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Commissioners review budget, Cares Campus costs and development

By Kristen Hackbarth

Washoe County’s general fund was in better shape at the close of the last fiscal year than had been anticipated when staff created its budget for the year. 

County CFO Christine Vuletich on Tuesday told members of the Board of County Commissioners that fiscal year revenues were 20% higher than budgeted, in part because those projections were made in March and April of 2020 at the onset of pandemic shutdowns. 

Washoe County CFO Christine Vuletich

The county also took in more revenue than expected because of the federal stimulus and population growth. Expenses were down too, in part because of a greater focus on monitoring expenses and the use of federal CARES Act dollars rather than county funds to pay for some personnel. 

Vuletich said the county’s Risk Management Fund was also brought back to $3 million and its fund balance was increased by more than $58 million. That increase, essentially a surplus, will be used this fiscal year for property tax refunds as a result of the settlement with Incline Village residents. 

“We are very fortunate in northern Nevada, especially in Washoe County, to have a relatively strong, diverse economy,” Vuletich said after highlighting the county’s three goals set during the budgeting process: maintain services, keep employees working and use reserves wisely. 

She said many other local governments weren’t able to accomplish those things. 

“We feel good that we’ve been able to accomplish these things, not lay anyone off and hold the course,” she added.

For the current fiscal year, expenses are expected to increase faster than revenue, in part because of the level of inflation, which hit 8.5% in March. 

Vuletich said the county is prioritizing its spending priorities, with a focus on its base budget, legislatively and legally required efforts, and Cares Campus operations. 

Commissioner Alexis Hill said she was pleased to see the county’s budget in this condition and credited it to conservative spending by commissioners and county staff. 

“The culture of this organization is one of good stewardship with regards to fiscal matters,” added Eric Brown, the county’s manager. “When I see either budget requests for above base requests or capital improvement project requests from county departments there is an amazing amount of fiscal discipline and restraint…You don’t see that everywhere.”

He said over the past three years, with the pandemic, the county has been able to grow the fund balance despite taking on a number of major expenses, such as the opening of Our Place shelter and taking over the Nevada Cares Campus.

Commission Chair Vaughn Hartung said he was concerned that the county’s current level of spending couldn’t continue, especially in terms of spending on homelessness initiatives. 

Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung
Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung

Spending nearly $29 million at the Cares Campus “is not sustainable” he said. “I recognize these are one-time expenditures, but I still see people all over town…This is not solving it yet. So where are we with spending this kind of money?”

He said what he wants to see are the achievements the county has made so commissioners can show the community how their tax dollars were not just spent, but how they impacted the community.

Hartung also said the county should be prepared for a recession, which he believes is coming, to keep county staff employed and services delivered. 

He likened the present and potential future as “chicken today, feathers tomorrow.”

Cares Campus construction costs nearly doubled

The county’s special projects manager, Dana Searcy, gave a presentation on operations at the Nevada Cares Campus, upcoming development at the site and the plan to provide acreage to Reno Housing Authority for transitional housing.

Phase 1 of the Cares Campus development includes most of what’s been completed to-date: filling in the Governor’s Bowl, installing the main large tent structure and creating the safe camp and Mod Pods areas. 

The next four phases of development are estimated to cost about $71 million, nearly twice what was estimated in summer of 2021 ($38 million) when Washoe County signed the interlocal agreement to take over the shelter’s operations. Some of the cost increases are due to inflation and rising prices while others are to use more durable materials to better withstand use and reduce future maintenance costs.

Parts of the campus are already falling apart with less than a year of use.

Searcy said the county won’t be spending any more money on Sprung buildings, which are supposed to have a life of 20 years. Sprung buildings, such as the campus’ tent structure, are all-weather tension fabric structures designed for speed of installation and low overall cost. 

Future structures on the campus will be a mix of block and steel to reduce maintenance costs and lengthen the life of the buildings.

