Wednesday, October 26, 2011

VVWD Needs To Fight Back Against Federal Extortion

The Virgin Valley Water District has been dancing around the issue of a new fee for the Habitat  Conservation and Recovery Plan, particularly how much to charge for it.
Currently, A $500 HCRP fee is already included in the myriad of impact fees and surcharges levied against developers and home builders by the City of Mesquite.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is requiring this fee.
Now, they want more from the Virgin Valley Water District.
It's double dipping, plain and simple.
Worse, the feds are using strong arm tactics to force the water district to add this fee.
In 2008, I attended a water board meeting in which a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was as blatant in his extortion as I've ever seen.  He point blank told the board that if they didn't impose this fee, they would have a hard time getting any more wells drilled or pipes laid in the area.  That's because, as the rep explained, the feds would require what's called a "Section 7 Consult" for any future work.  It's a protracted review process that can tie up a project for months, if not years.  At that meeting, the rep said that if the water district imposed the fee, the feds wouldn't require the consult.  He also said that, if the water district didn't do this, the feds would also do a "Jeopardy" filing on any future water projects in the area, another review process that could delay a project.
For the last few years, the water district has held off imposing the fees, mostly because there haven't been any new water applications coming in.  As long as we're not building homes or businesses, or drilling wells, there is no compelling reason to take care of this.
But the hope for this community is eventually people will again want to start building here.
So the district board has been trying to figure out how to impose the lowest possible fee and still make their federal blackmailers happy.
The amount of the fee is problematic.  The feds say a fee must be imposed, and placed into an account, but they don't say how much of a fee, how big the account has to be, or even what that money will be used for.
Think about that.
We are basically being forced to pay a fee to fund a program that doesn't even have a plan for how the money will get spent.  "Just gather the money, we'll figure out what to do with it later" is basically the process.
This is extortion.  There is simply no other word for it.  And the extortionists are getting away with it because they are the federal government.  While we pretend to be a democracy "of the people, by the people, for the people," the truth is that the feds always hold all the cards.
So the water district is left in the unenviable task of being forced to be the bagman for the USFWS, making their "collections" like the bent-nose guys going from shopkeeper to shopkeeper to gather their "protection" money.
For the last two months, the water district has been struggling to decide how much is enough.
At the last VVWD meeting, a city official showed up and pleaded with the board to get this done and start making their "payments." It felt like a cowardly shoemaker begging the fruit stand owner to pay up, afraid the Mafia is going to torch the whole block if this last holdout doesn't get on board.
It's sickening.
Next week, the VVWD board will take up this sticky question again.
So, how much should they pay?
To quote from the extortionists playbook, the answer comes from Michael Corleone himself, in Godfather II.
"My offer is this: nothing."
We shouldn't agree to charging one thin dime. 
The feds, the city, and the water district have already squeezed landowners and developers to death with their impact fees, connection fees, plan review fees, and dozens of other taxes and expenses.  To add one more fee to the cost of building a home makes it that much less appealing for anyone to build here, or to buy here.
It will be one more nail in Mesquite's coffin.
The water district should follow the lead of board member Ted Miller, who has been adamant in his refusal to bend over for the feds.  He is a hero, one of the few politicians still willing to stand up for the people.
If the feds want to push this issue, then the answer should be simple and firm:
See you in court.
There are times when public money must be spent to defend and protect the public.
This is one of those times.
The water district has one of the best attorneys in Southern Nevada.  If he's not enough, go hire some more attorneys. 
Yes, it will be more expensive than simply imposing the fees, but sometimes the right thing to do is to fight, even if it costs you.  Principle must be upheld.  More importantly, somebody has to stand up to these leech-like bullies and stop them, or else they'll simply continue to squeeze little communities like ours because we've shown ourselves repeatedly to be pushovers.
They say you can't fight City Hall.  The truth is, City Hall can fight City Hall, and that's what this would be: a battle between government agencies.
