Tahoe City PUD GM: North Tahoe consolidation under study
January 20, 2016
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — With 2016 being an election year, the Sierra Sun is devoting time each week to conduct interviews with officials and board members who work for the many public districts and government agencies representing Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
This week, we feature an Q-and-A with Tahoe City Public Utility District General Manager Cindy Gustafson:
Sierra Sun: How would you describe the state of the district today?
Gustafson: (It's) very, very strong. Financially, very strong in that we have the largest reserves we've ever had. It's about $21 million in both designated and undesignated reserves.
With our staffing, I think it's the strongest group of professionals we've had, the most experienced, (coming from) both from the private sector and the public sector, which really produces a lot of work and professionalism in the work place. (There's) a lot of initiative taking from our staff that I think is different than your stereotypic government official or worker.
The community seems to be in pretty strong support of most of what we're doing. I mean, there (are) certainly critics, but by and large we're not hearing too many concerns I'd say right now. We're responding more to specific project issues with various continuants, but overall, it seems our community trusts the board and the direction we're heading.
I think our infrastructure is in really good condition. Those reserves are there for capital projects and renovating this infrastructure, and we feel in a really good position to be replacing it as we need to and expand it. … We don't have anything in an immediate crisis mode at all. It's all preventative maintenance that we are moving forward on."
Sun: What's the top one or two biggest challenges the district faces in 2016?
Gustafson: We have a long list of capital projects that we were working on, and then on top of that, we have the Fanny Bridge project — that I think is going to be a significant undertaking that we need to be responsive to. They are going to result in enhancements to our infrastructure. We're going to have a better bike tail system through that area, a brand new sewer line through that area and improved water service through that area, so it's going to be a benefit. (Yet) it's going to take time and energy on our part to monitor not only the final design, but then also be responsive during construction and what are the impacts during construction to our trail system, to our community, serving our community and even to our response time, if there are traffic delays. …
We also don't know what will happen with the drought. We do believe that there will be some conservation mandates that will be ongoing and that will be a pretty significant challenge in 2016, especially when you are having a winter like this. (People) are hearing all this about the snow, but they don't realize it's a state-wide mandate. It always has been, and it's a matter of will the whole state be out of this drought or not because there's a lot more water needed.
Sun: As we embark on the second half of the decade, what improvements do you want to see with the district by 2020?
Gustafson: We are a service provider to our community, and if we don't have a strong and vibrant community, it's challenging for us to be the best we could be … First, I don't think we can play a huge role in making the economy better for the community, but we do have a role to play there. We have some level of responsibility, but I think it's more county and TRPA really looking at the renovation of our community and rehabilitation of our community and a role the housing. … (As) for the district, continuing to be responsive and looking for avenues where we could help the community regain its vitality. I think you are seeing that with the winter sports park, the efforts we made when we purchased the golf course — what more can we do with that property to help the community? What more can we bring to the winter sports park and events at Commons Beach to support increased visitation and economic benefits and recreation for the community? …
As we move forward, just continuing on the path of rehabilitating all of our infrastructure — both our water and sewer systems. Ours have areas that are quite old, and we're beginning that rehabilitation. We started that rehabilitation, continuing that is something that we need to focus on and being responsive to the parks and recreation needs as they change. (Parks and Recreation is) an area where it's much more customer driven, (and) depending on what activities the community wants, is how we respond. The (Tahoe Prosperity Center) prosperity report apparently (shows) quite a growth in our top age group up here, and so maybe that's why we're seeing the demand at pickleball, bocce and some of the less demanding athletic opportunities versus organized softball and basketball, those sorts of team sports, and so being responsive to those changes and helping drive change. …
I think the other big (thing) is what we do with the small water systems that are interspersed within our district down the West Shore. We constantly need to be planning for increasing our storage and capacity to potentially serve those water systems … and be responsive. They represent some of our taxpayers; they are not our water ratepayers, but they are our taxpayers and members of our community, so we want to be prepared to serve them, anticipate their needs. Looking forward, that's an area that we're not in control of when they may come forward and have a need, but when they do, we feel we need to be there for them, and so that's the challenge. I can't tell you what exactly each one needs and at what time. There are privates, there's mutuals, there's very small systems and there's independent wells out there serving customers that aren't connected to us. Water is pretty essential to having a household run, so we need to be planning and have the resources available to help them.
