Flooding in part due to piecemeal development
August 27, 2014
In the aftermath of the recent flooding here is some information that might help readers assess the situation and what might be done about it.
The East Valley area has been the subject of largely piecemeal development over the past 20 years or so. A house here, a house there, small subdivisions, a few larger ones, all spread out over time and space. This has occurred without adequate institutional arrangements for managing the impacts of such development and paying for that.
The county is legally obligated to allow owners reasonable use of their property, which in this area means subdividing to the lot sizes set in our regulations and building a home on each lot. But it is difficult to hold small projects responsible for areawide problems, such as storm drainage and road maintenance, absent institutional arrangements for achieving effective areawide systems and spreading the financial burden of that equitably among all properties.
In circumstances like this county staff does its best to require what it can of individual projects as they are built, but it is difficult to knit all that together into an effective areawide system of infrastructure and its maintenance. And its requests are often met with resistance from builders and homeowners who'd prefer to put their money into things that "sell" rather than mundane things like storm drainage or higher street standards and future maintenance, that don't.
Storm drainage and roads are closely related. In the East Valley the roads are the drainage system. I recently served on the county road maintenance funding task force. What we learned is that road maintenance (and to a great extent storm drainage) is primarily a problem in what might be called the unincorporated area, outside our towns and general improvement districts.
In the towns and GIDs residents tax themselves to pay for the improvement and maintenance of their infrastructure. But those in the unincorporated area make no equivalent financial contribution to the maintenance of their infrastructure. To the degree that occurs it is paid for by all county taxpayers, both the two-thirds who live in the towns and GIDs and the one-third who don't.
So storm drainage and road maintenance in the East Valley and other unincorporated areas is largely subsidized by those who live elsewhere, who pay for that in addition to maintenance of the infrastructure in their town or GID.
And the truth is that without greater financial contributions from those who benefit there simply isn't adequate funding to properly maintain local roads and related drainage outside the towns and GIDs.
Now the chickens have come home to roost. East Valley residents who've paid lower taxes for years are now seeing the consequence of that. We get what we pay for. And, as one might expect, some there are now asking "the county," which means all of us, to pay to fix their problems.
So what might be done? There are emergency programs, primarily at the federal level, designed to address the aftermath of disasters. The county has declared a disaster due to the recent floods and should take what advantage it can of such programs to address the current situation.
But what about the future? Well, we can waste a lot of time arguing about how we got here. But the way forward is at hand if only our leadership would act.
The county commission has yet to approve the key recommendation of its road funding task force, which was to do now what should have been done when the unincorporated areas were first developed: create institutional arrangements there to fund and manage the maintenance of roads and related infrastructure, such as drainage.
Our suggestion was that the county establish one or more road maintenance (which includes drainage maintenance) districts outside the towns and GIDs, assess taxes in those areas similar to the taxes the towns and GIDs collect for the same purpose, and then spend those funds to address the road maintenance and drainage problems in the unincorporated area.
Those districts would be governed and managed by the county, thus no new agencies, so this doesn't amount to "more government," just a way to provide and direct funding to an area of obvious need.
Of course the problem here is the old bugaboo of "no new taxes." We live in an era where people expect government to fix their problems but don't want to pay for that. Or think government "has enough" and should just redirect funding from other functions to the problem of the day.
That's simply not feasible here. Douglas County is a lean operation and the magnitude of the infrastructure problem in the unincorporated area is large. Robbing Peter to pay Paul will simply create problems in other county functions. And perpetuate the system where those in the towns and GIDs subsidize those who aren't.
We like to refer to events such as the recent floods as "acts of God," as if we have no responsibility. But we also say "God helps those who help themselves." The one-third of Douglas County residents who live in the unincorporated area have been getting help from the two-thirds who don't for years. It's time for those in the unincorporated area to start helping themselves by paying for what they expect from county government.
What can you do? Ask the commissioners to move forward with the recommendation of its road funding task force. We can't solve these problems overnight but we can get started by addressing the critical questions of funding and the institutional arrangements to properly use it to address the problems at hand.
Terry Burnes is a resident of the Gardnerville Ranchos General Improvement District, a retired county planning director and a member of the county road funding task force.