Hopefully, word would get out to the rest of the state and the rest of the country: "Look at this extortion being perpetrated by the federal government."  As Michael Corleone said in Godfather I, "the press would love a story like that."
It's time for us to stand up and tell the feds "no."
We cannot back down against hoodlums looking to hurt our town.
Not even when the hoodlums are dressed in red, white, and blue.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

City Requires Fee To Allow Animals To Have Sex

If this handsome fella lives in Mesquite, he
needn't bother getting prettied up for a date.
Unless his owner has a city permit that
will allow him to have sex.
In order for your pet to legally have sex, the City of Mesquite requires a permit.  And of course, a fee.
I'm not making this up.
While visiting a local veterinarian this week, I noticed a sign posted on the counter.  The sign advised that Mesquite City Code 10-7 requires all dogs and cats in the city to be spayed or neutered. 
Like so many lousy laws, it's obvious this one started as a good idea, but has gone horribly awry.
It's commendable that a city wants to keep its stray animal population in check.  Mesquite can be proud that we have not one but two different organizations dedicated to stray or abandoned pets.
It's also responsible pet ownership and good sense to have your dog or cat spayed or neutered if you don't plan to intentionally breed them.
But mandatory forced sterilization seems a little extreme, even for Mesquite.
So when I got home, I looked it up on the city's website and found that the law went into effect in March of 2010.
Stop and think about this.
For decades, the mantra has been "whatever consulting adults want to do in the privacy of their own home..."  Apparently, that freedom doesn't apply to animals.
Unless you get a special license, you can't breed your dog or cat.  So by city law, no matter how adorable Rover might be, he's the end of the line.  No cute puppies or kittens.
Oh, you can have a cute puppy or kitten if you buy it from the city's shelter or We Care For Animals.  Otherwise, forget it.
If you're caught with a virile, unfixed canine or feline, you will get fined $225 for the first offense.  That's right, if your Golden Retriever gets caught doing the Humpty Dance, YOU will pay a fine for your pet's indiscretion.
To be fair, there are exceptions.
If it's a city-owned pet, like a police dog, the rule doesn't apply.  (Judging by the allegations of sexual misconduct involving a couple of officers a few years ago, maybe it's not the police dog the city needs to worry about neutering.)
Also, the four-footed inmates in the city's animal shelter are exempt from the law.
Is anyone surprised that a city law doesn't apply to the city?
The third exemption is for pets that a veterinarian has ruled can't have the surgery for medical reasons. 
It's the fourth exemption that puts Mesquite in the tawdry position of permitting pets to have carnal knowledge if someone is willing to put up the cash. 
You can pay $25 for a "dog fancier" or "cat fancier" permit that will allow your pet to remain "intact" and free to fornicate.
Sounds a little too "Mustang Ranch" for me.  (For those new to Nevada, let me just say the Mustang Ranch in Storey County has nothing to do with horses).  You pay a fee to someone at the city (a guy in a purple wide-brimmed feathered hat, maybe?) so your tom can get down with whatever kitty catches his attention.  That is, if the kitty's keeper has paid a similar fee to the pimp.  I mean, the city.
All joking aside, this is another example of a horrendous, intrusive law that goes way too far.  It crosses a resident's threshold and dictates what goes on in someone's home with their own property, in this instance a pet.  Licensing cars is one thing, because they travel on city or state-owned roads.  Requiring special permits to allow someone to breed their own pets on their own property is crossing a dangerous line.
Since the new city council has been busy the last couple of months undoing all the ridiculous decisions and stupid laws put on our books by the previous administration (more than a few of which were approved simply because "<fill in the blank> city does it,") maybe this is another one they could add to their long list.
In this instance, it's not the dogs and cats that need to be "fixed."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Big Tent Bid Means City Just Slower In Going Over The Cliff

The fabric building at the CasaBlanca is smaller than
the one proposed for the Regional Park.
The Mesquite City Council voted on Tuesday to put the Big Tent idea out to bids.
