Attending county commission meetings
March 7, 2013
Several years ago I wrote a letter to this newspaper suggesting residents seeking entertainment need look no further than the bi-monthly Douglas County Board of Commissioners meetings. It bears repeating. Some meetings are better than others. Commission faces change but the entertainment value does not. Meetings are usually not well attended. A pity, as folks are missing out.
Entertainment at commission meetings lies in listening to our elected commissioners struggling to resolve a problem before them while trying hard not to offend their core constituencies, their own best interests, the fewest members of the public, the occasional special interests, then trying to explain that their decisions have logical reasoning and do not bow to a special few.
A case in point occurred at their February meeting in Minden. Chairman Greg Lynn acted outraged by a request from a member of the public that as a developer he recuse himself from voting on assessing a utility standby fee to owners of empty lots for which water and sewer capacity was built, to lighten the financial burden on existing utility customers whose rates since they moved here have risen to pay for excess capacity intended to serve the collapsed community growth.
As if he did not have close affiliation with other developers, builders, and land-owners. His excuse? He does not have a current development on land serviced by county utilities. In the process of arriving at a motion, the chairman growled and grumped about not being able to make the issue just go away, finally calling a recess to drag into the back room one recalcitrant commissioner who had tried to make a positive motion, along with the assistant district attorney and county utilities director. Upon resuming, when an altered motion was put forward, he could not content himself with a mere “no,” but couldn’t restrain himself from voting “absolutely not.” The chairman seems to be wishing to be seen as a genuine curmudgeon.
Commissioner Doug Johnson exhibits great frustration that some of us keep bringing this issue back to the board to try to establish fairness, not a common commission trait. During three terms on the board he consistently expresses frustration when facing uncomfortable decisions that must gore somebody’s ox. He has been quick to give other folks’ money away to pacify a few raising an uncomfortable fuss. Some years ago he happily pledged to a developer having questionable qualifications $24.7 million of taxpayer money to build a commercial center across Highway 395 from the existing north county shopping centers. That project failed. An unsightly expanse of bare earth remains to remind.
Commissioners repetitively face serious problems of sub-standard or aging high-cost water systems former boards allowed developers to build. Their solutions? They let the lowest-cost better-planned water utility customers or taxpayers subsidize the rest, thus silencing the complaints or litigation from the victimized using somebody else’s money. Because so far the folks who are subsidizing others haven’t yet descended en masse on the commission. That will come.
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The most recent illustration occurred last month at their Lake meeting, where board members, knowing full well that three county-owned Tahoe-shore water utility customers over several decades never paid in their monthly water rates a provision for future repair and replacement, neither to their initial private utility operator nor after the county took over all three systems in the late 1980s. Constructing hillside homes near the Lake is very costly, as is a water utility to service them. Now those utilities need renovation, but have no money to pay for it. Commission decision? Issue more bonds guaranteed by all residents supplemented with taxpayer money. Yep, if you have a well or live in a town or general improvement district, you get to pay for supplying water to Cave Rock-Zephyr Cove-Skyland communities in addition to your own.
Chairman Lynn’s rationale? If those dwellers had to pay their real water cost, it might reduce the market value of their homes and the property tax they pay. Afterall, Lake dwellers pay 40 percent of Douglas County property tax, right? He didn’t mention the three communities in question are only a fraction of that. Implying it’s only right that we give some of it back to pay for those unfortunates drinking expensive lake water. So now commissioners are arbiters of what water rate is too costly for Lake dwellers, and at what price it impacts property assessments. Curiously, other Lake GID and private water systems somehow operate efficiently without taxpayer supplements. How do they do that? Who cares, that’s history, is the novel response of our esteemed county commissioners.
Other commissioners offer the amusing rationale that we in Douglas County are “all one county and thus one community,” a commune like in the recent Soviet block or Cuba: Take from all and give to those with a favored need. Never mind that Cave Rock is largely comprised of multi-million dollar mansions. They need commissioner help. Water is a right and ought to be paid by all at the same rate from our taxes, argue some commissioners. Notwithstanding that delivering water to some homes costs double or triple or more than to other homes. America’s Constitution champions free enterprise and liberty: Equal opportunity but not equal property, and definitely not equal water utilities. When you select a home to live in, you accept the cost of obtaining water and sewage disposal. County commissioners don’t offer help to private well and septic owners, do they?
So you see, there’s much entertainment in public deliberations of county commissioners, and also the potential at any single meeting of great mischief with our money. With 2014 budget hearings starting, it behooves us all to attend commission meetings to be both entertained and defend our wallets. Should I ever become a county commissioner, I would try to undo the consolidated Carson Valley Water Utility. Like most others I’m happy to assist the unfortunate, but not with extorted taxpayer money.
Jack Van Dien is a Gardnerville resident