CARVING OUT A COUNTY
Folks are just different up here in the mountains. Or at least, thats the fundamental answer to a question that has been kicked around in the Truckee-Tahoe area for years: Should eastern Nevada and Placer counties merge to form their own county Californias 59th? Those who have put thought into the question have an array of reasons to make the change, but when it comes down to it, the most compelling reason is Truckee-Tahoe residents have more in common with each other than with people in Nevada City or Auburn.Those commonalties that separate the eastern reaches of Nevada and Placer counties from the Western Slope range from a tourism-driven economy, services driven by snow and even political preferences.Further complicating the ties of east and west is the isolation of the eastern counties a perceived barrier of distance challenging county officials who are trying to serve two distinctly different needs.Its psychologically different to drive up here for people in western Nevada County its as if they think they need to bring luggage, says Nevada County Supervisor Ted Owens, who represents the eastern portion of the county.The 59th county concept isnt all roses, however, with many potential downfalls like a one-source economy, the sheer challenge of creating everything a county needs and getting the support to do it.I wont say it will never happen, Owens, a Truckee resident, says, but I will say it would be a monumental task.
Some advocates of a Truckee-Tahoe county point to the success of Truckee after incorporation as an argument for change.More local government representation, a level of service better suited to the area, and more retention of local tax revenue all benefit the Town of Truckee, and could be beneficial on the larger scale of a new county.Its very difficult to deliver services so far away from the county seats, its a big strain to service the eastern reaches, Owens says. Thats the reason the Town of Truckee was born it created a different level of service.While counties provide a variety of services, snow removal is the biggest issue in the eastern areas that some feel isnt always addressed by the decision makers down the hill to the west.Prior to 1993, snow removal was an occurrence, not a service in Truckee, Owens says.The Town of Truckee spends about $2.5 million for snow removal services, and Placer County pays about the same $2.36 million during the last fiscal year.Trying to incorporate towns along the North Shore of Tahoe quickly snowballs into a larger and larger area, possibly making a new county a more realistic proposal.For Tahoe City to incorporate some of the principle economic engines are outside the basin in Squaw and Northstar so in order to make a lot of sense youd have to include the whole area, says Ron McIntyre, former North Lake Tahoe Resort Association director of infrastructure and transportation.Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz said the North Tahoe-area could hypothetically benefit from the formation of a new county.Currently Placer Countys staff are more used to dealing with valley and foothill issues, he says, so having staff dealing with issues more specific to the mountains would make sense.The current county creates a unique challenge for Kranz in representing District V, which includes Placers Tahoe area.The other four supervisors dont understand the nature of the unincorporated area, Kranz says. When I got on board it was an eye opener for them before it was out of sight out of mind.Creating a single set of policies for all eastern county communities would be another benefit.The policy change would create better standards for things like planning, land use, traffic, and water quality, says former Truckee Mayor Maia Schneider.I think it would give us an opportunity to create a unified language for any regulatory body, Schneider says.Policy spanning a county that extends from as far down as the central valley to the Truckee-Tahoe area creates discrepancies as well.Things like affordable housing are based on county-wide median income so that data isnt necessarily good up here because the jurisdictions are mixed, Schneider says.There could even be benefits for the residents of the western slope, said Truckee Town Council member Barbara Green, who preceded Owens as a Nevada County supervisor.The western counties would no longer have to pay for snow removal, and would have more political representation close to home, Green says.
