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City budgets for economic downturn, plans for fee increases


Budget discussions on Wednesday at the Reno City Council began with contentions between council members, a recurring trend at council meetings. 

Council members Devon Reese and Jenny Brekhus have repeatedly attacked each other across multiple recent meetings, with the budget meeting being no different. 

During an initial disclosure within the first several minutes of the meeting, Reese stated he would not be abstaining from a vote on the budget despite his law firm’s association with various bargaining groups of the Reno Police Department. As he made that disclosure, he singled out Brekhus by directing his disclosure toward her. 

Reese recently signed an agreement with the Nevada Ethics Commission regarding complaints that he didn’t properly disclose business relationships or abstain from votes on contracts with local unions that are represented by the law firm where he works. The complaint was redacted, so it is unknown who filed it with the commission. 

When Brekhus asked why Reese had singled her out during his disclosure, Reese reprimanded Brekhus that she was “out of order” along with the banging of his gavel, as he was the presiding chair of the meeting. 

Watch the exchange below.

Mayor Hillary Schieve was not present for the meeting.

Following the clash, council members heard presentations regarding the city’s budget and the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which focused heavily on fee adjustments.

Budget highlights

The city is preparing for a “modest yet broad economic downturn” with its budget for the next fiscal year. For example, sales tax projections in the 2022/23 year are approximately 5.6%, but are projected to drop to 2.47% for 2023/24. 

This is due to high inflation and volatility caused by financial markets among other issues. However, a strong labor market is expected to continue, and increases in interest rates are expected to continue in an effort to tame inflation. 

“We’re not anticipating growth on top of growth as we [make this budget], and that’s what builds a sustainable budget as we move forward,” Vicki Van Buren, director of finance, said. 

The slowing of the economy is not so much of an issue as it is something new, she added. Expansion and contraction is expected in an economy; it does not mean that the economy is unstable. 

“We’re actually very stable right now,” Van Buren explained.

Within the 2023/24 budget, the “baseline” budget maintains all current staffing levels, service contracts and capital allocations. It also includes the 7% increase to all department budgets that was approved due to high inflation costs. 

PERS increases from 29.75% to 33.5% for regular members and from 44% to 50% for police and fire members will also occur. Every two years there is the potential for a PERS increase, and Van Buren said that was factored into the budget.

After asking all departments in the city how much additional funding they believe they would need to function at their best, more than $41 million in additional funding requests were received. 

Van Buren said 200 additional funding requests were received, with 102 coming from police and 33 from fire. The vast majority of requests was for additional employees. 

The purpose of asking for this “wish list,” Van Buren said, is to find out where the needs of departments are and what those needs will look like moving forward to develop funding plans in the future. 

The total budget amounts to $861 million, with the majority going toward the general fund ($320 million) and sewer ($227 million). 

The full budget presentation can be viewed here. 

City budget by function.
City budget by function.

Following the presentation, Brekhus said that it was difficult to give feedback on the proposed budget without annual strategic goal setting. 

“The lack of this body doing strategic planning makes it hard for us to express what our priorities are,” she said. “Budgets are an expression of your values and your priorities.”

Brekhus added that the purchase of the Space Whale and the creation of an urban economist position are both due to the council not holding workshops to strategize their priorities. 

“Without taking each one of those into a workshop that is driven by this body to talk about what the annual priorities are, the marching orders with the budget to our city manager, we really aren’t doing budgeting properly in my view,” she said. 

Council member Naomi Duerr took an optimistic approach. She noted how far the city had come since she was first elected during the 2014 budget year. 

“We’ve exerted so much financial discipline to get here,” she said. 

Duerr said she was impressed by the fact that maintenance funds had been set aside in the budget, which she said will save the city money in the long term by maintaining vehicles and buildings. 

Duerr agreed with Brekhus, however, and said she would also like to see a strategic plan, whether annually or bi-annually. 

