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County will consider sales tax

Sheila Gardner

Douglas County voters, with a strong history of anti-tax sentiment, will decide whether to implement a quarter-cent sales tax to help recover some of the revenue lost in the reshuffle of room tax to promote tourism at Lake Tahoe.

Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to place the tax question on this year’s ballot. If the measure is OK’d by voters, the increase still must be approved by the 1999 Nevada Legislature before implementation.

The district attorney, who will prepare the ballot language, has a May 18 deadline for the September primary and a July 20 deadline for the November general election.

County Clerk-Treasurer Barbara Reed advised commissioners that so far, nine state issues – which will appear ahead of county questions – are crowding the November ballot.

The revenue from the sales tax will be earmarked to replace room tax funds which now go to the library, parks and recreation, senior services and the Minden-Tahoe airport.

“Let’s get the revenue replaced and look at the service levels,” said Commissioner Bernie Curtis. “If this doesn’t pass, then we have a whole new crisis.”

Curtis acknowledged the public’s lack of appetite for tax increases. Voters have soundly rejected the last several attempts at raising taxes for any purpose.

“If you placed a property tax on the ballot right now, it would fail. There is very little appetite for the quarter-cent sales tax to fund programs we already have. The phone calls I’m receiving are telling me these funds have to be dedicated. This is a tight, tight community. They don’t want to spend money … paying for the sins of the past.”

Thursday’s decision comes after several months of debate in the aftermath of Assembly Bill 616 passed in July by the Nevada Legislature. The measure requires more room tax funding to go to Lake Tahoe tourism promotion beginning in 1999.

Sandy Cable, executive director the Business Council of Douglas County, said her organization would support the sales tax increase along with a review of county programs.

“We won’t support a property tax,” Cable said.

She also added that the Business Council rejected any proposed business license or utility fee.

In a report prepared for commissioners, County Manager Dan Holler said a property tax would be the most straightforward method to replace the room tax revenue.

“A 10-cent tax rate hike could be used to offset the loss of the room tax revenue,” Holler’s report said.

Using an averaged assessed value of $150,000 for a single family home in Douglas County, the impact of a 10-cent rate increase would be $52.50 per household. A 10-cent rate increase would still leave Douglas County with the third lowest property tax rate and below surrounding counties.

A successful hike in the county sales tax would raise the level to 6.75 percent. Currently, Douglas County is at the minimum rate of 6.5 percent. The state limit is 7 percent.

Nate Leising, who chaired the citizens committee which looked at room tax replacement options, urged the board to consider cutting services.

“All we talk about is how to get more revenue. Is it a fundamental role of government to provide all things to all people regardless of needs and who pays?” Leising asked.

“Increasing taxes hurts those who can least afford it and is bad for business,” he said.

Leising strongly recommended privatization and increased user fees for such programs as the airport, and parks and recreation programs.

“Why should I be forced to pay taxes for those who can afford to pay for themselves?” he asked.

Several residents spoke in rebuttal to a letter to county commissioners from Jane Pinckney, operator of Minden Montessori regarding the county’s preschool operation. Pinckney told the board Thursday night she believed she was writing in confidence to the board, but commissioners told her the correspondence was public record.

In her letter, Pinckney said the county preschools had an unfair advantage over private facilities such as hers because the county schools don’t incur all the expenses the private sector does and could charge lower rates.

Copies of the letter, along with a response from Community Services Director Scott Morgan, were distributed to parents of children who attend the county’s Discovery Center preschool program.

“I am not against youth activities, sports or county preschool,” Pinckney said Thursday. “My sole purpose was to express my opinion that the competition is unfair. Is it the purpose of government to operate in competition with all small businesses?”

Rick Campbell, Gardnerville resident and past president of the Business Council of Douglas County, said he supported the sales tax increase.

“I’ve never supported a tax in my life and I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he said. “This tax increase needs to be dedicated because these are replacement funds.”

Convincing voters to approve the increase will take a grass roots, door-to-door campaign, said Commissioner Steve Weissinger.

“How can I sell this?” asked Commissioner Kelly Kite. “I feel bad we haven’t built enough confidence among the people that they’ll say, ‘Go ahead. We support you now.’ We’ve got to demonstrate that we’re operating parks and recreation the best way we can with the money we’ve got,” Kite said.

Commissioner Jacques Etchegoyhen said he placed his faith in the community.

“We don’t have to sell anything,” he said. “It’s their county. Folks should care enough about it no matter who sits up here.”

If successful, the sales tax hike would take effect in July 1999.