South Lake Tahoe City Council creating committee to explore charter city, Tahoe County
City Council is not shutting the door on the idea of becoming a charter city, but South Lake Tahoe voters likely will not see anything on the ballot in the immediate future — if ever.
After some discussion Tuesday, council agreed to form a committee to explore the charter city issue as well as the possibility of forming a Tahoe County; a decades-old idea to form a single governmental entity covering an area in the Tahoe Basin currently served by several different governmental entities.
The committee will consist of Mayor Brooke Laine, a supporter of the Tahoe County idea, Councilor Cody Bass, who has advocated for the possibility of becoming a charter city, and selected members of the community.
When South Lake Tahoe became a city in 1965 it did so as a general law municipality, a form of government bound by the state’s general laws.
Comparatively, charter cities can have greater local control over municipal affairs.
The California constitution defines municipal affairs as regulation and government of a city police force, form of city government, city elections, and officers and employees. Additionally, the courts have acknowledged varying levels of local authority regarding public works contracting; payment of prevailing wage; taxes; and land use and planning.
A charter form of governance is more typical in California’s larger cities.
South Lake Tahoe previously discussed becoming a charter city in 2011 but the conversation fizzled after City Council at the time showed little interest in the topic.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being a charter city, explained Heather Stroud, city attorney.
One advantage allows for greater flexibility in determining how a city awards public works contracts.
Another advantage is the authority to establish a real estate transfer tax that exceeds the limits imposed on general law cities, which is currently 55 cents per $1,000, according to Stroud.
City Manager Frank Rush Jr., using figures from 2016, said in a memo that a 1% real estate transfer tax could generate $4.2 million for the city. Rush also noted that a tax could potentially be controversial.
But Bass said the revenue component should not be dismissed, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Measure T and its impact on the city’s transient occupancy tax revenue.
A real estate transfer tax could prove less controversial than other taxes, such as 2017’s failed sales tax increase designed to generate money for road maintenance, Bass added.
While clarifying that she is no fan of taxes, Councilor Tamara Wallace said the potential for additional revenue addresses council’s top priorities: more police and firefighters and more money for street repairs.
She supported the formation of a committee to explore becoming a charter city.
On the potential drawbacks of becoming a charter city, Stroud said there would be costs associated with staff time and ultimately putting a question on the ballot.
In order to become a charter city, a draft charter would need to be approved by a majority of voters.
Once adopted, a charter can only be amended or repealed by a majority of voters.
Depending on the will of voters, Stroud said, the city could end up with less local control than it currently has.
Several members of the public cautioned that pursuing charter status could lead to a larger and more complex form of government.
South Lake Tahoe Parks and Recreation Commissioner David Gregorich warned council about unintended consequences, and urged it to take its time should it pursue charter status.
Tahoe Chamber CEO Steve Teshara expressed concern with the city spending time on the charter issue, which he said could prove complex and costly, when there are many other issues facing the city and when the California Legislature continues to consolidate more power at the state level.
Councilor Jason Collin, while noting he liked the advantages regarding the public works contracts and real estate transfer tax, echoed Teshara’s points. Although he did not object to the formation of a committee, he did not want to see staff put much time into the issue.
Collin also mentioned past conversations regarding the creation of a Tahoe County and suggested the topic be included in the committee’s work.
Given her past interest on the Tahoe County topic, Laine expressed a desire to serve on the committee, which the other three councilors supported (Councilor Devin Middlebrook was absent).
In creating the committee, several members of council said they wanted to take it slow.
An attempt to actually draft a charter that could be considered by voters in 2020 would divert the city from the priorities identified by council, Laine said.
Bass envisioned the committee process taking a year, if not more. Given that timeline and the requirements needed to formally place a charter on the ballot, the city would be unable to make the deadline to put an item on the ballot in 2020.
Laine and Bass will ultimately decide how to configure the committee and when it will meet. Bass said he would like to see a diverse range of community members serve on the committee.