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Reno council mulls more than $860 million budget in lengthy meeting


Police and fire to get the most new positions

Reno City Council members on Wednesday heard an updated list of requests and projections in another round of budget talks for the coming fiscal year. 

The total city budget for 2023-2024 is now set to $862 million, $1 million more than what was discussed in March’s first round of talks.

The revised budget was presented to the council after revenue projections were altered, specifically in consolidated tax (CTAX) and property tax. 

CTAX was projected at 4.8% in 2023, and 4% in 2024 – however, projections have been updated to reflect more current projects at only 2.7% in 2023, and 2.1% in 2024. 

Property tax projections have increased, from a projected 6.3% to 6.7% in 2023, and 5.5% to 8.5% in 2024. 

“Consolidated tax has continued to slide,” Vicki Van Buren, the city’s director of finance, said. “One thing we see with consolidated tax is in months where we have winters where it’s really cold, it always goes down. The trend is we always have a decline in CTAX when we have cold months. People stay in; they don’t go out and spend money.” 

As the weather gets warmer, the CTAX most likely will be higher. 

However, there should not be negative effects within the budget as the CTAX and property taxes should offset each other, according to Van Buren. 

Funding requests

During discussions, Van Buren said that $41 million in general funding requests had been received, with the majority requested for additional personnel. 

When creating the budget, departments were asked what their “wish lists” would be in terms of funding to function at their best. 

This was to gauge where the needs are in various departments and can help plan for future funding plans, Van Buren said. 

Police are requesting the largest number in created positions, accounting for nearly half of the overall budget requests. The Reno Police Department requested 102 new positions projected to cost just shy of $18 million.

The fire department came in second place requesting 36 new positions, and the city manager’s office was third, requesting 33.5 new positions. 

Proposed additions

Most of the city’s budget is within the general fund ($321 million) and the sewer fund ($227 million). 

Proposed additions, by council priority, amounted to $3.8 million and were a mix of infrastructure, arts and culture, community development and public safety.

Requests included $2.8 million for new staff positions in traffic and sewer maintenance, more public works training and a sewer capacity analysis. 

Another $265,000 was requested to fund annual public art repair and maintenance and to update the Public Art Master Plan.

And $342,000 was requested for code compliance, specifically for training and to fund a development manager and a management assistant. 

The fourth budget addition, a $400,000 request, was for public safety improvements that would fund a turnout replacement program and three additional paramedic positions, using federal funding to reimburse the city.

“Advancing these maintenance and replacement programs is really important for the sustainability of the city,” Van Buren said. 

A total of 14 new positions across three departments are proposed, far short of the wish list requests of each department. An average of 42 new positions per year have been added to the city’s payroll across the last five years, with fire staffing being at an all-time high. 

Reno City Council member Kathleen Taylor.
Reno City Council member Kathleen Taylor.

Council member Kathleen Taylor questioned why no positions had been added to the police but nine had been allotted to infrastructure and sustainability, and whether the positions were directly connected to different funds. 

“Yes, they are tied to other funding sources,” Van Buren said. “We do not have the capacity right now based on our conservative projections for this year to add new positions to the general fund. We do have some capacity in other funds.” 

Of those positions, eight are being created for traffic and sewer maintenance positions, including expanding traffic light maintenance staff. 

Council member Jenny Brekhus asked why the positions are being created for “mechanics for [traffic] signals” rather than in creating sidewalks or hiring a traffic calming coordinator. 

Travis Truhill, director of maintenance and operations, said the mechanic and technician positions are being created to maintain existing infrastructure and to keep up with development. 

“The city has 2,600 decorative street lights, 320 signalized intersections, 206 rectangular rapid flashing beacons, and 1,200 signalized street lights,” Truhill said. “The staff currently assigned to this division cannot provide any kind of preventive maintenance. They are way behind on work, they absolutely do not have the bandwidth to take on anything else, and as you guys are aware, we keep bringing in new subdivisions or areas with new infrastructure.” 

Truhill said the department is trying to transition to a public safety perspective where preventive maintenance can start being provided. 

In the past, Truhill said, the department has been able to provide streetlight assessments, but now they can only be reactive in responding to reports of non-functioning lights. 

