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New city budget includes Space Whale purchase, repair for $137k from general fund


The Reno City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a $17 million budget augmentation. The budget includes $1.5 million for 20 new firefighters, $4 million for a seismic retrofit of city hall and $137,500 for “Space Whale Agreements.”

No further details are included on the city’s agenda. The Space Whale item is for the purchase and repair of the sculpture, City Manager Doug Thornley told This Is Reno today. 

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve was negotiating with the scuplture’s artist for the purchase, but city officials in September refused to disclose details about those conversations. 

“The Space Whale needs significant repairs — to the tune of about $75k — that would need to be performed by a contractor because we don’t have that particular skill set in our maintenance portfolio,” Thornley said today. “The purchase price for the piece is $62.5k.”

Using general funds for the whale is a departure from when the city promoted using room tax dollars to install and maintain the sculpture in 2017

Those taxes come from people who stay in Reno hotels and are charged a tax on their room. Room tax dollars this past summer surpassed pre-pandemic levels — a record was set in July, in fact. Room taxes are used to promote tourism, including public art projects, like the Space Whale.

The budget augmentation is arising from unexpected general fund revenue from the last fiscal year, Thornley added. He also said if the council on Wednesday approves the budget change, that’s not necessarily a guarantee those purchases will actually happen, “but it’s a better bet than not.”

Any purchase over $100,000 would need a city council hearing. 

Councilmember Jenny Brekhus.

Three council members reached by phone today said they were unaware of the Space Whale’s inclusion into the budget. 

Council member Jenny Brekhus said she was surprised by the Space Whale being included in the budget and criticized the way the budget was presented.

“The City Council sets the budget [and] it is the most important thing we do all year. As needs arrive during the year, the Council may amend the budget,” she told This Is Reno. “That is the time for the Manager to let the Council know of changes he is requesting for certain budget areas, personnel changes, or revised revenues. 

“He also on a monthly basis, is supposed to let us know contracts that he signs that do not require Council approval,” she explained, adding that she did not recall being shown any contracts for the Space Whale. 

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve did not respond to messages by the time of publication.

The whale has been the subject of controversy, including repeated, failed attempts to sell it or have another agency purchase it. This Is Reno reporting found the whale’s continued presence on City Plaza likely violates the city’s public art policies.

“It is an unsafe and unsupportable piece of public art,” Reno Arts Commission members wrote in a September 2019 letter to the Reno City Council. They expressed concern over the whale’s ongoing state of disrepair.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.