Q-and-A: Future Squaw development presents opportunities, challenges
OLYMPIC VALLEY, 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 a Q-and-A with Squaw Valley Public Service District General Manager Mike Geary:
Sierra Sun: How would you describe the state of the district today?
Geary: I’d say it’s good. Financially we have about a $7.4 million in the bank in both designated and undesignated accounts, $4.3 million of that is designated for capital replacement. … We run it like a business. We pursue alternative sources of revenue in the form of grant funding and project reimbursables, contract services for bike trail snow removal, (operations and maintenance) services to other water companies, strike teams with our fire department. Our water and sewer systems, our fire facilities, fleet, they’re all good, very well maintained. We are entering into what I call an era of replacement, so positioning ourselves to have those financial reserves in place so that we can avoid rate shock and debt financing.
Sun: What’s the top one or two biggest challenges the district faces in 2016?
Geary: Development, capital replacement plans and succession planning. With development, we’re being challenged with making sure we maintain the levels of service that we currently provide to our existing customers, while never forgetting that the developers are our customers, as well. They are developing properties where our new customers are going to own. (As for development, I’m referring to) the Village (at Squaw Valley Specific Plan), Resort at Squaw Creek, PlumpJack and Palisades at Squaw. We expect to negotiate development agreements for all four of those projects in 2016, so there is a lot of opportunity there, with those challenges. We have an opportunity to improve our system performance and those level of service. Specific to that is the water supply concerns, making sure that we are able to serve water from our sole-source aquifer without jeopardizing our existing customers’ water service, without overcommitting to serve them, being able to commit with confidence. … People building buildings are banking on you providing them water, so we take that very seriously.
We’re (also) doing a cost of service analysis and rate study this year, and core to that is the updating of capital replacement plans for water, sewer and fire services. We’re trying to identify what our long term financial needs are and trying to put rates into place that strike a balance between that prudent financial planning, but staying competitive with our water and sewer rates. Our goal is to avoid debt financing and rate shock.
The other (is) succession planning, (as) in many other agencies across the nation, we’re dealing with a wave of retirement. We’ve completed the hiring step, but we’re still in the process of training the new employees and equipping them with the knowledge and the resources that they need to succeed.
Sun: So as we embark on the second half of the decade, what improvements do you want to see with the district by 2020?
Geary: Improvement to our water supply. Since 2005, before that really, going back to the ’90s, we’ve been working on identification of a redundant water supply source, and we recently completed our evaluation to identify a preferred alternative and that has highlighted the challenges of funding. Construction alone is estimated at $16.3 million. For us, that’s a huge cost, so we’re looking for partners there, we’re looking for grant funds, potentially other utility companies to join in on a utility coordinator between Squaw and Truckee. I think we have a challenge with misperception that our redundant water supply needs are development driven, so that makes a hard project even more difficult. … (By 2020 I would like) to have funding secured or identified, reliable funding. …
(Also) a rate structure that funds our capital replacement plans, and I expect that to occur in 2016 or 2017. Public agencies, water sewer, even fire departments, they’ve been entrusted to provide a certain level of service. To do that you need to maintain the systems that help facilitate that service, so we are really no more than asset managers. We need to keep them in good condition, and that’s through maintenance, and ultimately, replacement. You can plan for those activities, and so, the appropriate planning includes financial planning. For a lot of folks it is out of sigh, out of mind until they don’t work, and at that point, if you haven’t really positioned yourself well to repair them, replace them, keep them functioning, you’re going to saddle the responsibility onto your customers either through debt financing or special assessment or other forms of rate shock. … (A plan) is in place, but I just think (ours) needs updating. It’s been 11 years since we did our last asset replacement plan.
Sun: How does the district balance the needs of locals, second homeowners and visitors when delivering service?
Geary: We see them equally, and it says as much in our mission statement. We look at all of our customers as being our boss. They are the ones that elect our board; it’s who we answer to, and so, we give them an equivalent level of care (for water, sewer and fire services). We’re seeing a trend where tourists today are homeowners and locals tomorrow.
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media how is the district changing how it communicates important information to the community?
Geary: We’ve updated our website about 18 months ago. It’s smartphone friendly, and we do our best to keep the content current, applicable to the work that we do and interesting to our customers. We use Nixle, our fire department does. … It’s an automated text messaging subscript service that we use for emergency alerts and notifications. …
Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, social media platforms, we keep an eye on those to see if there are new ways we can communicate with our customers, but we have yet seen the benefit of using those social media (platforms). I think to have an effective online presence, it takes a lot of maintenance, and so, the cost to keep that content fresh and compelling, we haven’t been able to justify that yet. (Therefore) we don’t have a PSD Facebook account or Twitter account or a Pinterest account. Since we have about 10 percent primary homeowners here, 90 percent second homeowners, we have found that the best way to communicate with them is with our website and our newsletters, which are mailed out to all of our customers to their billing address.
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