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Council members butt heads with Brekhus on debt, development

By ThisIsReno

By Carly Sauvageau

Ward 1 Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus, who is also running to unseat Mayor Hillary Schieve in this year’s election, was in opposition with the rest of council members for several issues during Wednesday’s City Council meeting. 

One of these issues was the approval of $60 million in tax-exempt general obligation bonds to complete the new Reno Police headquarters and the aquatics center at Moana

The bonds would be issued by the city, sold to finance the projects and paid back over time using tax dollars. According to Mayor Hillary Schieve, this bond would not increase taxes for Reno citizens.

A Reno Police officer discusses plans for Reno’s new Public Safety Center, planned for 911 Kuenzli St. in Reno, Nev. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

In addition to the Moana pool project and rehabbing the former Reno Gazette Journal building for Reno Police, the bond may also be used to build a new fire station if there are enough funds. These projects would also include sustainability structures to become more energy efficient. 

Though the city’s finance director, Deborah Lauchner, said the city was in a good position to take on this debt, Brekhus said she had concerns with the jump in debt the bonds would create. Brekhus suggested the council use the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, or funds given to city governments over the pandemic, “to at least do one of these projects…and not take on that sort of debt.”

The city’s debt would go from $458,000 to around $4 million annually. However, Council member Devon Reese expressed concern that Brekhus was not discussing government debt accurately.

“I get it. There’s an election. My colleague from Ward 1 wants to pin a mailer that says somehow the city is being irresponsible with their debt position, but that’s just not true,” he said. “The reality is that we have under-resourced this community for many years. The debt position we take on is not the same debt position that people take on in, say, their personal lives or with their mortgage …The government is in a different business.”

“I don’t believe it pains you to vote no. I think you enjoy voting no.”

“We have paid down debt, that’s all we’ve done as a council,” said Council member Naomi Duerr. 

Duerr is part of the Debt Management Commission and is touting healthy city finances as part of her reelection campaign. She mentioned the extensive questioning the commission asked Lauchner about the bonds before the item was brought to council. 

Duerr said Reno was ready to take on new debt. 

Brekhus, however, voted against it.

“It really pains me to vote against this. Over 10 years ago, I decided to run for city council and a big motivator was the falling apart of the Moana Pool that had served this community for three generations,” Brekhus said. “But the decision to bundle all these together goes up against my other concern when I did come onto the council, and that was that the City Council had laid off a third of its workforce and that was really tough times,” she added.

Brekhus, who came onto the council after the Great Recession, said she wanted to protect the city’s general funds. Brekhus mentioned again using ARPA funds, but was shot down by Reese, who again chastised Brekhus.

“To my colleague from Ward 1, I don’t believe it pains you to vote no. I think you enjoy voting no,” Reese said. “The problem with your position is that the pandemic money that you’re talking about went to support our most vulnerable residents and paid for rental assistance and food and computers for kids.”

The motion passed 6 to 1 with Brekhus in opposition.

City to buy railroad land for local development

Toll Brothers, a local housing developer, requested the city buy land from the Union Pacific rail line to create a secondary access road for the Santerra-Quilici development area near Verdi. Union Pacific does not sell to private entities, so Toll must go through the city to purchase the land. The secondary road would be owned and maintained by the city. 

This type of deal is not unusual in city development, Council member Neoma Jardon said.

Brekhus questioned how the issue had been brought to the council and whether there’d been enough discussion of the purchase. 

“Are we jumping the gun here?” she asked. 

Brekhus, who has often questioned city deals with developers, said she also thought the council should demand more from Toll Brothers, such as a guarantee that they would build a new fire station if council were to purchase the land for them.

“I would have liked transportation planning, Mr. Manager, that just doesn’t secure an access but secures routes for this community…I think we should route this, I think we should hold off,” she said. “We could be creating a huge problem out there.”

Mayor Hillary Schieve disagreed.

“The one thing that concerns me is that if we don’t provide access this puts residents in danger, and then the liability [falls on] the city,” she countered.

The motion also passed 6 to 1 with Brekhus in opposition.

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