Tangled up in red
Washoe County’s Health District expands its authority amid turmoil and complaints
Washoe County's Health District is under fire. The department is accused of retaliation, misuse of resources, and—perhaps most relevant to Reno's housing crisis—unnecessarily delaying development projects.
A number of critics—including small business owners, contractors, former employees, and high-level local government officials—said that the district is overreaching its authority.
One source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called the Health District a fiefdom that lacks recourse for those with grievances against the agency.
Rebuilding an agency
The Great Recession was not kind to Washoe County. The Health District in particular suffered budget cuts and staff reductions. During the recession, the Health District staff was cut from 204 full-time employees to 151, a 26 percent reduction.
In response, the District grew its budget in recent years, in part through fee increases—some as high as 400 percent. Those increases were passed in 2015 and coincide with a reduction of general fund dollars going into the Health District, in order for the department to be less reliant on tax dollars.
A 2014 review of the Health District recommended the budget increase.
The Health District “overall is modestly staffed when compared with national norms collected during the recovery from the recent recession,” reviewers from Washington D.C.'s Public Health Foundation wrote.
Between 2013 and the county's most recent budget, the Health District's revenues increased from $18 million to $23 million; 42 percent of current revenue is “due to fee increases and an increase in workload,” according to a 2018 budget report. A district spokesperson said, however, that the district's fee revenue is only 25 percent, up from 16 percent, prior to the 2015 fee increase.
“The difference is in part due to higher fees but also due to a heavier volume in permit activity with the upswing in the economy, and improvements in Medicaid billings,” said district spokesperson Phil Ulibarri.
Many cautioned the Health District against raising fees, which negatively impact small businesses, according to those who testified against the fees to the District Board of Health, the group that oversees the Health District. The Washoe County Commission has no direct authority over the department.
One official said that the department has generated so much ire in the community that officials, including Mayor Hillary Schieve and County Commissioner Bob Lucey, met with the Governor's Office seeking help.
“Projects were getting held up all over town, and the logjam largely resided with the Health District,” said Reno City Council member Neoma Jardon.
That conflict, involving the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, came to a head last fall when local jurisdictions gathered for a public meeting that included officials from Sparks, Washoe County, Reno, NDEP and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority.
Max Haynes, who works with Alpen Mortgage and finances affordable housing projects, spoke at that meeting.
“I have employees that are getting to the point where housing is a crisis, rents are skyrocketing, and … the key to affordable housing is really supply,” he said.
Haynes said he's financing more than 300 homes for small- to medium-sized builders.
“Delays cost them large amounts of money,” he added. “There's clearly an issue of delay. We have the data in our projects to show that it's delaying projects between two and six months minimal by not coordinating agencies.”
Washoe County's District Health Officer Kevin Dick, who oversees the Health District, said at that meeting that the state found that a Health District review process was not in conformance with state regulations.
“The state … became aware that the review process that we had at the Health District for water projects was not in conformance with [Nevada Administrative Code] requirements,” he admitted. “We received direction from [the NDEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency] to work to modify our review process, to do a better job of ensuring that the NAC requirements were being met.”
The Health District denied that it was violating state law, but Dick said that the delays by the agency caused a disruption among developers.
“We had several meetings [with developers and builders] to hear those concerns, some of them quite heated,” he explained.
Dick said changes to TMWA's new ownership of Washoe County's water systems contributed to the problem, as well as “an uptick in economic development activity. The Health District did not do a good job of communication on the plan review process to the development community.”
County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said that the problem only arose because of a staff change at the Health District.
“We had a Health District staff member who decided to interpret the code book a different way,” Hartung said. “TMWA has a great staff of highly competent engineers. Design standards that had been in place for years were no longer valid. We had to bring the state into the conversation.”
Sparks City Councilman Ed Lawson said that despite the meeting last year, water projects are still getting delayed.
“It was an arbitrary decision to hold up permits for projects that used to flow right through the Health District,” he said. “They unilaterally changed that. We thought it improved, but … recently … I heard the same thing is going on again. We're killing our developers and affordable housing projects because we're holding up permits for months at a time. It costs everybody—the city and contractors.”
Up for interpretation
One local contractor said his projects are consistently held up due to differing code interpretations.
Brodie Lewis of Lewis Construction builds garages and said that the District has repeatedly held up his projects for what he called bogus reasons. He said he and his clients have experienced retaliation by Health District staff.