For those who are just getting back into town, the "Big Tent" is the latest desperate grasp at straws by people claiming to have the best interest of local business owners at heart.  It's a used fabric building that is currently being utilized as a shelter for airplane construction, a long way from Mesquite.
The idea is to buy it for $2-3 million, bring it to Mesquite, and put it up on some land near the soccer fields in the Mesquite Sports and Events Complex (what is known by longtime residents as the Regional Park).
Then, it can be used as an indoor facility for soccer games and other sporting events, allowing the city to have such events during the summer when even lizards want to head north for the summer to escape the desert's brutal 115-degree heat.
Where supporters want to put it is poetic.  They could even name it the "Desert Falls Solstice Soccer Tent" in honor of the two failed projects that were once slated for locations next to or down the street from the proposed location.
The general idea isn't a bad one.
But as always, the devil is in the details.
Mesquite needs a new draw, since the struggling casinos appear to have abandoned their previous roles as promoters of the city and providers of shows and events to bring people here.  After the heady days when the CasaBlanca's own tent once brought in acts like Kenny Rogers, Clint Black, Wynonna, Travis Tritt, and even Larry the Cable Guy, today they don't even bother with guys like Don Williams and the Bellamy Brothers from the ATSA tour.  (ATSA="Are They Still Alive?")
And that should be the first warning sign.
The tent (events center) at the CasaBlanca is getting used once or twice a month, despite the fact that the casinos have a deeply vested interest in bringing visitors to Mesquite.  If they can't do any better than that when they have a dedicated staff motivated and experienced in bringing events to the community, what chance does the City of Mesquite have with their history of being extremely inept in developing and promoting their own events?  The City has absolutely no one on their staff qualified to take this on, especially not in the Economic Development department which will likely get this task tossed on their desk.
The first answer that might jump to mind is "let's go out and hire someone to do this." 
That's right, at a time when the city continues to lay off long term and talented individuals, let's go spend $75,000 a year to hire someone?  Or even worse, take the lazy way out that this city seems to love doing, which is to hire another high-priced outside consultant?
And that leads to a simple truth that a handful of zealots inside and outside City Hall refuse to acknowledge:
We just don't have the money.
The big talk is to raid MORE money from the RDA redevelopment fund that is supposed to be earmarked for "rehabilitating blighted areas."  It seems that everyone in Mesquite except councilman Karl Gustaveson understands that area to be downtown Mesquite, which is currently overrun with vacant stores and half-empty shopping centers, including two that are currently in horrendous shape and in dire need of makeovers.  That is what the RDA money is legally and morally intended for.
Then, beyond the $2-3 million to buy and erect the thing, there will be significant maintenance costs in the upkeep of a fabric building, costs that wouldn't exist with a more traditional concrete or steel structure (not to mention the fact that a steel or concrete structure would last longer, giving us a better return on the dollar).
Another thing that keeps coming up is the location.  While Gustaveson and other council members claim that "most" of the people they've heard from support the project (which is the exact opposite of what I've found, that all but two people I've spoken with oppose the idea), the think I keep hearing from opponents is that the location will not help the downtown and local businesses, which is what the council members claim is their biggest motivation.
Because of the remote location which is bordered on two sides by large residential neighborhoods, and the lack of public transportation to that address, opponents claim it won't lead to much of an uptick in business.  I don't know that I agree with that, but I do agree that the boon would be much more significant if the tent were pitched in the middle of town.
Where, you might ask?  Well, we have this big patch of dirt downtown that was originally purchased for an obscene price almost across the street from City Hall by the previous council, allegedly for a new library that is extremely unlikely to ever be built.  Putting a large indoor facility there would be a true boost to the downtown area, and would instantly change former councilman Randy Ence from goat to hero.
Another question that keeps nagging at opponents is the involvement of NCS, a developer with out-of-state roots that has never built a single thing they promised to build in Mesquite, despite the fact that the city has gift-wrapped not one but two huge parcels of land at fire sale prices in the last decade.