All those points supporting a new county, however, may not be enough of an incentive for the western portions of the two counties. Their potential unwillingness to let the Truckee-Tahoe area go may be just one of many roadblocks facing the theoretical 59th county.Owens says the property tax base, for one thing, would be difficult to let go of.Revenue from property tax for the Town of Truckee alone is estimated at over $7 million for the current fiscal year, while Placer Countys revenue from the North Tahoe area came to just under $14 million.McIntyre says Nevada and Placer counties interest in the Truckee-Tahoe area goes beyond financial.A new county would be much more beneficial to this constituency, but Im sure folks in Auburn or Nevada City would be negatively affected I think people down there are proud to have the Truckee-Tahoe area a part of them, McIntyre says.Aside from the potential resistance from Placer and Nevada counties, the creation of a new county would face many challenges from within.Right now Truckee has a great level of autonomy, but doesnt have to manage the courts, sheriffs, or jails, Owens says. We would have to develop a whole new level of government it would take a lot of money to put all that on the ground.Placer Countys Tahoe Manager Jennifer Merchant says Placer County has about 3,000 employees, with about 900 alone in Health and Human Services.I think creating a new Health and Human Services would be one of the main stumbling blocks in creating a new county, Merchant says.Green, meanwhile, says an on-going attempt to split Santa Barbara County is a perfect example of the challenges facing the creation of a new entity. The rural portion and coastal tourist-driven portion would become two separate counties if the effort is successful, she says.Its just not a simple thing to do. Santa Barbara has been at it for 15 or 16 years, and they are nowhere near [done], Green says. If we did it, it might take 15 to 20 years unless you had a really motivated group.That group would have to do a lot of research before the new county could even be considered.A study group would have to consider the new boundaries, calculate the tax base, and compare that to all the costs the new county would have to cover, Green says.Kranz isnt convinced the new county would have the revenue to support itself.It just doesnt pencil out, he says. When people looked at incorporating Tahoe, it was financially quite costly. The incorporation of Truckee and better county representation may have also taken some of the wind out of the 59th countys sails.They [Placer County] have acted very fairly, which is probably one of the reasons a new county never happened up here, McIntyre says. If we were treated worse it would be more likely to work.
The most common shape this hypothetical 59th county has taken has been a combination of eastern Nevada and Placer counties, running north-south from El Dorado County in the south to Sierra County to the north, and east-west from the Nevada State line to just over the Pacific Crest.Other iterations have been considered as well, taking pieces of either Sierra or El Dorado County with it.Green says when she first considered the 59th county question, the county supervisor for the eastern part of El Dorado County said they should also be involved.But Owens says adding part of a third county would be tricky. If it was Nevada, Placer, and El Dorado, Truckee would still be the stepchild district, he says, because Truckee would be the only one not on the lake.And if the county included parts of Placer, Nevada, and Sierra counties, reconciling the high-growth rate of Placer, slower growth of Nevada, and the low population of Sierra would be difficult.Combining eastern Placer and Nevada County would probably make the most sense, says Owens.
The idea of a Truckee-Tahoe County has been around for a while, and previous attempts have shown how difficult its creation would be.At one time there had been legislation to create a Tahoe County that made it all the way to the governors desk but Jerry Brown vetoed it because it would have been divisive in other counties. McIntyre says. It would allow people only in the affected area to have a say, not, for example, those in Roseville or Auburn.This would have set a precedent allowing any portion of a county in California to separate itself from less affluent regions, which is why it failed.This means not only would Truckee-Tahoe residents have a say, but all of Placer and Nevada County residents as well.They would have to sell it to everybody in the affected counties, so people in the foothills would have to vote yes as well, Green says.The California Legislature would also have to be involved, which would present its own set of problems.Kranz says as remote as the Truckee-Tahoe area is to their county seats, the two counties are even more distant to the interest of the state, so getting the Legislature to create a 59th county would be difficult.Despite those challenges, interest still exists.Ive had people tell me reasons why it wouldnt fly, but that wouldnt stop me, says Schneider. Data saying we couldnt financially support a new county would.
Creating a new county would mean creating a new financial entity with all the benefits and responsibilities that go with it.In the eastern reaches we have tourist-based economies, Owens says. We are different than the west because of that and our needs and interests tend to be different.With the tourist draw, second homeowners and high property values, the 59th county would seem to carry a lot of financial weight.Economically, the eastern counties are the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Owens says.One major tourist-driven revenue source is the Transient Occupancy Tax, a tax on lodging from overnight guests.Truckee projected about $1.1 million for TOT revenue, while the North Lake Tahoe are of Placer County is projecting $6.8 million.But creating a new county dependent on the all-mighty tourism dollar may also be a problem.Can you survive being just a tourism-based economy? I think it would be a bit dicey when you look and there is no snow outside, Owens says. Without any doubt we would need a more diversified economic base.But Schneider says the creation of a new county would give the Truckee-Tahoe area the means to diversify the economy.We wouldnt be the first county based on tourism, and we would be empowered to diversify our economy, she says. If we wanted to create new business opportunities this would give us the tools to do so.Kranz, however, says creating a new county would be a financial loss.Up in the Tahoe area we spend more money than we contribute just look at snow removal alone, he says.The high property tax revenue could also be shaky ground to stand on.While recently the Truckee-Tahoe area may have been relatively immune to the cooling real estate market, that may not always be the case, Owens says.Those things would be an argument against 59, he says. The stability of the east-west counties may be better in the long run.