Sun: How does the district balance the needs of locals and second homeowners and visitors when delivering service?
Gustafson: I think it's something around 80 percent of our homes are second homes, so it's not new for us to be trying to serve our second homeowners. The biggest challenge we have with that is communication with them. They may not be picking up or subscribing to the local paper or looking at it online, so then we do personal mailings. They don't necessarily look at all of the quarterly newsletters and the information that we provide, so outreach to second homeowners and really working with them to educate them with what's happening is challenging. Often they are here on weekends and holidays when we might not be fully staffed. We do try to go them, to their homeowners meetings and homeowners association meetings. They want to know what's happening and when and how it's effecting their home.
But once they get here, they want to recreate more so than anything else. Hopefully, we are serving them, and as long as they can turn on their facet and flush their toilet, they're happy with our water and sewer service; it's really parks and recreation (they're interested in). In general, our second homeowners are more interested in the passive recreation — the trails, the beaches and playgrounds; they are not as interested in the organized recreation — the softball leagues, kind of the more organized sports, but we offer both. We've just seen probably more demand in the passive recreation. (We) have the pickleball courts ready for them, but don't organize a league for them.
(Meanwhile) trying to keep things affordable for the locals for recreation is really important. Typically your second homeowners can afford quite a bit more than our primary residents, and so, I think that's our focus of trying to keep more local people here, living in the community and able to afford to live here both for housing as well as recreational actives with good jobs that people want to take.
Our board members were all elected by the local community, and so they are very aware of the local community's needs. They are hearing of those (needs) maybe more than they hear from second homewoners as they serve on our elected board. I think our staff, in general, also hear more from our local citizens about their opinions than our second homeowners.
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media, how is the district changing how it communicates important information to the community?
Gustafson: We've been really working on our website, keeping that content updated. We got it reconfigured, so it's mobile-friendly now, so when you pull it up, you can read it.
We have gone to online registration for our recreation programs, and we're also moving that way for reservations for our parks facilities. People will be able to pay online for their bills soon; we think in February we're going to have that to roll out. Currently, they can call up and make a credit card payment over the phone, but they will be able to make online payments. We have quarterly newsletters that go out and electronically to those who are getting email bills. …
We collect emails all the time to help people get information more expedited when we need to reach them. They have access to reach us, but there are times we need reach them, and we want to reach them. If there is a water outage, we want to be able to contact via email, so then maybe when they're driving up, they can stop and grab some drinking water if they need it before they get to their house, or be expecting that when they get there.
The other thing we're looking at, we're doing a trial program right now with interconnected water meters. … It'll be something we could roll out to customers if they are interested. We're going to be looking at that over the next year or two. (With the program) I can see how much water my house is using on a daily basis, 24 hours. It can send me an alert if there is a leak. It can text me that, and we're very interested in rolling it out to customers, but there is a cost involved because it uses cellular technology. There is a couple dollar a month charge for customers right now, but things change quickly in technology, so that could come down. It could become more affordable, and then we can offer it to customers even sooner. … I think we will continue to monitor technological upgrades that may make it easier for our customers to understand particularly their water use.
Sun: Is there anything else you can think to add regarding the district or its future?
Gustafson: The (TCPUD and North Tahoe Public Utility District) boards agreed to talk about whether there should be any sort of consolidation or change in how the two districts work together whether its consolidation or a CSD formation. So (on Friday) we assigned two board members to work with two of (NTPUD's) board members to talk about that effort. I think as our community changes, governments need to be flexible to change to meet community needs. Whether the structure needs to change right now, or should 10 years from now and should be planning it for 10 years from now. I think we in local government are always trying to look out and anticipate needs, so it doesn't become a crisis. That we are addressing them before there is a crisis, or a need that we can't meet. It's been studied four or five times in the past. … We're going to analyze it again and take a look at it and see are there benefits to be gained and at what cost, and how do the citizens feel.
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