Candidates vying for Carson City’s supervisor seat from Ward 3 clash over downtown changes and offer subtle shades of differing emphasis regarding other issues.
Lori Bagwell, the challenger, opposed the city sales tax hike for downtown and other capital improvement plans. She is concerned “frills” are taking the focus from basic service needs. John McKenna, the incumbent, supported the tax passed by the Board of Supervisors to help boost vibrancy downtown and across the city. He also says some service needs can be done efficiently and cost effectively by contracting for them.
Bagwell, a businesswoman and retired Nevada Department of Corrections deputy director, touts her candidacy as a chance for residents to choose change.
“I believe that I bring a different perspective,” she said. “I think you have to follow through with what you say. I don’t believe the other candidate has shown that.”
McKenna, a certified public accountant who served on the school board before becoming supervisor from Ward 3 in 2011, called himself “a known quantity in this town” who advocates businesslike approaches to running local government.
“I don’t publicize it much,” he said, “but this is my 20th year as an elected official.”
McKenna said he uses his CPA skills and business acumen to separate solid information from misinformation as he makes difficult public sector decisions. In a world changed by such things as modern communications and the recent recession, he said, such skills are crucial. In part, he added, changes mean human beings are no longer a localized natural resource but operate instead in an international marketplace.
“I think we need less management, more efficient management,” he said. “I come from the business side. I don’t come from the side that says we need more bodies.” He said even though city government is lean, it employs too many.
Bagwell said the city’s complement of about 550 workers full time and 250 part time adds up to “just the right amount if the services you have are what you want.” She cited a Moss Adams LLP internal audit study upcoming to help sort out that question, but also said she looks to stave off or eliminate the frills she talked about in order to keep the city’s budget attuned to basic services.
The two candidates responded to a series of similar questions in separate sit-down interviews with the Nevada Appeal. Bagwell’s view city government needs to prioritize basic needs over frills prompted a follow-up question about whether Carson City is indulging in such froth.
“I think we’re moving toward the frills, and that’s why I’m running,” she replied.
Bagwell suggested easing into downtown change rather than cutting Carson Street from four lanes to three, widening sidewalks and sprucing that business area up to enhance foot traffic. As chairperson of the Redevelopment Authority Citizens Committee, she backs the RACC-endorsed idea of closing 3rd Street just off Carson Street downtown for special events.
“It’s a small section in which we could test the theory,” Bagwell said. She said that concept is “much smaller and wouldn’t require the taxpayer to go into debt.” Reminded the tax already is in place and bonded indebtedness is expected before she would take office if she wins, she said the funding could be redirected or paid off after a decade rather than longer term.
Additional projects in the city-approved capital improvement plans, which are based on the tax hike and bonding, include: improving other major business corridors; building a multi-purpose athletic center; constructing an animal shelter, and upgrading the community center. A plan of expenditure envisions them all, but each still needs board authorization votes, prompting Bagwell to challenge proceeding with the current downtown design plan.
“We don’t have to do it,” she asserted.
McKenna, who supported the tax increase as funding for the entire project package, has stressed long term community backing for the athletic center and the need for other upgrades. But he didn’t duck the issue regarding downtown. Looking forward to 2019, he said the freeway bypass will be completed so what gets done downtown and in the community can mean “it will either be a wasteland or a vibrant community people come to.”
He also said he ran for a second term “basically to finish out what we started, and to move the city to a point where it can deal with the world as it exists now.”
That changed world — given his view it was altered markedly by the Internet, recession and other factors — prompted his preference for contracting over a swelled city staff. He cited the board’s decision to farm out city code enforcement and building services to Charles Abbott Associates, Inc., a private company.
“I’d like to see more of it,” he said. “We contract out just about everything we can now,” but, “I think there’s room for more of it; for shrinking the size of city government.” Despite that, he sees the city operating currently in a lean manner because job slots have been cut to cope with the recession.
Bagwell, meanwhile, cited another way to contract with the private sector but it doesn’t involve people. She proposed as one of her new direction ideas a movement toward leasing some city fleet vehicles. She said the fleet has aged so much during and after the recession basic public safety protection could suffer.
“I don’t want to see a call go out to a peace officer and he can’t roll,” she said. Calling for consistent and timely vehicle replacements, she said her leasing idea could mean “we don’t have to constantly revisit this issue.”
She returned often to her theme basic needs must come first, frills should be avoided, and tax relief should come after bedrock service needs are addressed. She acknowledged the board had provided some tax relief by lowering the property tax rate from $3.56 to $3.54 per $100 in assessed valuation, or about $14 on a new $200,000 home, but challenged the value of that from two perspectives.
First, she said, the relief was small and has been offset, and then some, by the sales tax hike. Consumers will pay about $12.50 more in tax for $10,000 in purchases of taxable goods.
Secondly, she said, such tax relief was premature given needs.
Over a year the property rate cut tax will ding city coffers about $100,000 overall, returning it to property owners, while the sales tax hike will raise about $1 million. But Bagwell’s point was the 60 percent coming from residents, along with some 40 percent from visitors, would go for new projects rather than ongoing needs.
McKenna, meanwhile, contends the property tax relief fulfills in part a promise to voters when the city years ago had to raise property taxes by a dime due to the recession. He said it was done to keep services, including fire protection, solid. He said as revenue streams showed signs of recovering earlier this year he moved to decrease the property tax rate a dime, but the board decided just two cents would be lopped off for now.
“I’m going to hold their feet to the fire,” he said, by continuing if re-elected to propose to colleagues the property tax rate go lower.
Both candidates want to address problems of deferred maintenance, saying it’s costly over the long term. Bagwell focused on the fleet, though she also said roads are bad; McKenna, as both board and Regional Transportation Commission member, decried the lag in street maintenance. “Deferred maintenance is deferred tax,” he said.
Outside the fiscal arena, Bagwell proposed revisiting city zoning to open up land in areas for development. She mentioned the airport as a particular spot so manufacturing or other business can be lured to that northeast part of the community.
McKenna said not only street maintenance, but promoting and enhancing local government’s public contact and involvement are important.
He wants to open information up to all citizens by using such things as live streaming of meetings and better use of the Internet, other electronic methods and future communications tools.
Bagwell cited good governance as another priority and said she favors the city manager government form with which she’s familiar in Carson City. She said someone is in charge and responsible. McKenna said many people like the city manager form.
While he didn’t advocate scrapping it, he said, he always questions the need for a city staff position when one opens up.
He raised the question when Larry Werner left last December, but added abandoning Carson City’s current arrangement is unlikely any time soon despite the changing world.
“It could happen,” he said. “Probably not in my lifetime.”