Flood needs drive property increase
The Washoe County Commission has approved a property tax increase of .0248 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to go on the ballot for voter approval in November.
The money is being sought to leverage additional federal funding with local matches. The new proposed taxes would generate abut $400 million, but would trigger only about $182 million in federal funds. Federal funds often require a match of 20 to 25 percent, but in this case the local tax would raise 220 percent of the federal money sought. Truckee Meadows Flood Management Authority executive director Jay Aldean said that is because years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers became so exasperated by Nevada officials that they said, “We’re walking away from the project.”
“Even though we had a powerful senator, it was not enough to keep them from walking away,” he said.
They were coaxed back, but the 35/65 match split previously discussed was gone.
In addition, there is no certainty that the federal funds would be obtained if the ballot measure is enacted. That measure reads only that enactment would “greatly help [local officials] to negotiate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for federal funding authorized by Congress in 2014.”
Former county finance manager John Sherman, now a consultant, said approval of the ballot measure would add about $26 a year for someone with a new $100,000 home. However, he did not give a similar estimate of the level the increase would bring such a home’s total property tax up to.
The funding raised would be used on downstream mitigation, elevating eligible homes, river terracing and restoration, channel widening at Vista Narrows, construction of levees and flood walls, and engineering, design and permitting.
Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler, who voted for the ballot measure, nevertheless was concerned that the entire county would have to pay the tax increase for flood control measures that benefit only those in the Truckee Meadows.
It was a complaint that had been heard in November 1998, when a lame duck county commission approved sales tax increases for flood control and lowering the railroad tracks in the downtown.
On that occasion, train trench supporters Mike Mouliot and Sue Camp had been beaten in the election by trench opponents Ted Short and Pete Sferrazza just days earlier after a campaign in which the trench was the principal issue. With Camp and Mouliot’s votes, the train trench and flood control each got one-eighth of a one-eight-cent sales tax increase.
Since then, that one-eighth of a cent has produced 20 years of funding for flood control during which it has fluctuated from about $5 million to $8 million annually.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20 percent of Nevada families pay 6.1 percent of their income in sales tax. The wealthiest one percent of Nevada families pays six-tenths of one percent. That fund has generated from nine to six million dollars annually. With 20 years of sales tax payments for flood control behind them, if the property tax were raised to pay for flood control, would the sales tax for flood control be repealed?
Apparently not. No provision has been made for that change.
Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus told This Is Reno that the ballot measure is a mistake because it does not address “vulnerability to irrigation ditch breeches or North Valleys flooding. … The money proposed for this vote will not be eligible to help this area or others like it.”
When is the end?
Brekhus later said she is having a difficult time deciding what to do on the ballot measure.
“I am really torn about the parcel tax for the river now that the decision has been made that I argued against for months,” she said. “I think that it is a bad reflection of faith in local government if a vote goes down just like one went down in Reno in the early 2000s. The river should have to live on the one-eighth sales tax and everything else done by special assessment.”
Jeff Church, who worked on the committee that wrote the opposition ballot language for the tax increase, said in a prepared statement, “We already pay a special (sales) tax for flood control. … The tax exceeds the constitutional 3 percent cap limit on property tax.”
Flood control for western Nevada has been going on for about 70 years without—if the website of the Truckee Meadows Flood Management Authority is an indication—any sign of flood control finally being accomplished, other than for ongoing upkeep and maintenance of facilities.
Two mountain dams have been constructed, levees have been built, the Truckee’s channels have been deepened and obstructions eliminated, river reefs have been dynamited, but there seems to be no finite goal for completion of flood control. A federal Flood Control Act of 1954 was helpful in these steps.
Aldean said many flood control projects around the nation face the same open-ended search for completion. He said this region was able to reach potable water and waste water benchmarks in the 1970s, thanks to federal block grants available in the early ’70s and enactment of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.
But after the 1970s, federal commitments to long term projects flagged.
“All the big flood control projects are out there unfinished,” he said, adding, “Flood was always out there as the red-headed stepchild.”
Climate change can change the parameters of what is needed for flood control, but that has not been made known as a barrier to completion.