County leaders look ahead to challenges in 1999 |

County leaders look ahead to challenges in 1999

by Sheila Gardner

Douglas County leaders are greeting 1999 with a mixture of caution and optimism about the challenges ahead as the growing community faces the new millennium.

At the top of most everyone’s list are growth and economic diversification, issues Douglas County has been debating for decades.

If County Commission Chairman Jacques Etchegoyhen had his way, he’d be turning back the clock.

“I want to turn a lot of the county’s attention to really doing things to implement portions of the master plan to keep the Valley green,” Etchegoyhen said. “It’s not just adherence to the master plan, but absolutely finding ways to get permanent open space. To me, that’s the essence of the Carson Valley.”

Etchegoyhen said he wants the Valley to stay green for future generations.

“We have given open green space a hell of a lot rhetoric for 40 years, now it’s time to do something about it,” Etchegoyhen said. “I would love for this commission to be known for that. If there was one thing in my tenure as a commissioner for the next four years, I would love to see 25,000 to 30,000 acres of Douglas County green for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Etchegoyhen’s aspirations were echoed by his colleagues on the commission.

Commissioner Don Miner drew a parallel between financial stability and controlled growth.

“One way to insure financial stability is to maintain tight control over future residential growth and see that it is placed in the areas called for by the master plan,” Miner said. “We’re heading in the right direction. We have set a target of 2.5 percent per year as a desirable amount of growth necessary to maintain an economic vitality. If there is no growth, you die. If there is too much growth, it’s too costly.”

Commissioner Kelly Kite said he believed recent national figures that placed Douglas County’s annual growth at 4.6 percent may be a little high based on the number of building permits and certificates of occupancy issued by the county.

But, he said, dealing with growth will be the county’s biggest challenge. Kite represents northern Douglas County, which has seen extensive construction in the past few years.

“I think our biggest challenge will be keeping our economy sound and growing without a big increase in our population,” Kite said. “Our toughest challenge is keeping the county economically sound without explosive residential growth or much growth of any kind.”

Miner added that to continue Douglas County’s financial stability, it’s necessary to broaden the tax base to include retail sales tax generators and lessen the dependence on tourism revenue.

n Better performance. Referring to bitter efforts two years ago to split off the Lake portion of Douglas County, Miner called upon the casinos to improve their financial performance.

“The real challenge for the Lake is to improve their performance in regards to gaming revenue and the attraction of different types of tourists,” Miner said. “When you look at the performance of any one business, you would expect the revenue from that segment of the business to improve. The Lake has been guilty of a serious decline in attracting gaming revenue. Right now, the casinos are at the same point they were 20 years ago. Any business in the world would not succeed if it was at the same level it was 20 years ago. They have to attract a new class of tourists that can help overcome their downturn in doing business.”

Miner, who represents Lake Tahoe, said the challenge for the casinos is to work together.

“You have four properties that are as different as night and day. It takes an almighty effort to bring them together. But that’s the best solution to the dilemma. They can no longer afford to steal business from each other. They must grow revenue from each other cooperatively,” Miner said.

Commissioner Bernie Curtis views the new year as an opportunity to build bridges between all segments of the community.

“We must always remember that government works for the citizens of Douglas County,” Curtis said. “The people of Douglas County are our employers. We must attempt to build bridges of trust between the differing communities in the county and their differing interests. Common goals can be obtained if people work together to find peaceful solutions.”

Curtis said he hoped to improve relations between the towns, general improvement districts and the county.

“We must work together in the spirit of cooperation to make joint efforts to solve infrastructure and other problems,” Curtis said.

He urged continued effort toward economic diversification and implementation of the county’s 1996 master plan.

“We need to lessen the county’s dependence on one industry such as Tahoe gaming and our economic independence should be our goal,” Curtis said. “It’s going to be a challenge to get the quarter-cent sales tax implemented through the Legislature to support our senior services, library, airport and parks.”

He would like to see the county move all its employees into county-owned facilities rather than renting, and he urged residents to keep a close eye on the Legislature to avoid a repeat of the 1997 efforts to create a separate Tahoe county.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge to keep our school district intact and Douglas County intact as separate entities,” Curtis said. “We must maintain vigilance and make sure they aren’t separated. County government needs to be a fair, economically-viable, pro-active, professional service-oriented government. And our emphasis needs to be on peaceful, people-oriented governance.”

