, hospitality, gaming and dining industries and have a deep understanding of our No. 1 industry; tourism.
I also am an avid skier, hiker, mountain and road biker and golfer with a very good understanding of our second most important industry, which is recreation.
What is the No. 1 issue facing the city? How would you address it?
Put simply, our mandated annual payment to CalPERS will increase annually by $5.5 million over the next five years. Three years from now the projection is approx. $3 million. If Measure T passes, while we don’t know the exact impact, it could be as much as a $1.5 to $2 million reduction of TOT tax revenues due to the reduction in VHRs. Total loss of revenue could be $4.5 million.
At that figure, we are talking about major layoffs in critical areas like police, fire and public works.
First, I will work to get a compromise on the VHR issue to address the reduction of TOT revenue. Second, work to get a successful cannabis program in place which would hopefully generate $1.5 million or more in revenues. Third, continue to attract people to Tahoe who are entrepreneurial and wanting to start small businesses here. Fourth, continue to improve the visual and recreational environment to make our city more appealing. Fifth, work to expedite the Chateau Project at Stateline to add to our TOT revenues.
Finally, get ready. If large expense cuts are to happen, we need to have a plan in place by the end of 2019.
Yes or no on Measure T? Why or why not?
I see both sides of Measure T very clearly. On the YES side, it cures concerns about strangers being in your neighborhood and next door to your home, your safe place. It might help with workforce housing and make purchasing a home easier for locals. The noise, parking, trash … I get it.
On the NO side it could cost jobs, reduce home values, have a negative effect on the city’s revenue budget, as well as threaten the new rec and swim center … I get it.
I hope most voters know, I fought hard for a compromise that would have kept this very divisive issue off of the ballot. Sadly, a majority of council did not agree with me and when I brokered a meeting between the pros and cons they could not agree. I still think the answer was compromise and some of the candidates agree.
I hope most voters understand that the ballot measure was placed there by locals and not the council. I am voting just like you and not in my official city capacity. As such, I hope the Tribune and its readers will respect my right to privacy. I never share how I vote; it’s personal.
What is your position on the Loop Road?
As a member of the Tahoe Transportation Board I was instrumental in getting the board to adopt a resolution that required all the funding to be in place before a shovel hit the ground to avoid another “hole in the ground.” Also in that resolution was a requirement that new housing be in place for anyone displaced by the relocated U.S. 50. Those were my major concerns and they have been addressed to my satisfaction.
The project if funded and when successfully completed will have economic, environmental and visual improvements. We will have new streets and landscape, better mobility options, and a better experience for locals and tourists.
It’s hard to say no to approx. $100 million in capital improvements and housing from the feds and state governments that will not require any contribution by the city. I say let’s give the Tahoe Transportation District executive director the chance to secure the funding and improve our city.
The city’s recently passed cannabis ordinance was the subject of a successful referendum. How should City Council proceed on this issue?
This week a subcommittee made up of councilmembers Laine and I met with concerned citizens, potential cannabusiness operators and the existing medical cannabis dispensary to address the referendum. It was a long but good discussion where some good changes were discussed.
At the end, a majority of the group agreed upon a compromise that the originator of the referendum will discuss with his attorney.
At this point, we have several options. The first is to repeal the ordinance and do nothing but keep a moratorium in place. The second is to put the existing ordinance on the ballot. The third is to repeal it and create a new ordinance with substitive changes to the current ordinance that will satisfy most of the concerns expressed by the originator of the referendum.
I support repealing the current ordinance and approving a new ordinance with the substitive changes. Hopefully TWC will agree to the compromise and ordinance and our community can move forward with legalization of retail sales, cultivation, production and distribution of legal cannabis as they expressed by supporting Prop. 64 by over 65 percent.
How should the city address sustainable funding for roads?
There is no long term roads funding hidden in the budget. Our needs are to perform work on 129 miles of our streets at an estimated cost of $130 million. Our public works team has told us that entering into multi-year rehabilitation and paving agreements yields a 20 percent savings versus doing streets as revenues exceed expectations.
Additionally, long range planning helps us coordinate efforts with the utilities and apply for grants which usually carry a local match. Paying 20 percent more to do a street when there is an excess million or so available makes no economic sense. We need a long term funding source to guarantee we can enter into multi-year road work agreements.
