The problem isn’t with GIDs |

The problem isn’t with GIDs

Terry Burnes
Guest Column

Douglas County General Improvement Districts (GIDs) are in the news. And maybe the crosshairs.

The Record-Courier reports, “… Senate Bill 462 would create a committee to review General Improvement Districts to determine whether they’re doing a good job, need changes or even dissolution … the bill … was specifically written with Douglas County in mind since Douglas has more GIDs — 24 — than any other county.”

This idea is apparently the result of some sort of collaboration between County Commissioners and Sen. Settlemeyer.

Let’s take a closer look.

What do GIDs do? Well, the clue is in their middle name. GIDs create and maintain the “improvements” or infrastructure essential to the proper functioning of a community. These vary from one GID to another but can include roads, storm drainage, water and sewer systems, street lighting, even parks.

As in the article, we hear a lot about the number of GIDs here, usually with the implication that it is a problem. But is it?

Why do we have so many GIDs? I think it is the result of several factors.

First, Douglas County has no cities, the usual providers of municipal services, to which new developments are often annexed before proceeding. See Las Vegas, Reno, Henderson, etc.

Second, we have a history of dispersed, piecemeal development, as one developer or another built our many scattered communities, some small, some large.

Third, as with many rural counties, Douglas County doesn’t have a strong record of infrastructure management. GIDs have an advantage in that they naturally achieve what general purpose governments, like cities and counties, struggle to achieve. GIDs focus exclusively on infrastructure, making it a true priority, something Douglas County has always had difficulty with given pressure to fund other priorities.

In these circumstances I think we should be grateful that so many of our communities established GIDs at their inception. That provided governance and taxation to manage and maintain their infrastructure going forward, something that is difficult to do once a community is built out and occupied.

When an infrastructure governance mechanism and taxes to support it are in place prior to occupancy they are a reality accepted by any new resident.

But if the establishment of a governing mechanism and related taxes is deferred until problems arise, such as the need to pay for maintenance of deteriorating facilities, it often meets with resistance from residents who don’t want to pay to maintain their community, preferring someone else pay instead.

There has been much controversy here over the last few years of just that sort, about poor infrastructure, either lacking entirely or now in decline, but with no available funding for its development or maintenance.

A careful review, such as was done by the Road Maintenance Funding Task Force on which I served a few years ago, shows that these problems exist mostly outside our GIDs (and towns, which perform similar functions). Sometimes called the “unincorporated area,” this is where the county allowed developments to be built, often to low standards, without any institutional or funding arrangements for the ongoing maintenance of necessary infrastructure.

In our GIDs and towns on the other hand, residents have long paid extra taxes and elected local boards to fund maintenance and provide management of their infrastructure, which is generally in pretty good shape.

This begs an obvious question: Why would GIDs be targeted for the kind of review proposed by SB462, which would apparently allow the county to dissolve them and assume their duties (and assets), when our most serious infrastructure funding and management problems lie outside our GIDs, in areas where infrastructure is a county responsibility? Doesn’t that get it backward? Shouldn’t the legislature be reviewing county governance instead?

Why would we transfer the responsibility for infrastructure from entities that have been managing it well to an entity that has struggled with that responsibility?

As we all know, answers to questions like this often come down to money.

The truth is that most GIDs are in pretty good financial shape, with well maintained infrastructure and even reserves to help cover future improvements and unanticipated expenses. Might the county have its eye on GID revenues and reserves, perhaps hoping to transfer them to areas where the need is great but tax resistance is strong?

The elephant in the room here is that those in the unincorporated area pay substantially less in property taxes and oppose any change to that, taxes that in our GIDs (and towns) go largely to fund infrastructure development and maintenance. Rather than take on unincorporated residents and their tax aversion, might the easy out for the county be to go after the GIDs instead?

Those of us who live in GIDs might want to keep a firm hand on our collective wallets and a close eye on our county and state representatives as they pursue these “ideas.”

And perhaps those pushing SB 462 should consider instead legislation that would require unincorporated residents to come up to tax parity with residents of our GIDS and towns and devote those added resources to unincorporated infrastructure, before targeting for review and possible dissolution the very agencies that are managing infrastructure well.

The problem lies not in our GIDs. It lies is in the unincorporated area and with those that govern it, where tax resistance is a higher priority than infrastructure maintenance, to the point of pushing legislation that seems to have the hidden motive of forcing those who take responsibility to assume even more, for those who don’t.

Some will reply that this is really about improving government efficiency. Yes, it could be, if structured differently, to evaluate all local agencies and potential consolidations equally. But it doesn’t do that.

Instead it scrutinizes and threatens to put out of business only GIDs. Ironic, since it is they that are doing a good job of infrastructure management. Something the County might do well to emulate, by making arrangements for unincorporated residents to start paying for the infrastructure maintenance they demand.

Terry Burnes lives in Gardnerville.