“The interpretation of these regulations by staff, and not the actual adherence or enforcement of the regulations, has caused a great deal of difficulty in local contractors getting approval of plans, inconsistent denial of plans, and disproportionate approval and denial of similarly submitted plans between different contractors,” he said. “The issue is the change and revision requirements requested by the Health District staff after an initial denial is made.”
Lewis explained that a contractor submits to the District plans in accordance with county code. The Health District then often demands changes to the plans.
“Often, and inconsistently between contractors, the Health District will deny these site plans, requesting additional information not required by code,” he said. “These denials are not consistent with the regulations and cause great delays to not only the contractor, but the public customer as well.”
Homeowner Paul Stevenson was one of those customers. Stevenson said that he wanted a garage on his property. He hired Lewis but said that Health District officials required so many changes that he ended up paying more than $7,000 to complete the project.
“The things they're asking of Paul aren't even in the requirements,” Lewis said.
“We paid $1,500 for the first engineer to come out, and she followed the guidelines,” Stevenson explained. “We turn it in to the Health Department, and they decided it's not up to their standards. We end up getting it re-engineered by a different engineer.”
Those plans were also rejected, Stevenson said, causing him to hire another engineer, Ray Pezonella of Pezonella Associates.
“Ray gives us a plan, and they again reject it,” Stevenson explained. “They make Ray go out and core drill what's on my property. Nobody in the neighborhood has ever had an issue with their septic tank—ever. It ended up costing me a whole bunch of money.
“Then they tell me I had to cut 15-feet off of a hill behind his house, and the next day they wrote me a ticket for $400 for [unpermitted construction],” Stevenson added. “They told me to do it, then they wrote me a ticket it for it. I had to pay it.”
When all was said and done, Stevenson said he did everything required by the Health District. It still denied his permit.
The district considers all new construction to require the location of on-site sewage systems, so all new construction of residential properties “should have an existing permitted sewage disposal system and adequate space to place replacement trenches when the original trenches fail,” said Dick. Only when there are discrepancies between plans and district records, or between plans and what is observed on the property, will the department be given a list of corrections.
Pezonella said the department's requested changes on the project show a lack of understanding by Health District personnel.
“They read the regulations wrong, and, as a result, we had to design a different system,” he said. “It was not the best system to use, but it satisfied the county. Some are interpreting regs in a different way than what other individuals did. It does disrupt your business day-to-day. They are lacking professional engineers at this time, and those individuals would have a better understanding.”
Stevenson said that it wasn't until he threatened to contact an attorney that the district finally approved his project. Documents show that the process to get his garage permitted took from July of 2015 until February of the following year.
Lewis called the process “a crap-shoot and a guessing game.”
“I work in four neighboring states, in all counties in Nevada, and I cannot find any Health District that is less efficient, that requires more of its builders, and that charges more for its services,” he said.
The Health District admitted delays with some projects but said those are because of increasing development. The Health District's Chad Westom said there is a problem with project approvals, but he blamed the economy.
“The development of community is really high right now, so we have turnaround times that I'm not fully comfortable with,” he told the District Board of Health at its March meeting. “We're working to bring those down. We've diverted staff from other programs temporarily to review plans … so it's a daily meeting and brainstorming on what we can do to streamline things further. But we're in good shape with our current staff.”
Bad for business
It's not just construction projects being delayed. Small businesses are also being negatively affected by the Health District, according to multiple sources.
Joseph Williams, speaking during public comment at the March Board of Health meeting, said an increase to his fees was a hardship. He's an ice-cream delivery man and has been for nearly 25 years.
“I don't work all year round,” he told the board. “All I sell is ice cream. It's all packaged. I don't deal with food.”
He said his fees in the past year went from $103 to $485. The new amount, he said, is because the Health District now considers him a food truck.
“It's kind of hard to come up with that right now,” Williams pleaded to the District Board of Health. “I put it on my credit card to pay it.”
County Commissioner Kitty Jung, who chairs the health board, assured Williams that his issue would be addressed, either by a reduced fee or a payment plan.
“It might have been an oversight,” she said.
It wasn't. At a later meeting, it was determined that the food truck regulations applied to the ice cream man.
Another would-be entrepreneur, who has a backyard vineyard, wanted to start selling his wines commercially, something recently allowed under state law, but local government requirements are too stringent for the business to be profitable, he said.
“They are requiring a new private water system, which is all engineered, and a new septic system,” said Jason Schultz, who noted that the water was for washing equipment, not for the wine. “That's tens of thousands of dollars. For a small person, it's too costly.”
