County down

Impending retirements throw spotlight on county fiscal practices

County Manager Katy Simon presides over a county government in which rumors of departing executives are rampant.

County Manager Katy Simon presides over a county government in which rumors of departing executives are rampant.

Photo By dennis myers

County government sources say Washoe County faces the loss of a substantial portion of its top executive talent.

They report that several department heads have reacted to the county’s loss in a major property tax lawsuit and other financial problems by either putting in for retirement or by seeking positions elsewhere.

One list that is circulating names the county comptroller, assistant comptroller (presumably deputy comptroller), finance director, human resources director, public works director, and parks director among those looking to bail out of county employment.

Parks Director Doug Doolittle said he has put in for retirement in part because it’s a logical time to retire.

“I’m 67 years old, and it’s time to move on,” he said.

But he also said the county’s money problems played a role in his decision.

“It has to do with the financial issues, and we need to reduce costs wherever we can, and I think it’s a prudent move at this particular time, and that’s really all I can say on it,” he said.

Deputy comptroller Cynthia Washburn said she had offered to leave her position if necessary for budget reasons. But after several budget scenarios were considered, the county implemented one that did not call for her departure.

County comptroller Sheri Mendez, finance director John Sherman, human resources director Katey Fox and public works director Dan St. John did not return calls seeking comment. Washoe County Employee Association executive director Carla Fells said she has been told directly that Fox has put in for retirement.

There are also rumors that County Manager Katy Simon and two assistant managers, John Berkich and David Childs, are seeking to leave county government.

“I’m not looking to leave my position, and I don’t think Mr. Berkich is,” Simon said.

She said Childs is considered for other public administrator positions from time to time, and he would like to “get back to California.”

One of the issues being discussed in email exchanges is whether departing department heads will be able to avail themselves of buyouts.

“[T]hey are attempting to classify their retirements as ‘reduction in force’ budget cuts to qualify for the buyouts, even though department heads are not supposed to be eligible,” according to one source.

There is a guideline that discourages such buyouts, according to Simon: “The incentive plan requires that the position receiving incentives, or a comparable one, must be abolished.”

It’s unlikely that positions like parks director or comptroller would be abolished. Simon reported that of 82 applicants to the County Commission for buyouts, four are management level. She declined to name them until the names are given to the County Commissioners, which will be on Sept. 21. She also said, “So far,” when the number four was recited back to her.

Washoe County Employee Association president Penny Rasmussen said she has heard rumors of an exodus and also knows that consideration is being given to combining some departments.

Combining departments would allow the county to abolish “comparable” positions—that is, combining two departments would permit one department head’s position to be eliminated.

“I know that incentives were being offered to all county employees, but incentive buyouts must be approved by department heads,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a lot of departments that were being told [by department heads] that they would not allow any incentives. They’re already staffed as low as they can be, so our concern is how much more work is being placed on the backs of the employees when we’ve already taken on heavier workloads.”

A study commissioned by the county from Management Partners Inc. recommended several consolidations. So far, the County Commission has approved going ahead with one of them—consolidation of public works, planning and building in a “Municipal Services” department.

Fells said there is little left in the building department to be consolidated into the new agency. “But our building department has already been decimated. They’ve laid off all the inspectors except the plan checkers.”

She suggested that the departing executives would be of less consequence than the heavy worker layoffs that have occurred. When asked what would be the consequence of a loss of executive expertise would be, Fells said, “It’s kind of the same as our level of expertise. There’s been a huge drain of workers. It can’t be good.”

Asked if there is some meaning in multiple executive departures coming at the same time, Fells said, “I don’t know if it’s a message about the county or its leadership or not.”

A mass exodus of leading county executives, whatever its impact on administrative efficiency, would likely suggest that those who run county government lack confidence in its finances. The county is plagued by rumors that it will be forced to default under the weight of its debt, which was aggravated by the outcome of a lengthy lawsuit against the county by some Incline Village residents to correct the way their property taxes were calculated by a previous county assessor. The county must pay $43.3 million in property tax refunds and penalties to thousands of Incline taxpayers. It will use county reserves for the purpose.

Even before those payments were authorized, the county had already cut a fifth of its workforce and cut spending by $154 million.

Amid the epidemic of rumors, critics of county budget practices have been active. They say the Washoe County Commission—like the Nevada Legislature—has in the past been loathe to let budget surpluses get too large, preferring to use such moneys to fund various projects. “As was pointed out to me,” according to one source, “the Board of Commissioners happily spent the excess on pet projects. … No putting aside against a rainy day.”

In fact, there are some reserves, and whether they are large enough is a judgment call, but an adverse ruling in the Incline Village case was certainly foreseeable. At the same time, one source said the commissioners were not well informed on the fragility of the economy and tax revenues. He said that about four or five years ago, a county fiscal aide wrote a memo to the County Commission warning that sales tax revenues—which had been positive for many years—had begun declining. The memo was reportedly not forwarded to the county commission by county finance director John Sherman, who explained that the commissioners were interested only in “the big picture.”

As it turned out, the sales tax downturn out to be the big picture—it presaged a multi-year decline in sales taxes that is still going on. Sherman was not available for an interview.

The county has also been criticized for unwise acquisitions, such as the $8 million purchase of the Excel Building at 5205 Mill Street (45,000 square feet on more than eight acres) for floor control and the failed attempt to acquire the Ballardini Ranch for parkland. The Ballardini battle cost the county $11 million to settle a lawsuit. Other parkland acquisition generated increased costs for bathrooms, trailheads, parking and maintenance.

Some county employees say part of the problem has been a lack of scrutiny of county government, meaning less accountability. No local television station still covers county government as a full time beat.

“News coverage has been the pits,” said one worker. “The TV stations check in with the county commission when there’s something really sexy. Those are daily entities that need to fill airtime. The rest of county government—health, assessor—don’t even get that much attention. Newspaper coverage hasn’t been much better.”