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August 30, 2015

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Answers: Clark County:

Could another fee be solution to water woes?

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Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak

Last week’s story about how a new fee schedule for water customers resulted in monthly bills two and three times higher for some small businesses generated a flood of calls to the office of Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

Sisolak is one of two county commissioners — the other is Tom Collins — on the board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The board includes representatives from seven member agencies, including Boulder City, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Las Vegas.

The board approved the new fee structure in February, but it first showed up on bills in May.

“People are angry,” Sisolak said.

Does he think there’s something that can be done?

The new fee structure was enacted to last three years. After three years, a new structure is likely to be put in place. If the economy improves, customers might see their bills decrease. If it doesn’t, the best guess is to expect more of the same — or worse. The Water Authority, after all, has some $3.3 billion in bonds to pay off. That money was borrowed to pay for numerous infrastructure projects, including the behind-schedule third intake pipeline into Lake Mead.

But back to your question: What can be done?

Without attacking the structure directly, Sisolak has an idea. But he said when he previously proposed it, the Water Authority turned up its nose to it.

What’s the idea?

First of all, the main cause of skyrocketing bills is the need for the Water Authority to pay off a huge debt in the face of dwindling revenue. Its previous source of funding — water hook-ups — fell from a high of $188 million in 2005-06 to about $10 million in 2011.

The economic crash not only killed new businesses and homes, it led to tens of thousands of foreclosures. Sisolak is asking the question: What is the feasibility of tacking a water reconnection fee onto the price of a resold home? Electric and cable companies force new homeowners to pony up reconnection money. Why not do the same for water?

At least that’s what he wants to discuss at Tuesday’s meeting of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

Then where would that money go? Directly to debt repayment?

That’s what Sisolak wants. “This money has to go toward retiring the debt,” he said. “I’m the last person in favor of raising fees, but we have spent the money. We’re concerned about paying it back.”

But don’t homebuyers already pay a transfer tax/fee? Wouldn’t they complain about yet another fee?

Probably. But their anger might also depend upon the size of the fee. There may also be issues about the authority to levy such a fee. In any case, Sisolak said he wanted to open the door to discussion to see if anything could be done to mitigate the financial toll the new fee structure is taking on small businesses.

•••

The kind of dispute that erupted a few weeks ago between county commissioners and Dr. Lawrence Sands, Southern Nevada Health District chief health officer, might be tempered if expected legislation is passed by state lawmakers next year.

First of all, what’s this arguing all about?

The county had to cut the amount of money allotted to the Health District. Sands responded with a letter saying the Health District board — which includes two county commissioners — already approved its budget. So the county had no right to change its funding.

How would new legislation change anything?

State Sen. David Parks has tried three times to pass legislation to make the Southern Nevada Health District board more like the board of the Regional Transportation Commission. That is, its members are all elected officials. The Health District’s board contains an equal number of elected officials and private citizens. State law says the private citizens must include two doctors, one nurse, one environmental health expert, someone from gaming and someone from a nongaming business.

County officials say unelected board members aren’t accountable to voters, so it is easier for them to make decisions without fear of reprisals. A frequently cited example: Two years ago, the board gave 5 percent raises to most Health District employees while many county employees saw no increases.

Will Parks introduce the legislation again?

He said last week he would introduce a bill draft that may include the “electeds-only” language. This time, he added, it might have a better chance of passage.

“I’ve talked to other elected officials who individually expressed a level of concern” about the makeup of the board, he said. “So we’ll see.”

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