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Fresh ideas: Carson City needs leadership during trying times

Linda Johnson

As the fantasy of the holidays fades and the cold reality of January settles in, Carson City is faced with its greatest upheaval in recent history. The sudden death of Supervisor Jon Plank was a shock to all. During his tenure, he was a part of the solution, providing rational, well-reasoned leadership for Carson City. I always admired the manner in which he quietly got things done, never grandstanding or letting his ego get in front of the needs of the city.

Supervisor Plank’s death came in the wake of the departure of Carson City Manager John Berkich. John worked day and night to stem the tide of the impending erosion of Carson City’s tax base due to the leakage of sales tax dollars to Douglas County. He was successful in locating Costco in Carson City. However, the voters rejected his proposal to develop a portion of Fuji Park into retail space and with that Carson City lost any hope for new big box retail in Carson City in the near future.

Subtract out the announced closure of the local Super Kmart store and its projected half a million dollars in sales tax revenue to Carson City and all the elements are in place for a major upheaval.

From a historical perspective, the sales tax dollar became paramount to local governments in Nevada in 1981. On the heels of Prop 13 in California, the Nevada Legislature restructured the tax system to fund local governments from sales tax dollars rather than property tax dollars. The shift caused Carson City’s property tax revenue to diminish by 75 percent. Carson City was in the red and it took several years of tight fiscal management to get the budget balanced.

Since 1981, the local governments in Nevada have been competing with each other for the sales tax dollars. Overall, Carson City did well, building up a solid regional retail base, drawing customers from Lake Tahoe and as far south as Bishop. Douglas County faltered but was saved by high property values and the casinos at Stateline.

In 1991, the Nevada Legislature adopted a sales tax formula that took from the rich and gave to the poor. The counties with the strongest retail sales are required to contribute to their poorer neighbors. This formula redistributes in excess of $2 million annually to Douglas County primarily from Clark County. Now that Douglas County is building a retail base, approximately $800,000 will revert to Clark County this year and this number will increase with each passing year if Douglas County continues to grow its retail sector.

If Carson City and the two major adjoining counties, Douglas and Lyon, are going continue to provide basic government services, they are going to have to develop a regional approach. This continued competition with our neighbors only serves to benefit big box retailers. The big guys will continue to leave a trail of empty retail space in their wake and leave local governments scraping for the funds to support government services.

Regional cooperation is not an easy order. It is like telling the 49ers that they have to share stadium revenues with the Oakland Raiders. There is history here and some of it is not pretty, but this is where we are, so we have to start from here. It is going to take several steps to get us moving in a positive direction.

First of all, the adjoining counties have to start talking to each other in a civilized manner. Hats off to Supervisor Robin Williamson and Pete Livermore for taking a leadership role in this process and beginning discussions with Douglas County. Hopefully, Lyon County will be included in the process since they stand to take a huge hit caused by Douglas County’s recent restriction on new housing.

Secondly, we need to fill the vacant city manager’s and the supervisors’ positions with leaders who can negotiate, city officials who can see the middle ground, knowing that ultimately Carson City and its neighbors will all benefit from a spirit of cooperation. We need leaders who will get the job done in the Jon Plank tradition, without speech making, grandstanding or chest-beating. We need leaders who can build a trust relationship between the officials of adjoining counties.

Thirdly, as citizens of this fair city, we will have to face the post-holiday reality of balancing the budget. Less revenue means less city services — end of story. The only thing that would have forestalled the decrease in government services is the development of Fuji Park. So get ready, budget cuts are on the way and it is time for us to accept our responsibility in all of this. No whining, no crying and no finger pointing.

The good news is that we will still be able to walk our dogs in Fuji Park.

Linda Johnson is a wife, mother, attorney and observer of Carson City government for the past 28 years.