Paying for storm drainage isn't optional

Carson City residents should understand that a question expected to be on their November ballots is asking them how to raise their taxes, not whether to raise their taxes.

The issue is an eighth-cent sales-tax increase to fund much-needed improvements to the storm drainage system. Anyone who witnessed the flood of January 1997 knows it's a necessary investment for the city's protection.

Even at $1.2 million a year for the next 20 years, the project could end up being a bargain because of the damage a major flood can cause. It's an insurance plan the city can't do without.

The question, though, is how to pay for it. Originally, years of study by a committee showed the best means to be an increase in utility fees. Carson City property owners started paying those fees this year ($1.70 a month for residences), but that covers only about half the annual cost.

So the supervisors have proposed a sales-tax increase. It will spread out the costs to more people, including tourists. The utility fee, on the other hand, is applied directly to property owners, who benefit from the storm-drain system.

As it's drawn up now, the utility fees generate about $600,000 a year and the sales tax will produce about $1 million. That's roughly $400,000 a year more than needed.

The city's plan, as we understand it, is to drop the utility fees if the sales-tax increase goes through. If the sales tax doesn't win approval, then the utility fees would have to be increased again.

That's a classic Hobson's choice for taxpayers. They should have some assurances in the language of the ballot question that they won't end up paying both. There should also be a sunset date on the sales-tax increase in 20 years.

The decision for voters will be whether they want to pay for storm drains every time they make a purchase (12.5 cents on $100), or when they pay their water bills (about $3.40 a month for residences, more for businesses).

There are questions - fairness, effect on the business community, stability of sales tax as a revenue base - but raising enough money through taxes or fees to pay for the project isn't one of them.


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