Homebrewers are being affected as well. The annual Backwash event and homebrew competitions, events that raise money for charities, are in jeopardy because the Health District allegedly started enforcing a state law.
“The health department … instructed all parties that they would be enforcing that code … that pertains to any establishment that gets a health inspection in order to operate,” wrote a homebrewer on Facebook. “So that includes basically anyone that serves food, produces food, breweries and distilleries. Venues such as parks, churches, non-food related businesses are OK to hold an event.”
That means options are limited for such events. “This has also been made a statewide issue as Washoe County contacted Clark County as well, and the same situation now exists down there,” the homebrewer lamented. “There was no interest in working with us. They told us to change the state law.”
Afraid of retaliation
Ask around the community about the Health District, and many will eagerly, but quietly, opine. When it comes to speaking on record, few want their name attached to criticism of the Health District. The common excuse: they're petrified of retribution.
One elected official, refusing to speak on the record, was clear: “Everyone's afraid of retaliation. The Health District is costing developers millions of dollars.”
According to Stevenson, who wanted a garage and had to pay for additional engineering plans, more fees, and the fine imposed by the Health District, recourse was limited. Applying for a variance, something Dick stresses is an option, would have cost him another $2,200.
That's the route encouraged by Health District staff.
“Decisions made by staff may be elevated to Health District management for consideration,” said Ulibarri. “Aggrieved individuals may address their concerns directly to the District Board of Health during public comment at any regularly scheduled meeting.”
The ice cream man's request for leniency over his massive fee increase, however, was denied in part because Health District staff defended the increase to the board.
“The fee does include the cost of licensing and inspecting that vehicle as well as the food truck depot that the vehicles are required to come from and return to,” said Westom. “We have costs of the division that we have to recoup.”
The Health Board voted to keep the fee as-is. Board members said they did not want a complaint about fees to set a policy-changing precedent.
Local pub Pignic is alleged to have experienced retaliation when the District changed regulations that didn't cover Pignic's model of allowing customers to bring in meat to cook on Pignic's grills. The department consequently shut down the grilling.
Pignic representative Tom Clark said it took months for the pub to finally get approved for a variance to grill, which was unanimously approved by a Health Department committee.
Public records showed district staff texting to one another while Clark was testifying on behalf of Pignic during a public meeting. Health District supervisor Jim English called Clark “a moron” in texts to his colleagues while Clark was speaking during public comment.
Clark said he's never met English and that he was advocating on behalf of his client. The experience, he explained, showed him how difficult it was deal with the Health District, and that it is risky for a small business owner to openly speak out against the government agency.
A former Health District employee said that contractor Brodie Lewis is a target of retribution by Health District staff because Lewis is outspoken. Lewis protested fee increases in 2015, and a written statement he submitted drew a lengthy written rebuttal by Dick.
“They target Brodie Lewis—badly,” the former employee told me.
Ulibarri said that the department staff “are required to follow the county code of conduct, and staff are held accountable.”
Can’t get no satisfaction
The 2014 review of the department by the Public Health Foundation recommended the agency strengthen its customer focus within four months of the report.
“Ongoing feedback enables bilateral communication and education, decreasing misunderstanding and dissatisfaction,” the report's authors wrote. “Ongoing customer satisfaction data should be acquired for all programs … to assure all customers are invited to share their viewpoints.”
That did not happen. The district was only able to provide customer satisfaction data for one of its divisions: community and clinical health services.
But Ulibarri said that district staff regularly meet with contractors and builders “to communicate regarding district programs and discuss any concerns.”
Commissioner Jung often praises the Health District's performance, giving kudos to Dick.
“The Washoe County Health District is starting to take, under the leadership of your district health officer [Dick] a bigger role of the overall community health and how we can improve that,” she said at a recent meeting. “That's a very new step for us in the … last three years or so. I commend that.”
Those accolades don't satisfy the community's Health District critics, some of whom are mobilizing to take action at a higher level.
After Pignic's fracas with the Health District, Clark started formulating a plan. Small businesses, and anyone with issues in front of the Board of Health, are getting together to present a more unified force—the idea being that, by operating as a committee, individuals will receive less blowback from the Health District. That's according to Clark.
Pignic had the courage to stand up and speak and paid the price, he said. “We are building a foundation of support leading to the 2019 legislative session to make fundamental changes in the way the Board of Health operates. Our goal is to try to bring accountability to the Health District. Now, the only way you can do that is to sue, and many small businesses don't have those resources.”