Haven't we had enough of carpet baggers like Solstice and Desert Falls rolling into town and promising the moon, only to deliver larger and larger piles of nothing?  Speaking of which, we should have zero interest in building another facility to help out the Long Drivers organization.  We've already built them a first-class driving range with tax dollars, only to be rewarded by having to come up with another $50,000 a year in payoffs to the organizers to keep them coming here.
If we truly want to have a large event facility (and I fervently believe that as a town trying to be a tourist destination, this is an absolute must), let's partner up with some folks we know.
The new owners of the CasaBlanca, Virgin River, Oasis, and Mesquite Star are obviously cash poor right now, but they could certainly find funds for a project that would benefit them, especially if they're not carrying all the risk.  On the other end of town, the Lee family has been here for a long time, and they have proven their devotion to this community over and over and over.  If the city wants to partner up with someone to build a large, permanent facility almost dead center between the two casino areas, it would seem more logical to become partners with business people who are already here, who have already invested heavily in our community, and have proven they can actually accomplish something.  With the combination of those three, taxpayers wouldn't have to carry the whole load.  Also, the staff to market and promote the facility would be built-in, coming from not one but two casinos that are both known for having tremendous prowess and experience in promotions and events.
It would also help get Mesquite back on track to "finding itself."
We have forgotten who we are as a community, a tourist and retirement destination.  While dreams of making Mesquite a Mecca for soccer or other youth sports sounds exciting, the reality is that kids and senior citizens don't mix well.  Bringing kids into the community also does little for the casinos (which is why, you'll notice, the casinos don't bother bringing in a lot of youth events).  And nonsense about the parents being casino customers doesn't wash.  Most families have little money or time available for sitting at a gaming table.
If Mesquite wasn't already a casino town, already a retirement community, the idea of bringing more youth sports would be a brilliant foundation for a directionless town.
But we are what we are.  We were successful at bringing in retirees, golfers, and casino tourists when we worked at it (which we haven't done since the previous administration came into power at City Hall). 
Building a soccer tent on the outskirts of town isn't anywhere close to being the best use of money we don't have.  The delay to get bids and develop a plan is prudent, but an additional waste of time and money if it is simply used as the justification to go forward with an idea that just doesn't seem likely to succeed.
We would be better served to use that time to get together with local business owners and leaders, including the casino heads, and develop our own comprehensive long range plan.  A Mesquite plan, instead of trying to ram ideas cooked up by out-of-towners down the throats of citizens and businesses.  Again, we're collectively smarter here than our "public servants" give us credit for.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How To Kill A Small Town

Mesquite is on the cusp of an historic accomplishment.  We're probably going to make it into college textbooks somewhere.
Unfortunately, this notoriety will not be for something positive.
We are actually in danger of becoming a cautionary tale, a case study in how to go from being named one of the fastest-growing communities under 25,000 population, to practically gaining a spot on the well-known "Map of Nevada Ghost Towns." All within a decade.
Back in the early 2000's, Mesquite was absolutely booming, and was recognized as the fastest-growing small city in Nevada.  Since Nevada was highlighted in several magazines during the same period as the fastest-growing state in the U.S., we were in rarified air.
Unfortunately, we became a victim of our own success.
Beginning around 2006, a word started creeping into the political vernacular: "controlled growth."  Most people didn't understand that this was a euphemism for "no growth."  Council members actually got elected on this platform.
A lot of laws were put into effect under this approach, including a stifling sign ordinance, increases in business license fees, more restrictive rules on construction, additional impact fees for development, impossible hoops to jump through to purchase city-owned land, and a general anti-business atmosphere at City Hall.