Commissioner Steve Weissinger said the recently relased retail sales tax study, which shows where Douglas County residents spend their money, is a blueprint for action. The report indicates that more than half the county’s potential sales tax goes elsewhere because residents shop outside the area.

“The sales tax leakage report kind of justifies what we already knew – that we can’t rely on casinos to be the workhorse for the county,” Weissinger said.

“We need to focus on the business end of Douglas County, then balance things out with the number of homes that already were built in the last 8 to 10 years. It would be a real positive start to the year to know we have those box stores on line,” he said.

The county is expected to learn soon whether Target, Costco and Home Depot are planning to relocate here.

“Any one of the three would be a plus,” Weissinger said. “If we can diversify the economy down here in the Valley and not rely on the clubs so much anymore, we would be in a strong fiscal position.”

Sheriff Ron Pierini said he’s looking at maintaining a level of service in Douglas County challenged by rising growth and limited resources.

“There are more people moving in every day,” Pierini said. “Our workload is increasing by 4,000 more calls every year. Because of that, we can’t do much preventive patrol, which we once had the luxury of doing.”

Pierini said he hopes recent emphasis on economic diversification and redevelopment will bring in more income to fund additional deputies.

“I know other departments have their agendas that need to be addressed, too,” Pierini said, “but our concerns are critical.”

n Playing catch-up. He said the department has been able to retain five officers funded partially through a federal Community-Oriented Policing grant, but the department is still playing catch-up.

“Swing shift is the busiest,” Pierini said. “Our officers are just going call to call. We don’t have that preventative effort anymore. People are saying they don’t see a patrol car as often as they used to. It’s critical that we look at that next.”

He said the department is continuing to emphasize drug awareness education as a crime-fighting tool.

“I know that nationwide we keep showing statistically that drug abuse is down, but with 13 million people in the United States abusing drugs, it’s a problem. We’re seeing an increase in domestic violence that is a side effect of drug and alcohol abuse. I still believe education is the best tool to stop that. The solution is in the family core,” Pierini said.

Douglas County business leaders see the county’s continued pursuit of economic diversification as 1999’s major challenge.

Steve Teshara, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance, said he believes the county needs to better understand the changing nature of the tourism market.

“From our perspective, I am not sure the county really understands the impact of Proposition 5 (Indian gaming) in California and other competitive challenges gaming in Nevada faces. Lake Tahoe is certainly on the front line, ” Teshara said. “If the county is successful in bringing in new retail and continues efforts focused on the North Valley, I think 1999 will be the year we hopefully see those efforts bear some fruit.”

Sandy Cable, executive director of the Business Council of Douglas County, said successful diversification will benefit everybody – residents and businesses.

“The impact of revenues on the county and services the county provides is really dependent on bringing in business, industry and jobs. The recent retail sales tax study points out the fact that Douglas County is exporting sales dollars. They are going outside this county. We have the opportunity to pick up those dollars and bring them back. It’s critical that we do that and it becomes more critical as the years go on. These are all opportunities where businesses can work with what the community wants and we can all take care of ourselves a little bit.”

Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Authority director Dave Bolick said the retail sales study, which detailed where Douglas County residents do their shopping, will form the backbone of the chamber’s efforts.

“I think keeping up with growth will be one of our major challenges in that figures show we’re at 4.6 percent. With the number of new homes we’re seeing, those figures must be accurate,” he said.

Bolick said the county will need to focus on infrastructure in 1999 – improving water, sewer and roads.

“The sales tax leakage study will be a major thrust for the chamber. We’ll be using the leakage study and the metro business activity report, due in February, to target retail that we don’t have now and to keep people shopping here instead of going elsewhere.”

n Stop the leakage. For Fran Houle, executive director of the Douglas County Building Industry Association, stopping the tax leakage is a major issue.

“We have to start getting a sales tax base here, far more than we have had before,” Houle said. “We also have to get in more of a property tax base, for example, industrial, business, that type of thing. Until we deal with those two problems, we’re going to be fiscally in a mess for a long time to come. I’m not saying we’re bankrupt. I’m saying we can never move forward. Things are going to get nothing but more and more expensive in this Valley. We need to take care of that.”

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