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Redefining government services and citizens’ expectations
by Katy Simon
Mar 27, 2010 | 848 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Northern Nevadans are well aware that our state is one of the hardest hit in this recession. Washoe County was one of the state’s first local governments to forecast significant decreases in both sales and property tax revenues and to reduce spending accordingly. In the last four years, we have reduced our spending by more than $100 million, following the guidance of our citizen-led committee’s blueprint for prioritizing services. In addition to making deep annual budget cuts, which have affected services our citizens rely on, we’ve also asked for, and received, agreement on employee wage concessions. Because state law requires local governments to have collective bargaining (the state itself is exempt), we have had to negotiate voluntary wage concessions from our employee associations. Our employees agreed to no cost of living increases for two years and took a further 2.5 percent pay cut in fiscal year 2009-2010. Additionally, they have been asked for further cuts in fiscal year 2010-2011, which are currently being negotiated.  For 2009-10, we reduced our overall budget by 11 percent and reduced our workforce by 14 percent, or 500 positions, while still meeting services mandated by both the Legislature and the expectations of our 410,000 citizens.  After the Washoe County Commission made these difficult decisions and were able to file a balanced budget, Gov. Jim Gibbons recommended and the 2009 Legislature agreed to divert $25 million of local property taxes from Washoe County over two years to help the state meet its shortfall.   

Our staffing level is where it was in 1999, with fewer than six full-time employees per 1,000 citizens compared to the national average of 10 for similar governments.  Even with all the short and long-term budget reductions, our bond rating was still raised in 2009, in recognition of prudent financial management, which benefits taxpayers with lower interest rates on our debt. 

What does this mean for citizens? 

No one knows the impacts of four years of budget cuts more than the citizens we serve.  Every day, they are reminded of this when their favorite library’s hours are reduced, their parks aren’t maintained as well as before, their cul de sac isn’t plowed after the latest snow storm or they have to wait in line or on the phone a little longer than they used to for county services. Governments, whether state, county or city, simply can’t provide the wide array of services they once did, or at the levels they once were able to maintain. Just as the private sector is redefining itself in this new economic environment, so are governments.  Here at Washoe County, we are fortunate that we have had the benefit of committed, informed citizens providing us input and funding prioritization recommendations in the development of our budget during both good and tough economic times. We’ll continue to use that critical citizen input as we work to further streamline county operations to provide the most important services as deemed by our citizens, as well as the many legislatively mandated services we must also provide. 

But citizens play an even more crucial role than simply telling us what’s important to them. Citizens are working with us to redefine their expectations of their local government. Is it realistic to expect a street to be plowed as often as it once was when the government workforce was 14 percent greater? Is it acceptable to experience longer wait times for an Animal Services officer to respond to your call? Will citizens accept the change when their favorite library or park isn’t open as often as it used to be or offer as many programs as it once did? These are some of the harsh realities of what government will look like in the future.   

But there’s good news, too. Here at Washoe County, we’ve heard citizens telling us that while they do recognize the new economic realities, they also want to know how they can help. In addition to redefining their own expectations of local government, citizens are now part of the solution of maintaining their community’s quality of life by volunteering in our various departments such as parks, libraries, juvenile services, and even the public defender’s office!  There’s a common theme we’ve seen emerge:  Neighbors have taken responsibility for their shared health, safety and welfare. We live in a community that consistently shows it will rise to the occasion and meet the challenges of what we face together. As Washoe County prepares to meet the $25 million deficit that we face for the 2010-11 budget as well as a 2011 legislative session that promises to be challenging, we know that our community’s resiliency is our greatest asset and together we’ll redefine how we all prosper in this new economy. 

Katy Simon is the Washoe County manager. She can be reached by telephone at 328-2000.
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