by Tom Starrett

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December 6, 2012
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Plenty of money available for roads

I read with interest the recent Letter to the Editor appearing in the Nov. 30, R-C captioned "Time to Consider approving a Gas Tax."

Taken as a given is that some of our roads are in need of repair. What is not so certain is that raising already burdensome taxes is the answer. We should all keep in mind that the last time the commissioners proposed to unilaterally raise the gas tax, with dubious authority to do so at best, their action was a blatant attempt to circumvent the people of this county who had twice before in public election disapproved this specific tax.

The hardworking taxpayer fortunate enough in this economy to have a job, and struggling to put food on the table and make a mortgage payment on a house worth less than the mortgage itself, might have something to say about further raising taxes, as opposed to (gasp) lowering them. Now much of the nation may no longer be in a recession, but Douglas County, with an unemployment rate in excess of 11 percent, certainly is.

The effect of further increased taxes (yes, this would not be the first time our board of commissioners has imposed a tax increase within the last 18 months) at this time will no doubt discourage desperately needed job-producers from locating in our valley and also cause existing local merchants to think twice about expanding their businesses.

In particular, the last time the commissioners attempted to unilaterally raise the gas tax, the gas station owners had valid business and legal reasons to resist the tax. They did not use "disingenuous" arguments as is asserted. There were ample studies which showed a very real risk that the incentive to drive to Carson City to save on gas would have the deleterious effect of denying to Douglas County a sizable amount of the gas tax it projected it would get, harm the gas station owners by reducing their profits (which are not excessive), and reduce local business overall because at least some of the drivers who went to Carson for gas would stay and shop in Carson. Yes, our local gas at the AM/PM stations is not typically a nickel a gallon less than than at Carson stations, but it is less. Our local stations face challenging demographic issues that the other counties named do not, and which cannot be ignored in any equation.

The question nevertheless remains; what to do about the roads and keeping them fixed? Here the commissioners re-enter stage left. Recently the R-C published an article about the "public-private partnership" fiasco regarding the nondevelopment of the proposed shopping center in North County at Highway 395 and Topsy, which resulted in a payment to the non-developers of some $450,000 in "settlement." The R-C also reported in its Nov. 16, 2012, edition that the county has spent some $500,000 fighting the federal government over a FEMA issue. A county rep boasts, "We will not rest until FEMA attempts to be responsive to the needs of our community." Really? $500,000 of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it, and more to be spent, just to gig FEMA into an "attempt?" What a lawyer's dream. While we all would hope for victory, what are the chances of achieving that victory as opposed to just an attempt by the federal government, with its vastly superior resources, to play a little nicer? Is this case just another county black hole, or is there a realistic probability of success? Can we fight smarter, using fewer resources to achieve the same goal?

Add to these two examples of county spending, the millions of dollars in capital improvements and attorneys' fees the county has paid regarding their mysterious and unaccounted for" release of the developer of Jobs Peak Ranch from its contractually imposed obligation to deliver a proper, up-to-code water system, and all these SNAFU's remind me of the joke where the lawyer says to the new client, "We'll fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court even if it takes every cent you've got!" Is the county taxpayer really getting "bang for his buck" here? How much is being spent on other matters where the county litigates ad naseum, all at taxpayer expense?

And then comes the granddaddy of all insults to the hard-working taxpayers of the county: the new (and extreme) senior/community center. This project was rejected by the voters at the ballot box in 2006 (a time in which the economy was in much better shape). Again, the commissioners did another of their now typical end runs around the people. Where, might you ask, did the $18.5 million plus (a sum that might possibly repave and repair all the county's roads for a hundred years) come from? Why through the sale of $14 million in bonds which the people had never approved for this purpose, plus $400,000 for "cost of issuance" (a tidy sum in itself), plus $3.5 million from the "Medical Indigent Fund," plus $1 million from Room Tax Fund Reserves (See p. 5, "Douglas County Community Center Financing Plan," Board of Commissioners' meeting, June 7, 2012). But, you might wonder, don't the taxpayers have to vote when money like this is spent on a project? Nah. The county has that one covered. According to the Oct. 7, 2012, R-C, "Because the tax the county plans to use ... already exists, commissioners were able to approve [the senior/community center] without going to the voters.

I hope all county taxpayers realize this means that whenever an existing bond is paid off, that the county takes the position it can re-issue the bond time and again for eternity for whatever different purpose the then board of commissioners wants without ever going to the people for approval. Doesn't this violate the rule against perpetuities? If so, my guess (based on its past record of circumventing the voters to get whatever the Board of Commissioners thinks is "necessary") is that the county will claim it is, somehow, exempt. Plus, the hodge-podge method of finance of the senior/community center demonstrates that the county believes it has free rein, in nonemergency circumstances, to grab money from one account and spend it on something for which the original fund was never intended. Sounds like they consider funds designated for specific purposes (such as the medical Indigent Fund) a huge slush fund, right? Somehow this doesn't seem quite Kosher either.

But back to the point. The sums referenced in the several paragraphs above add up to a lot of money, even a small portion of which would be enough to fix those roads and even have something left over for a tax rebate or a tax reduction for the already hard-strapped and struggling taxpayer. The money is there. The county can squeeze only so much blood from the taxpayer turnip. If another tax is desired, let the county put its case before the people, and let the people decide whether they are able and willing to dig even deeper into their pockets.

Tom Starrett is a Jobs Peak Ranch resident.

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The Record Courier Updated Dec 6, 2012 07:26PM Published Dec 6, 2012 07:25PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.