“I’d love to hear a plan; we should slate it and try to do it in the fall of next year so that we set ourselves up for the budget,” Duerr said. “We do it at every other organization… It’s the role of the board to do this budgeting but also set these strategic objectives.” 

Reese, however, disagreed with the idea of holding strategic planning sessions to determine goals and priorities for the council. 

Meghan Ebert, Reno City Council member. Image: City of Reno.
Meghan Ebert, Reno City Council member. Image: City of Reno.

“I also think it is sort of odd to continually say we should be reevaluating [values and priorities] ad infinitum because it doesn’t lead us to any better policy decisions and so I am interested in having those strategic discussions as they arise,” he said.  

Councilmember Meghan Ebert said that new council members including herself should be provided information on how to provide feedback on the budget before it has been finalized moving forward. 

“I wasn’t able to contribute any feedback for this budget,” Ebert said. “I know [Reese] doesn’t want to have a lot of budget meetings, but I would like to be part of it.” 

Capital improvement plan

City Engineer Kerrie Koski provided a presentation about the city’s 2024 capital improvement plan, which is a “blueprint for the sustaining and improving of the community’s infrastructure.” 

Fee adjustments were considered as a means to help fund capital projects, and while several fee adjustments were discussed, the increase of appeal fees was a main focus.  

Under the current fee structure, it costs citizens $55 to file any appeal whether it be administrative or for land use. However, proposed changes would more than double the fees for administrative appeals ($112) and increase the fees by more than 1,000% for land use appeals ($642). 

“The fee schedule is our opportunity to make sure that we are charging appropriate fees so we don’t have to make large corrections in the future,” Koski said.  

Reese agreed.

“I looked at the depth of which we have not funded appropriately our ongoing maintenance of capital improvement needs over the, let’s just pick 30 years, I don’t know, it might be more than that, but it seems like a lot of kicking the can down the road has occurred in this city for a long time,” he said. “Instead of focusing on the negative, which is something I can’t change, I’m sort of thinking about the positive.” 

Duerr said she was struggling with the appeal fee increase. 

Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr. Image: City of Reno.
Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr. Image: City of Reno.

“This is over a 1,000% increase,” Duerr said. “I can’t imagine us doing that in any other realm, but at the end of the day…we’re only getting about 10 [appeals per year]. We’re talking about a very small amount of money but a very large increase.”

Duerr said that she’d heard the reason for the large increase was to “dissuade frivolous appeals.” 

“Often you can’t hear the merits of a case until you hear it,” she said. “To prejudge it as frivolous is antithetical to the system of justice that we have.” 

Carly Borchard in submitted public comment said the appeals fee increase “seems incredibly drastic.”

“I feel very strongly that this is meant to (or potentially will) discourage public engagement,” Borchard wrote. “In any appeal I have been privy to a lot of unknown concerns and facts were brought to the City Council’s attention, which I would think the Council would be grateful to receive. I have not personally seen an appeal that did not have some merit, or could be considered a waste of time.”

Duerr said she would recommend the fee increasing to $100. 

“The cost to respond or protect your own property rights should not [cost this high],” she said. 

“We’re not trying to discourage anyone from engaging in the public process, I don’t think that that’s true,” Reese said. 

Councilmember Kathleen Taylor said she was in favor of the fee increase as it would better align with the appeal fee costs in surrounding jurisdictions which range from $250 to $1,000. 

“I would like to see us recoup at least some of the costs of doing business,” Taylor said. 

Taylor said that while no one likes to increase Parks and Recreation fees, scholarships will also be available. 

“If you can’t use a park because you’re financially unable, we will help you get there,” she said.  

Brekhus said that one way to recoup costs, such as for the parking garage used by city staff, would be to charge city staff parking fees. 

“Parking needs to be priced,” Brekhus said. 

Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose is a proud Native Nevadan whose work in journalism and publishing can be found throughout the Sierra region. She received degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She is an avid supporter of high desert agriculture and rescue dogs.