The estimated costs for the remainder of the phased development of the Nevada Cares Campus increased from $38 million to $71 million in less than a year due to cost escalation, more durable materials, additional space and staffing, and the purchase of five acres from Reno Housing Authority. Image: Washoe County

“We’re building into this some smart use,” Searcy said, which includes anticipating future needs such as space to keep more people warm in the winter or cool in the summer. 

Nearly a quarter of the budgeted cost is to purchase five of the campus’ 15 acres  owned by Reno Housing Authority. Searcy said RHA is hoping to sell the property to invest the funds in other permanent housing options in the area, rather than the supportive housing intended for the campus. 

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the purchase of the land from RHA, but suggested the county work to get more representation within the agency. 

“We are at a pinch point where we are ready to put people into independent living and we have no place to put them.”

Washoe County is responsible for the lion’s share of funding the development at the campus, bearing more than 68% of the cost. The remainder is split between the cities of Reno and Sparks. 

County staff is looking at different funding options to offset some of the costs, including a potential $15 million from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services which has been allocated for housing. 

Assistant County Manager Kate Thomas said about $6 million in private funding is also being contributed to support the campus development. 

What’s in the budget?

Starting in May, additions will be made to the safe camp area to include restrooms and covered picnic areas. 

The next phase of development, planned to start in June and continue through summer 2023,  will see improvements inside the main Sprung structure, including division of the space, Searcy said. 

“We have 604 beds currently inside the building. It’s a lot for staff. It’s a lot for people in the building,” Searcy said. “When you walk in and you can see as far as you can see in each direction it can be pretty overwhelming.”

She said with so many people crowded in the space it can be difficult to find calm and space to heal, and many people leave the shelter and look elsewhere for that quiet place. 

The plan is to divide the building into six sections of about 100 people each and adjust capacity to 525 beds. Each section will house a certain population of people, such as women or seniors and those who are disabled. People who work and are looking for “calm and rest” will have a section as well. 

Some people getting case management services through the shelter will be able to sleep in one of the new “cubbies,” which is essentially a cubicle for sleeping that can provide more privacy and separation from others. 

New laundry and shower facilities built to withstand a greater volume of use than those already on site  – and eliminate ongoing maintenance problems – will also be added to the campus. 

The phased development of the remainder of the Nevada Cares Campus includes division of sections in the Sprung building, a welcome building with dining room, and permanent supportive housing. Image: Washoe County

Searcy said the third phase of the campus’ development is still taking shape and will include a large permanent structure to house the intake office, case management, counseling and training centers, and a dining room and warming kitchen. The second floor is slated to be administrative offices. 

Fifty units of double-occupancy supportive housing and a community resource are planned for the fourth phase of development. The supportive housing will get people out of the Sprung and into a stable environment before transitioning to permanent housing, she said. 

The community resource center will be for anyone who needs help, Searcy said, such as people who are about to become homeless, who are being released from the hospital or jail, or who may need a hot meal. 

“It’s one of the things that we find as a theme in the community is that we have lots of resources but no one is an expert in all of those resources or how to get access to those resources. This is where that information would be housed,” she said. 

Northern Nevada HOPES will also begin construction in June of this year on a clinic location at the southeast corner of the campus. 

Progressing out of the shelter requires affordable housing

Commissioner Hartung, who earlier in the meeting had said he wanted to see progress, asked Searcy what’s being done to transition people from the emergency shelter into more stable and permanent housing situations. 

“Nobody should spend an enormous amount of time inside the emergency shelter,” Searcy said. 

She said a successful program at the safe camp is progress-based, requiring residents to create a plan with a case manager. As long as a person is making progress on their plan, they are allowed to stay. 

The same program is going to be put in place inside the emergency shelter, she said. 

Commissioner Kitty Jung said that one of the challenges that both Reno and Sparks need to work on addressing is the housing shortage. She said she’d like to see RHA spending the money it receives from selling its Cares Campus acreage right away. 

“It needs to get cracking,” Jung said. “We are at a pinch point where we are ready to put people into independent living and we have no place to put them because of rents and real estate and all the things we talk about.”

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