When it comes to merging the cities and county, not everyone wants to play ball
During their turbulent history the Japanese coined the term gekokujyou, which means the bottom overcoming the top, or the low conquering the mighty. Some say gekokujyou may well be the result of merger talks between the city of Reno and Washoe County.
On the November ballot, Washoe County voters were asked to weigh in on Question 2, which asked: “Should the separate local governments of Reno and Washoe County pursue a consolidation of the two governments if such consolidation can be shown to reduce costs and/or improve services?”
The measure passed by 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent. Nearly 9,000 voters chose not to vote either way, making the actual support for Question 2 just 50.3 percent.
According to the county registrar’s office, Reno voters were much more enthusiastic about consolidation (by 62 to 38 percent) than were voters in unincorporated Washoe County, who rejected the idea by an eight-point margin.
Likewise, voters in the city of Sparks rejected the measure by 8 percent. Sparks has repeatedly said it does not want to merge governments with Reno.
Although Question 2 was only advisory, city and county staff are moving ahead with a shared services feasibility study on combining the human resources, information technologies and purchasing departments of the two governments.
The city of Reno frequently has sought government consolidation with either Sparks or Washoe County over the past several years, but it was Washoe County Commissioner John Breternitz who put this proposal on the November ballot.
According to Breternitz, who is also chair of the Shared Services Committee, the current economic climate makes it necessary to find creative ways to save money rather than cut services to balance the budget.
“To my mind, it’s less about politics than it is about, how are we going to maintain the services we are required to maintain in times when there is no light at the end of the tunnel?” Breternitz said.
Proponents say that as much as $30 million could be saved through consolidation of services, if not of government. Officials say as many as 60 departmental mergers have taken place or are in the pipeline, including combining the Truckee Meadows Water Authority with Washoe County’s water utilities division.
Many residents of the unincorporated county and some commissioners view WC-2 with suspicion, calling it an attempt by Reno to take over the county. They point out that the City Council has already ordered staff to begin working out the process of merging governments before any studies have been done.
But Breternitz said people should read the ballot question again, emphasizing that consolidation will only occur if it can be shown to reduce costs and/or improve services. If that proves true, Breternitz said, then it would be time to approach the legislature for approval.
“I think the time is ripe for consolidation considering that all the local entities are in the same boat,” said Reno City Councilmember Jessica Sferrazza. “I think there’s true duplication out there and true cost savings to be had.”
Sferrazza said it is time to consolidate governments as well as departments and that governmental consolidation should happen sooner rather than later. Current council thinking is that a new super-governing body would be created by merging both the city and county elected bodies into one.
“In these times, do we really need all these boards?” Sferrazza said. “I don’t think this is going to happen overnight, but the place to start is at the top.”
Sferrazza said she thinks it will take five years to complete integration of the two governments and their various services. She said there are many questions about what form such a government would take.
Some critics fear moving forward with consolidation without all the specifics in place is playing into a takeover of the county by the city. City officials are postulating renaming the area “Reno County” with a panel of 11 elected officials, six of whom would probably be drawn from existing city council seats.
One thing is clear: Officials want to move forward quickly so they can craft an agreement before the legislature convenes in February. A joint meeting of the city and county panels is scheduled for Feb. 1, but most officials expect an agreement before then.
Another reason for speed is that five city councilmembers and two county commissioners are in their final terms. Creating a new governing body could reset the clock and allow them to run again, according to Commissioner Bonnie Weber.
Weber said consolidation would create a city of 400,000 people with bigger government, which she opposes.
“I don’t support consolidation. How can you consolidate two municipalities into the county when Sparks doesn’t want to play?” Weber said. “I don’t see legally how you can do that.”
Weber said it might be different if Reno wanted to come under county control, but that is not going to happen.
For many years, the city has accused the county of fiscal inequity. The city maintains that its residents pay more for their services than do the residents of unincorporated Washoe County. Both entities have paid for numerous studies that contradict each other, but Weber said that with consolidation, taxes for county residents would certainly go up to help pay for Reno projects.
Weber also points out that WC-2 only asks whether consolidation should be pursued, not whether it should be considered a done deal. However, the legislature has directed Washoe County to look for ways to consolidate, whether it is just services or a full government merger.
“If that’s the case, why not let the legislature figure it out?” Weber asked, adding that legislators from the rest of the state will likely approve a consolidation bill because they don’t have a dog in the fight.
Still, critics point out any consolidated government would create one of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas and that economies of scale tend to disappear at that point, negating any supposed savings.
“I think we’re being buffaloed by a lot of people,” Weber said. “I think the city is hurting very badly, and this is their answer.”
Weber said that whatever the governing bodies do in open session, she fully expects the legislature to create consolidated government behind closed doors. Furthermore, she doubts the question will come back to voters before it becomes law.