"Tahoe County" aftermath – news analysis.
One member of the Tahoe Citizens Committee predicted early on what may happen in the aftermath of a failed “Tahoe County” movement.
“My question is, what happens if they don’t get the county? It feels as though it would be like living with your ex-wife after the divorce,” said Frederick Green, a Carson Valley resident and Tahoe business owner. “Is it possible to reconcile? I don’t think so.”
After all is said and done at the Nevada Legislature, it appears the adversarial relationship between the Tahoe Citizens Committee and Douglas County leaders will continue – at least for a while.
The “Tahoe County” proposal, on which so many lake residents pinned their hopes for the past 10 months, died due to lack of political support. Douglas County leaders fought hard against the movement, hiring a lobbyist to showing up at every legislative hearing.
Now, the compromise – a Tahoe Douglas Visitors Authority to control more of the county’s room tax revenues – is already under attack by the County Board of Commissioners.
The board took action on Thursday directing District Attorney Scott Doyle to analyze AB616, with the possibility of challenging the legislation legally.
Before Gov. Bob Miller signed the bill, Commissioner Bernie Curtis and Doyle sent letters to the governor’s office, asking him to veto the measure. Curtis said he believed other commissioners wrote lobbying letters as well.
Proponents of “Tahoe County” say while they are pleased about the bill’s passage, they are unhappy and disappointed with the way the commissioners have handled the situation. They believe AB616 was a negotiated deal, where the final product was the result of both sides giving up something.
“I am particularly disappointed and disturbed that the Douglas County Commissioner and the Douglas County District Attorney saw fit to request the governor to veto AB616,” said Mike Jabara, chair of the TCC. “In our mind that represents bad faith in the negotiations that occurred. That kind of behavior leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Tahoe residents.”
But Curtis said Douglas County Commissioners were never truly involved in the negotiations of that bill. They had made it clear that Douglas County could not afford to give up more than 50 percent of room tax revenue, and were left to the mercy of the Government Affairs Committee, which set the amount at 65 percent.
“In the initial TCC proposal, they had a 50 percent funding level for promotion, and we intended to meet that,” Curtis said. “What (Jabara) says we did is what he did.”
Kelly Krolicki, a member of the TCC executive board, said she is also disenchanted – not only because the county proposal was rejected, but also because of the board’s recent action.
“I don’t see it as a productive use of the commissioners’ time,” Krolicki said. “The whole reason we created room tax in Nevada was to market Nevada. Maybe it would be more productive to come up with ways in which we can lessen the burden of that tax on parks and recreation, libraries and senior services.”
Curtis, who was elected one month after the TCC launched its breakaway movement, admitted he does feel disappointed and disheartened about the final outcome.
He and other commissioners had expressed their desire to see the problems between lake and valley areas be resolved locally – they believe that is what they were hired by the people to do.
“I feel betrayed. We were newly elected … and were not given the chance to rectify some of these problems,” Curtis said. “We were in the process of trying to reverse some of Tahoe’s legitimate concerns … as much as we could based on our diminished funding capacity.”
Curtis said another reason he is disheartened with the whole situation is his perception that the entire TCC motive was purely financial.
“It seems to me that the TCC movement got down to one thing and that was room tax,” Curtis said. “Never mind all those other issues we were attempting to address – it came down to the money.”
At a board meeting last month, all of the commissioners expressed a similar attitude, attacking the TCC for being “too greedy” and accusing the group leaders of betraying their constituents.
But TCC leaders deny that charge, saying it was clear from the beginning that tourism dollars was an important element of the breakaway movement.
Unfortunately, that was the only element to which legislators paid any attention.
“Did I want changes in the schools? Yes, that’s probably what I wanted the most, but it didn’t happen,” Krolicki said.
The next step for Douglas County is to evaluate the financial situation and determine what action should be taken, commissioners say.
“If we started yesterday, it will be tough to get there by 1999,” said Jacques Etchegoyhen, board chairman, before the bill was actually signed. “It may absolutely entail slashing services … and folks are not going to be happy about that.”
Curtis also said if the public is not willing to increase taxes, parks and recreation programs and libraries will be the first victims – on an equal basis between lake and valley.
“I think it’s going to be difficult each budget year – it’s 4 1/2 percent per year as far as reductions that are required,” Curtis said. “This last budget year was a 4 percent decrease in funding, and that was a very difficult time for Douglas County.”
But TCC leaders are quick to point out that Douglas County residents have been enjoying subsidized services and low taxes for many years. They believe the time has come for the county to take control of its future and stop relying on lake casinos for typically county-funded services.
“It’s easy to have the finest departments when you don’t have to pay for it,” Krolicki said. “Douglas County just needs to grow up.”
According to the Nevada Department of Taxation, Douglas County’s base property tax rate is $2.38 per $100 assessed valuation, compared to $2.80 in Clark County and $3.35 in Washoe County. Even if voters agreed to a 20-cent increase, which would more than cover the loss of room tax revenue, the total rate would still be the second-lowest in the state.
Krolicki encouraged Douglas County commissioners to educate the public about just how low their taxes are, so that increasing the tax rate won’t be such a difficult battle.
But Curtis said it will still be very difficult to convince Douglas County residents, who have been more interested in rescinding taxes than passing them, that the services they have been enjoying free of charge for so many years are being threatened.
“That’s historically where Douglas County has been for many years, and now the Legislature and the governor have told us that’s not what they want,” he said. “Douglas County citizens will pay for the sins of the past, I suppose.”
A large aspect of the dissension between lake business owners and the Douglas County government stems from how the room tax is divvied up in the county. Unlike any other county in Nevada, Douglas County uses a percentage of room tax revenue – 90 percent of which is paid by Lake Tahoe tourists – to fund operation of parks, recreation programs, senior services and libraries.
Those services are traditionally paid for by residents through property tax or some other type of assessment, the rationale being that residents, not visitors, are more likely to use those services.
The 1969 Lodging Act, passed by the Nevada Legislature, is what allowed that transfer to occur. Leaders at the time saw a booming Lake Tahoe economy and didn’t foresee many of the problems the lake now faces, such as lack of adequate infrastructure and increased gaming competition elsewhere.
“It doesn’t seem like (the commissioners’) attitude has changed a whole lot,” Krolicki said. “They still don’t realize there is a problem, and they act as though it’s us against them.”
Etchegoyhen admitted the relationship between the board and the leaders of the TCC will be “strained” for a while, until the bad feelings and history have time to fade.
But Curtis, despite his disappointment, is a bit more optimistic.
“Tahoe is a part of Douglas County and that’s not going to change,” he said. “Where there’s a will there’s a way. I’m a little disheartened by this, but we’ll come out of it. We’ll find out ways as best we can to deal with this.”
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