Washoe County’s population has exploded in recent years. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that roughly 420,000 people lived in the county. Now, that number is more than 471,000. That growth has led to a housing crunch and greater demands on services across the region.
KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Marsha Berkbigler, the incumbent Republican running for a third term representing District 1 on the Washoe County Commission. They spoke about the challenges currently facing the county.
BOGER: As the incumbent in this race, I'm curious to get your take on the biggest challenges facing the county right now.
BERKBIGLER: I think right at this point, right now, we would have to say the biggest challenge is COVID and the health issues that [are] related to COVID. We're having another spike. I think we all recognize that we probably have 18 months more of this, and because it was a business downturn because governments, the governor and at the federal level, they shut down businesses in a state like Nevada, where your primary business is tourism. That became a really major issue for us for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was bars were closed, venues were closed. We do Hot August Nights, the hot air balloon races, we do Street Vibrations, we do the air races, so we do all kinds of things like that. All of those were canceled this year. All of those bring in a great deal of money in sales tax and room taxes and things like that.
Our financial situations across the state are touch-and-go. Washoe County is fortunate in that it is financially very stable and largely that's due to having a very stable commission, and very stable staff where we really work hard, but that's still going to be a hot issue for us to deal with. So, when you talk about COVID, you're not just talking about the health issue, you're talking about tax dollars coming in, getting people back to work, [the] high cost of housing, continuing to get people so that they can pay their rent and not become homeless and homeless[ness]. Those are all factors that are impacted by COVID.
BOGER: Like every municipality in the country, Washoe County is facing a precarious financial situation, so if need arose, where would you as a commissioner look to address a budget shortfall?
BERKBIGLER: At this stage of the game, I think we are looking at probably putting a hold, we already have done this by the way I believe, put a hold on any capital expenditures. So, there were several capital expenditures that we were going to be looking at. We are not doing those now and not that we've canceled them, but we've certainly put a hold on [them].
We're fortunate in that sales tax wasn't as low as we thought it could be. The C tax, which is the basic tax here for municipal governments here in Nevada, didn't go down as much as we thought it would. In fact, it was significantly higher than we thought it would be. So, we're just sort of playing that by ear, but definitely we will see what other areas we need to worry about cutting back. If we have to cut back, obviously, the unfortunate part that usually gets hit [are] parks. We have a number of really phenomenal parks in Washoe County that are the [responsibility] of the county. So, that's important to us not to have to cut them back. They took a pretty big hit in the downturn starting in 2007, so they took a pretty big hit in those five years and they have not recovered fully. So, we don't really want to do that, but again, that's an area that has less negative impact on the daily citizens. So, those are the things we'll look at.
BOGER: I want to get your thoughts on the area's affordable housing crunch. Housing costs in Washoe County are among the fastest growing in the country, so what can the commission do to add more affordable housing options in the area?
BERKBIGLER: Well, actually one of the things that I suggested, and the rest of the commissioners agreed was an excellent idea, was to put together an affordable housing trust fund. Unfortunately, we haven't funded it fully yet, but there is a possibility that we could use some of the CARES Act funds or some of the other funds that are coming from the feds to fund that. What that would do is, anybody who came forward and wanted to build housing that was more affordable, that fund could pay for their permitting fees and their water fees, so that's one thing.
One of the other things we've done is we have set it up so that if you're building affordable housing, you get a significant cut back. So, for the last four years, the commission and staff have really worked on coming together on those things. I think those are the things that we will still continue to do because affordable housing is extremely important.
BOGER: We can't talk about affordable housing without touching on homelessness. As a commissioner, how can the county work better with the cities to serve these unsheltered people?
BERKBIGLER: Actually, we've already done that by opening up Our Place out at the old NNAMHS campus. That's the old Nevada mental health campus. We have now moved all of the homeless females. All of the homeless families and children have been moved into that facility, and we are full. We also are working on the community homeless advisory board. There are two members from the commission and two members from both the cities' elected officials who sit on this board, and we work as a team to try and resolve homeless issues, so that's also an issue that's sitting out there.
The county gets different funding than the cities. The funding that we get comes with strings. Those strings that are attached to the funding that we get, are that we can't have anybody on this campus who has been convicted of sexual abuse or child abuse or domestic violence. But we're working with the city of Reno to look at what we can do to relocate and get tenting and heaters up for all of these people for the winter and then build buildings for them, so it is coming together. It's just not, like anything else when you're dealing with [the] government, there's all kinds of hoops you got to hop through and that's kind of what we're doing right now.
BOGER: Earlier this summer, the death of George Floyd sparked protests and demonstrations calling for police reform. The commission has authority over the sheriff's office budget. Would you support efforts to reform how the county pays for law enforcement?
BERKBIGLER: Looking at different ways to reform is always good. You may not need to reform anything, but you may, and I do not support on any level defunding police. I think you would create more problems than we have now, if you started defunding police, and questions about how they're funded, okay, great, come forward with some ideas on how to change that funding.
Where I think we see the potential for some change in, I've actually sat and worked with the sheriff on this on a couple of issues, as [have] some of the other commissioners, sat and talked to the sheriff and worked for the sheriff at length on this issue. Then that's basically that: Are there things that we can do to enhance training? So, do we need to do enhanced training for discriminatory actions, social actions, you know, those types of things? Maybe that's some of the stuff we need to do. I think we're making some reforms in that area.
Obviously, the jail is very important. We spent a lot of time about two years ago. I guess what I would say is that we are trying to be forward thinking and all of these things. I think we've been trying to be forward thinking as this whole Black Lives Matter and riots and everything have happened around the country. I think that's when we really started looking at, okay, is there something more we need to do than what we've already done? Short of adding in more bodies, because you know that's money. So, where are we going to get the money from if we added more bodies and stuff? I think this county has been pretty aggressive in being forward-thinking, so I feel good about that.
BOGER: Republican Incumbent Marsha Berkbigler is seeking her third term on the Washoe County Commission for District 1. Ms. Berkbigler, thank you for joining me.
BERKBIGLER: You bet, and thank you very much for calling me; it was nice chatting with you.