The recently defeated sales tax increase was a good plan that guaranteed that the revenues raised could only be spent on the intended purpose; our streets. The bulk of the revenues would have come from tourists with a minimal contribution by locals.
It was a good plan and in fact was supported by over 56 percent of the voters. I would support reworking the ballot measure and taking it to the voters again.
How would you evaluate the current council’s handling of the previous city manager’s departure?
First, while I cannot discuss what was voted on, or how I, or the rest of council voted in closed session, my preference still, is that the entire process would have been made public with regard to the changes. Saying anything else specific to what happened would be in violation of the Brown Act and a non-disparagement agreement the city entered into with the former city manager.
Yes, there are things I personally wish would have been done differently, but I am part of City Council and as such I do not get to solely decide how things unfold. Again, in evaluating how the city manager’s departure was handled, I would have like to seen council agree to make the entire matter public.
Going forward, I am hopeful that the to-be-hired city manager will be stellar and that coupled with a new city attorney, the city will have a successful management team.
What can City Council do to address the lack of affordable housing?
Affordable, workforce and senior housing are big needs. Every business in the service industry is looking for employees. The No. 1 reason businesses cite for the labor shortage is housing.
As a member of the TRPA I am your voice and I successfully voted for bonus development rights for affordable and workforce housing projects. More work needs to be done within the TRPA to allow for increased density in areas where there is available land for development & redevelopment.
Developers need increased height easements to make projects pencil out. If we can find land that will not impeded the scenic environment (our lake, meadow and mountain views) I support increasing our height restrictions and reducing parking requirements as long as they are coupled with a transportation mechanism to get folks to work. In addition, allowing more coverage on single family lots would allow for construction of granny units which would also help the matter.
I have sat on the Tahoe Prosperity Center housing task force for two years. There is no silver bullet. It will take time, energy and experience understanding the involved agencies to make progress. I have that experience and I am committed to solving this important issue.
Businesses frequently complain about a lack of talented employees. What, if anything, can City Council do to help solve this problem?
Making the city more appealing is job No. 1. Many entrepreneurs and retirees have moved here in the past few years because they want to live in the mountains and participate in our great outdoors. They like the access to skiing, hiking, biking and value the changes we have made to our schools and college. They see things like the new bike park and bike trails, the proposed swim and rec center, the proximity to our beaches, new commercial development and everything else as big pluses. Especially if they live in a place like SF where filth, crowds and traffic are a daily occurrence.
Our real estate is affordable for them and with several new co-working spaces in existence these individuals who can work locally see Tahoe as a great place to raise a family or just enjoy life in a more clean and natural environment with likeminded people.
Work to be done includes making the housing situation better, improving city wide access to high speed internet connectivity and supporting our local college as it adds more four-year programs that might result in highly educated and trained individuals staying here permanently once they fall in love with Tahoe.
One of your fellow council members has publicly accused you of being egotistical and acting in your own interest, rather than City Council’s interest. How do you respond to those accusations?
My wife, Bev, and her family have known Tom for over 30 years. When Tom gets intimidated or feels threatened he has consistently taken jabs at people. It’s election season, so now rather than doing it behind my back like he has for the past four years, he has put it in writing.
I guess if it was the 1700s I would challenge him to a pistol duel to defend my honor. However, it’s not the pistol dueling days anymore so like most people who Tom takes shots at; we just shake our head, chuckle and ignore him.
How can you assure voters that you will be able to work constructively with your fellow council members and represent council as a whole on various committees and boards?
I believe if anyone wants assurance that I can work constructively with council, all they need to do is watch a City Council meeting. You will see that from the dais the council is very professional, thoughtful in their thinking and patient and thorough in their deliberations. We actually function very well together on a professional level and respect what each other has to say.
As mayor, I believe the council meetings were run effectively and in an orderly fashion and I communicated my thoughts monthly via an editorial column in the Tribune called, SassTalk.
When we vote for a fellow councilperson to represent the city on a board we do so because we trust that they will act in the same manner as on council and consistent with what council members have stated about various issues these boards deal with. Be it CTC, the fire JPA, the lodging board, etc. I trust our council members will do the right thing and that the ones we have appointed have the intellectual capability to understand the very complex policy and science issues we have to be up to speed on.
To date, I have never had an issue with anyone’s vote.