North Tahoe PUD: Securing recreation funding a high priority
KINGS BEACH, 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 North Tahoe Public Utility District General Manager/CEO Duane Whitelaw:
Sierra Sun: How would you describe the state of the district today?
Whitelaw: The district is in excellent shape financially, as it applies to our utility functions. We face continuing challenges with the financial health of the (recreation) department because we keep our major operating divisions separate — sewer stands on its own, water stands on its own, rec stands on its own. We don’t co-mingle the money.
Quite a few years ago, (in) ’94, there was a tax passed for rec, and this year it’s like $92-and-change per year, generating about $550,000. Then we get money from all kinds of other sources be it Event Center bookings or activities in the parks; we have concessionaires that run private operations on our properties. … Now we have, nevertheless, a deficit, and it’s been a deficit for quite awhile to the point where we face some real challenges with recreation. Overall, fiscally, that’s the story. …
The overall health of the district is we’re good. Our systems are sound. The integrity of our utilities is high, and so, I think overall the feeling is things are well — not that there isn’t challenges to deal with.
Sun: What’s the top one or two biggest challenges the district faces in 2016?
Whitelaw: Probably the biggest in 2016, and this will show you how high a priority it is, is securing recreation funding. That is one of the most significant things. … Another biggie in ’16 is called the Kings Beach Water System Improvement. Kings Beach is an older community. It was initially built for summer homes, and so, there were small water lines put in. There were very few fire hydrants put in, and the lines are old, so we are in a program to replace the aging and obsolete water lines in Kings Beach up to sufficient size, with sufficient fire hydrants to be able to support a vibrant community.
Sun: As we embark on the second half of the decade, what improvements do you want to see with the district by 2020?
Whitelaw: (They are) numerous. Of course implementing our long-term plans is critical. We have what’s called our capital improvement program that reaches out five years. We fund it, and we use it to make improvements to utilities be it sewer, laterals that go up to a house, water lines, fire hydrants, filtering, treatment. All of those things are constantly in a state of upgrade in the capital improvement program, so from now through 2020, that will be a focus. A side thing to that is constantly updating it. As external things occur, we often times have to deviate our plans a little
… Funding for recreation needs to be resolved. Another thing that is very important to the district is the disposition of the Event Center. That is a facility that we’ve owned for a long time, and it has some real issues with it because it doesn’t pay for its operating cost. The rec side, and within rec is the Event Center, losses money every year, and that’s either acceptable or it isn’t. The board and I are going to begin an outreach effort to explain not only the benefits we get from (that facility), but the financial drain that it puts on us, and we’re going to have to look for long-term solutions. … Not only do we lose this money every year, we have this potential nut to crack of hundreds of thousands of dollars that will eventually be needed to fix that place up, or we’re going to be faced with failures in the system whether it’s the roof leaks or whatever.
We’re looking for options of how to fund that, and one of the ways that we’re exploring for that building and for all of what the parks department does, which includes the Regional Park and Tahoe Vista Rec Area and a few other things, is asking the public to increase the amount they pay for recreation (through) Measure C. That was that tax that I mentioned earlier, the $92-and-change, and that generates about $550,000. We’re in this deficit spending. Rec has spent it’s reserves, and we’re at a break point where if we can’t get some additional funding, there may have to be some changes in availability of these amenities. The cost of keeping everything at its current level is something that we can’t sustain without some additional funding.
Sun: How does the district balance the needs of locals and second homeowners and visitors when delivering service?
Whitelaw: There is always this bit of an argument over, why do I have to pay a water bill when I’m not here? If I’m closing my place down at the end of the summer and I’m not going to be back until next Memorial Day, why should I have to pay a base rate for water and base rate for sewer?
Many years ago there was this system in place where you could turn it on and turn it off, but it got to the point where the cost of the crews doing that, it didn’t make it cost effective for the homeowner. Now our policy is whether you are here or not, you are asked to pay into (the) system. It makes it so if you change your mind and you want to come live here year round or you want to spur of the moment to come up here, you are paying the cost of the infrastructure, so that you can use your property however you like. … So we basically treat locals and second homeowners the same when it comes to service.
This is actually pretty common — sometimes people have a water leak. They don’t live here, so they don’t know about it … but we read water meter data and can tell if something weird is going on in your house because your consumption has taken a drastic jump. The reason for that typically is a leak, so whether the toilet is broken or there’s a leak from a frozen pipe, we will contact the homeowner as a service and say, ‘Hey, we detect this. You might want to contact a plumber or somebody to take a look to see what it is.’ The other part is because so many people don’t live here and don’t know about something until a lot of water is lost, we give relief to people if they request. …
Often times when visitors are here, they are in a vacation rental, especially if somebody spends a night, so they use our facilities whether directly or indirectly. … We encourage visitors to come to the park to use our concessionaire (offerings). … We know an important component of what we do is to provide services where possible to visitors. You can come to Tahoe, spend the day on the beach, bathrooms are there, all day for the cost of a picnic lunch. What an awesome affordable way to enjoy Tahoe with your family. That’s part of the value of recreation.
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media, how is the district changing how it communicates important information to the community?
Whitelaw: (This is) always a huge challenge. Some say upwards of 60 to 70 percent of all the homes here are occupied by second homeowners, so they’re not here, physically present enough to be putting (information) in the newspaper, so you have to look at alternatives to that. Obviously, there’s social media. We have Pam Emmerich full time focused on keeping our social media up to date and things that we do up to date and out.
I’m happy to announce (recently) the board approved recording our meetings, with a system where you can go, ‘I’m interested in agenda item six,’ so without wasting your time with everything else, you can go right to agenda item six, and you can watch it from start to finish. Whether people use it or not, if they know it’s there, I just think there’s a certain trust that comes with knowing that what we do, we do in daylight, and we’re transparent in the conduct of our business. … (Video recording) that’s going to be starting within the next couple of months. … The initial round is not live. As soon as the meeting is over, it gets posted (online). If you want to go to live streaming, it costs a little more. I think it’s something the board’s willing to do if there’s any indication that people are actually watching. …
(There’s also the) website, email and we do billing inserts. Everybody, not just those that don’t live here (year round) want to get their bills online. They don’t want the hard bill, so we’re adapting, trying to figure (that) out. Somebody who gets their bill electronically, they might just be interested in what’s the amount the check needs to be, (but) we are constantly thinking of ways to entice them to also look at the bill where we have information about what might be going on in the district.