Ballot question may ease utility fees
Carson City mechanic Tom Bunch says the storm water drainage fee on his water bill is unjust – but if a local ballot question on sales tax doesn’t pass this November, he’ll be drowning under twice the fees he coughs up now.
“I’m being treated unfairly,” Bunch lamented from his small office at his wheel alignment and car frame repair shop on Highway 50, where the weathered yellow sign out front reads, “The best damn little frame shop in Nevada.”
Bunch, 73, is a fan of the Wild West’s independent spirit. Old photos of cowboys and Indians line his walls. He has a gray handlebar mustache and addresses women with a cordial “ma’am.”
He and his wife, Donna, and white terrier, Sadie, live in a manufactured home on the one-acre property a few yards away from his garage.
One day last spring Mrs. Bunch noticed their water bill had an extra $13.75 fee tacked onto it.
It was the first they heard of the city’s decision to fund storm water drainage improvements and maintenance spurred by the federal government’s Clean Water Act, an unfunded mandate.
“I look at my bill and all of the sudden my water bill’s gone up 50 percent. That’s too much,” Bunch said.
The Clean Water Act requires cities with populations of more than 50,000 to meet stringent quality standards for its major water bodies, and Carson River falls below standards for sediment, acidity levels and temperature.
Last spring the Carson City Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to charge residents an extra $1.70 a month on their city water bills to make $1.2 million worth of improvements per year on the drainage system. Public properties pay an additional $10.35, manufacturing businesses pay $13.75, and commercial customers pay $15.50.
Bunch’s property is covered in dirt and gravel – no asphalt. Rain percolates into his soil, he said, and his property does not contribute to any run-off that would damage the river, so he shouldn’t be required to pay fees associated with the drainage system’s upkeep.
“I pay the same fee as Wal-Mart and K Mart with all that asphalt.”
Carson City Mayor Ray Masayko and Supervisor Pete Livermore said the storm water drainage fees will be adjusted – perhaps decreased – if the state Legislature would raise local sales tax by an eighth of a percent to fund storm drainage maintenance. That increase would supplement the $600,000 per year the city is now collecting through the utility fees.
Without a sales tax increase, they said, the fees will double.
Question 1 on this November’s election ballot asks Carson City voters whether they approve of the sales tax increase. If it passes, the city will take its request to the state Legislature’s February session.
Masayko said he couldn’t make any promises when it comes to utility fee changes should sales taxes go up.
“We need the sense of the voters first before we can approach the state,” he said. “We’ll hold hearings to get public input as to how aggressively we should pursue it.”
Livermore agreed, pointing out that there are operations and maintenance costs that will result from implementation of federal standards.
“It depends upon how much operating and capital costs we need,” he said. “There may be a small fee still remaining.”
John Wagner, a Carson City video consultant who argued against the tax increase at a League of Women voters forum last month, said there may be no end in sight to unfunded mandates by the federal government.
He said if it passes, local shoppers may be inclined to take their business to Douglas County to avoid the higher tax.
“There should be some protest on this issue,” he said. “If this land belongs to Uncle Sam, then let the federal government pay for it.”
As for Bunch’s objection to paying nearly the same storm drainage fees as large retailers, he’s out of luck.
Contrary to the city engineering department’s recommendations, supervisors voted unanimously last spring to enact fees based on zoning – instead of size – after hearing testimony from the Chamber of Commerce.
“Large commercial properties would have been charged fees in excess of thousands of dollars per year,” said Chamber of Commerce president Larry Osborne. “I’m sorry (Bunch) is upset. There’s no perfect way to do it.”
City Engineer Larry Werner said contrary to Bunch’s assertion that he does not produce runoff, the gravel on his property qualifies it as fair game for drainage fees.
“If a property consists of all natural ground, we don’t count it,” he said, “but we do count gravel and asphalt. If gravel is driven over, it becomes impervious and will cause trouble downstream.”
Bunch said he’s undecided on his ballot question vote, but even if fees double, he and his wife will not move from his comfortable acre amid the sagebrush.
For more information
For more information on the storm water drainage project, call Carson City Development Services at 887-2335.
To obtain arguments in favor and against Ballot Question No. 1, pick up Monday’s edition of the Nevada Appeal or visit the Carson City Elections office on the first floor of the Carson City Courthouse, 885 E. Musser St.
Contact reporter Robyn Moormeister at rmoormeister @nevadaappeal.com or 881-1217.