Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
John Lee knows the perception people have of North Las Vegas.
Ever since he moved to the city when he was 6 years old, North Las Vegas has battled a negative image of some form or another. When Lee was young, he said the city was perceived to be where the “poor people” worked. In high school, it was perceived to be full of gangs and vandalism. Now, it is a city defined by its financial nightmare.
Lee, a former state senator, became mayor of North Las Vegas earlier this month. He inherited a city that has been ravaged by the recession and housing market crash. North Las Vegas is fresh off its second declaration of emergency to close an $18 million budget deficit, and it has one of the highest rates of foreclosed homes in the country. Meanwhile, the city has strained relationships with its unions, the city of Las Vegas and Clark County.
Yet Lee believes he can breathe life back into the city. It’s where he grew up, where he met his wife, Marilyn Ruesch, when he went on a blind date while they were attending Rancho High School, and where he worked his first job as a dishwasher at the Silver Nugget.
Lee believes his experience in the state Senate and owning two businesses — Vegas Plumbing Service Inc. and Champion Tile and Marble Inc. — will help him revitalize the embattled city.
The Sun caught up with the new mayor to discuss his plans for North Las Vegas.
What issues do you plan to tackle in your first year of office?
Realistically, my goal is to change the image through positive responses to the current needs of the city. I want to get the libraries open; I want to get the pools open this summer for people. I want to get these labor contract problems behind us. So for the first short period of time, it’s kind of cleaning up past challenges so that we’re able to move forward toward our new vision. I want to work a couple hours a day on our challenges and 22 hours of the day on success. I have to continue to move forward with the direction I want to take the city, but I want to put some of this stuff behind us so I can move on without distraction.
What needs to change next year to prevent the city going into another economic emergency?
I will say that there are potential revenues that should be increasing, as we seem to see a brighter day throughout the valley here. The Legislature was very, very helpful in giving us an opportunity to work with funds in other departments that we could put in our general fund to help us. I think that our worst days are behind us, and every day from here on out is building us toward being financially independent.
We have a lot of things on the books. Fifty-five percent of our town hasn’t even been built out, and it’s raw land out there. So we’ve got a lot of people out there looking right now at coming into our community. People that in the past have done business here but have left us, I’m inviting to come back into our city and look at us again. They now have money, where maybe previous to this they were tied up at the bank and couldn’t get loans. So it’s just introducing and reinvigorating our economy through former business leaders in the region.
Where do you stand on Mortgage Resolution Partners, the group that wants to use the city’s power of eminent domain to help underwater homeowners refinance their mortgages? Do you feel that is the right direction for the city?
We had two new people coming onto the council, and it just seemed to me it became an emotional question. I would’ve preferred that that discussion would’ve happened in front of the new council. I’m still trying to catch up, and I don’t know what the city’s position is on this yet. There are so many questions on eminent domain, so many questions on what effect this will have on the building community and the mortgage industry, and how people will view North Las Vegas. I don’t have that information yet.
What do you need to do to repair the relationship with the unions and get them to work with the city?
As soon as we can resolve these (lawsuits), I want to call these people together and say let’s have a meeting, let’s move forward and participate and grow together. We definitely have a need for these people, and the community wants these services, so it’s just getting us to renew those friendships and move forward. We don’t need people being suspicious of each other.
North Las Vegas also has had a rocky relationship with Clark County and Las Vegas. What needs to be done to repair those relationships?
I think North Las Vegas needs to reach out to the city of Las Vegas and Clark County and say what can we do together that is a mutual benefit to each other. Whether that’s sharing parks and rec for certain baseball leagues or the Nike tournament comes in and they need more basketball arenas. To be able to overlap and say, “We need help,” or “We can rent out that building to help you have a larger participation.” I think our sister city is Las Vegas and there are many things that can go across boundary lines. We all think that our most important thing is to take care of our citizens, but sometimes we need to subordinate ourselves to the greater good of the region.
Where do you see the city in four years?
I see four years from now, North Las Vegas will be the second-largest city in the state of Nevada. I see it as a city that will have a lot of pride in itself. I think it’ll be an exciting city for employment. Its image has changed since I lived in North Las Vegas. When I grew up in North Las Vegas, it was seen as, well, that’s where the poor people worked. As we got older, then all of a sudden nasty boys, and gangs and drugs, for some reason that became the image of North Las Vegas. Now the new image for North Las Vegas is, “Ooh, they got financial problems,” and rightly so, and we will recover from that. To pull away from the gangs and graffiti image and change that is a lot harder than pulling out of a financial problem and changing it. I like the position I’m in. If I can bring financial security to the region, then I think I can build the image to the direction I want to build it.