Washoe County has seen explosive growth, especially in the North Valleys where developers have built hundreds of new homes in recent years, but some argue that expansion has not been done strategically. Marie Baker is the Democratic candidate for the District Four seat on the Washoe County Commission.
She spoke with KUNR’s Paul Boger to give her take on the challenges facing the county.
BOGER: Ms. Baker, can you tell me what would be your top priorities as a commissioner?
BAKER: My main three issues [are] marked development over over-developed development, like, stop just approving every development that comes across your desk. I understand that we need growth here in town, but at the same time, you need to be approving developments that are going in areas that make sense. For instance, I live in the Sparks area in Spanish Springs, and we don't have public transportation, so even if we put apartments and condos out there, we don't have the public transportation that goes out there. So, you would basically have to have a car and that doesn't really solve the issue of affordable income housing.
Then on top of that, we need to start looking at the bigger picture of who's going to pay to widen the street? Who's going to put the lights out there? Who's going to pay for the school? We'll need firehouses with the growth. We need all of these things. I feel like none of that [is] being paid attention to right now. The other part is transparency. The open meeting law is there for a reason so that we, the citizens, know what's going on in our county. Then the other part is, you know, no one in the county feels like they're being heard anymore.
BOGER: Housing costs in Washoe County are among the fastest-growing in the entire country. What can the commission do to increase the supply of affordable housing here?
BAKER: So, okay, for instance, we have, it's called Swan Lake; it's out there in Lemmon Valley. That's the area that had flooded, like, three years ago, and members of that community, their houses are still sitting in water because it hasn't even been pumped out yet. Then they approved another development to start building in the same area where houses are still sitting in water, because that's the other part, is that we get sued over that. Imagine what we could do with that money. If we stopped getting sued, we could actually pay for other programs in our town, in our county; it all kind of just works together.
BOGER: How would you rate the county's response to the COVID-19 pandemic thus far?
BAKER: As far as the test goes, that's the worst part is when you go get tested, you have to wait seven to 10 days to get your test results back. I would say that even getting tested and going onto the website to get tested, you really have to know what you're looking for on the website to even sign up, to get it scheduled.
The only thing I would say that I disagreed with what the county commission did during COVID, is when they decided that they wanted to sue the governor. My thinking behind that is even if you disagree with what our government has set for, why in a pandemic, when we know that we're going to have a budget shortfall, would you even attempt to sue our governor and cost us more money in that way? They ended up dropping the lawsuit, but it was, I thought that was a little odd.
BOGER: The pandemic has left many municipalities and governments across the country in a precarious financial situation. Where would you look to close a budget shortfall if the need were to arise?
BAKER: Honestly, I would start looking at the jobs that are not exactly necessary, like maybe an assistant doesn't really need to be an assistant for someone. In my opinion, if you're hired to do a job, you should know how to do that job, so if we honestly, if it comes to that, which I don't think it will necessarily be as bad as it was in 2008, because that was for a completely different reason, there might have to be budget cuts. I would definitely say not to cut anything from the schools because they've already taken a big hit from the state, if that’s at all possible. That would be my recommendation for now. But in reality, you don't know what it will be until you see the actual numbers of what comes in for the taxes, and then what has to go out this upcoming year.
BOGER: We've heard increased calls over the last few months for more police reform, including some controversial reforms on how we fund law enforcement. Would you support or oppose those sorts of reforms?
BAKER: I don't know if I would necessarily do that. Some of the programs that they're talking about is where social workers go out. I would hate for someone who is part of a social program go out to a domestic call and end up getting hurt because they don't know how to handle the situation.
I do believe that our police officers need better training. I also believe that instead of having the different police departments investigate each other, when [an] actual complaint comes up, or shooting, or any type of violence comes up on the job, I don't think that the police department should be investigating each other. I think there should be a completely separate entity from that, that does those investigations. If we have that, we wouldn't be able to say, ‘Oh, they're just covering for each other.’ If someone has an allegation, I guess, then we definitely need to be checking into that. If someone has multiple allegations, they shouldn't be working on the police force, and that's where accountability comes into play. You hold them accountable for what they do on the job.
As far as social programs, I would like to definitely see more social programs, but I don't want to do it by defunding our police department. I think that we need to find a better way to budget in order to add those into a budget.
BOGER: I'm curious to know what is one thing you want voters to know about you before they cast their ballot?
BAKER: That I actually care. I never in a million years thought I would put my name on a ballot, but the reality is that I want more people to actually start paying attention to local government. If you see something wrong and you want to make a change, whether it's for social justice or, like in my case, not putting developments in flood zones, or you know, stop taking advantage of county members and citizens, put your name on the ballot, because we're the ones to blame for politics as usual if we keep voting for the same kind of people and putting them on those boards and councils.
Baker is running against incumbent Republican Commissioner Vaughn Hartung. KUNR has repeatedly requested a candidate interview with Hartung. He has not yet responded.