In 1911, Washoe County marked its 50th anniversary with a three-day celebration beginning on July 3.
This year, Washoe County marked its 150th anniversary with a two-hour party at the county complex.
There’s not a lot of money for a big splash this time. But the county’s problems are not just one year’s shortfalls. “If there isn’t some change, 10 years from now the county will still be on a precipice,” said Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung.
Over the past four years, county employees have repeatedly held down their wage demands and agreed to cuts.
On the other hand, the 2009 Nevada Legislature gave the County Commission the authority to enact a government services tax to make up for lost revenues, but commissioners have not been able to work up the political will to do it. In January, they will decide how to cut almost $7 million more from the county budget.
The county’s normal financial problems have been exacerbated by some legal setbacks. It overcharged Incline Village and Crystal Bay residents on property taxes for a number of years and was ordered to repay nearly $20 million to those residents. A dispute over the correct calculation of redevelopment bond payments between the county and Reno city government may well also cost the county millions. One more such hit, say some county officials, and the commissioners would be forced to enact the government services tax, which would produce about $8 million a year, whether they want to or not.
Washoe is not the only county marking its sesquicentennial this year. The Nevada Territorial Legislature created nine counties on Nov. 25, 1861, eight of which still exist, and all of them are having money troubles as recession rolls on in the state. The Nevada Association of Counties annual conference this year featured a commemoration of their 150th anniversaries, but there has been very little money available for other, more elaborate celebrations.
Nevada’s often-criticized tax structure, which since 1981 has caused a boom-and-bust cycle of at least five statewide budget crises, has focused attention mostly on the state government’s problems, and the failure of the Legislature to reform the unstable and unpredictable state tax system. But local governments have felt the reverberation of every one of those crises. Unlike other states, counties have little autonomy in Nevada. State legislators are fond of saying, incessantly, “Counties are creatures of the state.”
Where there isn’t a will
Steve Bradhurst is one of Nevada’s most experienced and admired public administrators. In the 1980s, he headed state government’s effort to block the MX missile system in the state. In the 1990s, he was elected to the Washoe County Commission. In the first decade of this century, he was head of Washoe County’s water resources office. Today, he is director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, which is comprised of seven counties.
He believes the problems of Washoe and other local governments—and state government—are partly institutional and partly political.
“The state constitution ties the hands of state legislators in ways that were very popular and got people elected to office when the public voted on them, but do not contribute to effective or responsible government,” he said. He referred, for instance, to supermajority requirements for tax changes.
But he also said public officials are often unwilling to make unpopular but necessary decisions even when they do have the authority.
“Our economy has changed,” he said, referring to the decline of the casino industry, “and we’re going to be in a world of hurt if we don’t adapt to those changes. There have been studies—a fairly comprehensive study in the 1990s that called for changes that were never made. There was never any follow-up to it.”
This was the Urban Institute/Price Waterhouse study of Nevada’s tax system commissioned by the 1987 Legislature. After it was delivered, no changes resulted. In 2009, legislators like Sheila Leslie of Washoe County said they believed that study was still viable for use. But as Nevada’s economy changes—as online purchasing, for instance, becomes more of a factor and the casino industry becomes less of one—the Urban Institute study loses more and more of its usefulness. A study commissioned by the 2009 Legislature from Moody’s Analytics was never completed after Moody’s defaulted on the contract (“Moody’s Blues,” RN&R, July 29, 2010).
Bradhurst said county officials do the best they can, but they are being stretched thin. He also said there is a reluctance of elected officials—not just legislators—to bite the bullet.
“There comes a point where you just can’t turn your back on services. I think we’re feeling the edge of the box, and I don’t know how you climb out of the box. … Too many of them are more focused on getting reelected rather than on saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to go ahead and make the tough decisions.’ I think we see across the board it’s not a trait that’s unique to legislators.”
He said by not making use of the government services tax, county commissioners risk hearing from legislators, “We gave this authority to you, and you chose not to use it, so don’t come complaining to us.”
December 26, 1861 Charles Smith was appointed first Sheriff of Washoe County, Nevada.
September 17, 1874 Orvis Ring was nominated for Washoe County school superintendent by the county Republican convention.
March 7, 1878 The Washoe County Commission published a defense of its expenditure of $50 ($1,116.06 in 2010 dollars) to aid Native Americans during heavy winter snows, which had been criticized by the county grand jury.
July 18, 1901 The Washoe County Commission, sitting as the Reno Town Board, voted to pave the town’s streets.
August 10, 1901 The Nevada Board of Regents authorized University of Nevada President Joseph Stubbs to request the Washoe County Commission to appoint a special police officer for the University.
March 20, 1903 The Washoe County library board advertised for architects to submit plans for the county’s first library at a cost of no more than $15,000 ($359,242.20 in 2010 dollars).
May 1, 1905 The Washoe County Commission ordered its law firm to continue pursuing its suit against the Floriston Pulp and Paper Company to force the company to stop polluting the Truckee River with pulp wastes.
April 15, 1927 Local police officials in Washoe County warned people to use extra care with their cars and homes because the Transcontinental Highway Exposition in Reno would probably bring “ne’er do wells … petty thieves, hop-heads, and wanderers …”
November 8, 1938 Dewey Sampson of Washoe County was elected the state’s first known Native American member of the Nevada Legislature.
December 13, 1954 Washoe County District Attorney Jack Streeter proposed that the state government of Nevada take over legal gambling and operate it as a state monopoly.
April 27, 1957 Apiarist Walter Bridgeman was called in when a colony of bees abandoned their hive in the cornices of the Washoe County Courthouse and settled on a bus bench with an ad for the Park Wedding Chapel painted on it. aBridgeman used smoke to sedate the bees and coax them into a wooden hive.
August 11, 1960 Members of the Washoe County “intelligence squad” arrested physician Thomas Wyatt, owner of Carson Hot Springs, at his home in Crystal Bay on a charge of attempted abortion.
December 16, 1966 Eddie Scott was elected president of the NAACP of Washoe County.
May 23, 1996 Washoe County Airport Authority board members Dawn Gibbons, Tina Manoukian and Larry Martin walked out of an Authority board meeting in protest against the board refusing to hear their concerns about mistreatment of local residents of Rewana Farms, and their departure halted the meeting because it deprived the board of a quorum.
November 18, 2008 Washoe County Commissioners heard a report from county finance director John Sherman that the county would need to make $9.8 million worth of additional reductions to its budget to have sufficient resources to meet its obligations.