Almost two years ago, I happened to be sitting in a booth at Famous Dave's Barbeque in St. George.  In the booth behind me was a gathering of three businessmen.  It turned out that they were in the development industry.  I couldn't help overhearing their conversation (I've learned that guys in the development business tend to be loud anyway.)  They were talking about some project they had been considering to build in Mesquite, but that the rules and requirements were too restrictive.  They talked about requirements for landscaping, parking lot demands, fees for this inspection and that review, and all the bureaucracy they were facing.
The rest of their conversation was about the other places they could go, most of them in Utah, where they wouldn't have to face this battery of obstacles.
I don't know what the project was, but I'm pretty sure it never came to Mesquite.
Also, as I mentioned in a previous article a couple of months ago, St. George is absolutely booming.  It's hard for me to understand why anyone would choose Utah over Mesquite.  We have basically the same climate, we're retirement-friendly, we have more and better golf courses, we have a large and welcoming Rec Center with two gyms and two pools, we have a nationally-known Sun City development, and our casinos make Mesquite a more vibrant and alluring option.  We don't have the traffic congestion St. George endures.  We have better and newer infrastructure.  Also, Nevada does not have personal income tax and is very generous to corporations.  To their credit, our Utah neighbor has way more shopping options and better health care facilities, but those are simply functions of being nearly 10 times bigger.  Overall, Mesquite is a much better place to live.
Unfortunately, it's not a better place to do business.
Today, Mesquite is reeling from the triple whammy of "controlled growth" actions, horrendous decisions and direction by an ego-driven city administration, and of course the putrid national economy.
The combination has all but killed this once-thriving community.  The few builders still in existence and still capable of actually getting the almost non-existent financing to build houses are looking at other places to ply their trade.  One longtime Mesquite-based construction company has reportedly been considering relocation to North Dakota, which is experiencing explosive growth despite the moribund economy.
Worse, people have stopped looking at Mesquite as a retirement option.  Retirees aren't interested in moving to a place whose emphasis has been on pie-in-the-sky sports parks for kids, mythical factories and facilities for alternative energy projects, a place where it's still not clear whether a coal-fired power plant might be built, and a community which still has very few shopping options.  After all, what kind of community doesn't even have something as basic as a shoe store?
The people of this community have taken the first step toward fixing the second problem by dumping the previous mayor and one of her hand-picked anti-growth council members.  Another problem child on the council decided not to seek re-election, which was a smart move.
Now the hard part starts, which is to solve the first problem.  We have to figure out how to make Mesquite more growth prone and business friendly.
There are lots of struggling communities begging builders and businesses to come to their towns, places that have far fewer rules and way lower business fees.
We have to be competitive, aggressive, and welcoming.
Here's how to kill that effort, and finish killing off Mesquite:
Allow the water district to impose another impact fee.
Yet that is precisely what the Virgin Valley Water District seems determined to enact.
They are proud of themselves for lowering the price of the proposed Habitat Conservation Plan fees from the original level of $500 down to $200, but that's just the starting point.  The fees can reach as high as $31,000 for larger projects and business construction.
Water board member Ted Miller is right.  This is absolutely the worst time possible to add another layer of bureaucracy and another stack of fees to construction.  Builders are already reluctant to build in Mesquite.  Adding more costs will guarantee that they'll look elsewhere for their next project. 
Like moving it to St. George.
Ditto for businesses and home buyers shopping for a place to relocate, because housing and commercial buildings will be more expensive here than in places where the government doesn't gouge the builders.
Board member Kenyon Leavitt is also correct in stating that this fee will be "double dipping."  The City of Mesquite already charges a $500 impact fee for the HCP.  That's more than enough to cover any future plans for building luxury condominiums for the snail darter or whatever mythical creature the federal government wants to pretend to coddle in the future.
Mesquite's City Hall and the Virgin Valley Water District need to understand that the golden goose is on life support.  The days of booming development and tacking on fees nobody will notice are over.
If they want to watch this city's feeble heartbeat completely flatline, then go ahead and tack on this fee.
Then maybe we can start drawing visitors from colleges across the country who are interested in studying the town that died by its own hand.