Mayor Hillary Schieve said that funding these positions does not mean that other positions, such as the ones Brekhus mentioned, cannot be funded as well. 

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.

“One does not predicate the other,” Schieve said. 

Brekhus said she is concerned for the economy and does not advocate for new positions, but that she wants to call attention to her priorities, such as pedestrian safety.

“These are not mutually exclusive conversations,” said City Manager Doug Thornley. 

Parks maintenance 

Under the Parks and Recreation budget, $22,500 was set aside for parks maintenance. However, according to Van Buren, the maintenance was largely aimed at new parks rather than older parks and funded through residential construction tax (RCT) for the construction of new parks within new development. 

Council member Naomi Duerr pointed out that RCT funds cannot be used for maintenance. 

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

“This has to be from general fund,” Duerr said. “We’ve gone round and round on this, we cannot use RCT funds for maintenance.” 

Duerr asked specifically for the Damonte Ranch Park in south Reno to be placed “on the radar” for maintenance. According to Duerr, the park has not been maintained and has “deteriorated significantly.” 

“The sod is essentially dead, trees are dead, there was a maze built — it’s all weeds now,” she added. “I’ve had complaints from 10-year-olds to an 80-year-old about the condition of the park.”

Duerr said she has sent 70 photos of the park’s deterioration to the city’s parks department. 

“I just want to get this on the radar. It’s the largest park in south Reno. I’m not asking for equipment, this is about maintenance and I thought that’s what this (funding item) is for,” Duerr said.

Brekhus said it’s been “a long time” since a discussion has been held about the parks district by the city council. 

In the North Valleys, Brekhus said there are no new builds or plans for additional parks despite the increase in residential development. 

“We need to keep an eye on where we’re going with the parks district,” she said. 

Street projects

The proposed budget for the city’s street fund for 2024 is $25 million, with the majority ($23.2 million) assigned to neighborhood streets. The rest of the fund is divided between traffic safety ($795,900) maintenance and operations ($500,000) and the bridge program ($373,000).

The neighborhood streets project’s mission is to keep all neighborhood residential streets in “good” condition, which is based on a grade system. 

Streets selected for maintenance are not chosen by wards, but rather rotate throughout the city. There is a $300 million backlog for road maintenance. 

“If we only focused on one ward, we’d be in that ward for 10 years,” Kerrie Koski, city engineer, said. “We rotate around the city to provide fairness to residents, but we do group the streets.” 

Wastewater treatment facility in Lemmon Valley.
Wastewater treatment facility in Lemmon Valley. Image: Mark Hernandez / This Is Reno.

Sewer funds 

The proposed budget for the city sewer fund is $113.6 million, with the majority going towards reuse ($38 million), the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (TMWRF) plant ($21 million) and $35 million split between collection systems. 

Projects in 2024 focus on collection system conditions, collection system capacities and maintenance of facilities. 

However, Council discussed at length the recent discovery of “forever chemicals” at Swan Lake in North Valleys and how it might affect the sewer budget. 

The chemicals located within Swan Lake are called PFAS or “forever chemicals” referring to the fact that they are very slow to break down within the environment. While PFAS are used in many common household items like nonstick pans and cosmetics, studies have indicated they may impact the immune system, increase the potential for certain cancers and cause other health issues. 

While Swan Lake is not used for drinking water, it was used for irrigating the American Flat Farm project. Testing is underway to determine what areas, if any, are contaminated. 

“We do not have the results back,” Trina Magoon, director of utility services, said. “Ultimately what we want to know is what is in the soil at the American Flat and does it pose any challenges to the project. We don’t know yet, we are in the investigative stage, but we do feel confident that based on irrigation of Swan Lake water that it has not leached into the aquifer.” 

Council member Meghan Ebert said she was uncomfortable budgeting for the reuse category with the American Flat project with everything being “up in the air” following the discovery. 

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

“If potentially we need to have a new filtration process, not just for the North Valleys, if this happens to be an entire City of Reno issue, do we know what this filtration system would cost to the entire City of Reno?” Ebert asked. “I think that’s something we absolutely need to have a ballpark on before we commit to a reuse sewer budget.” 

Magoon said she would inquire to find out what those costs could be. She added that  the discovery was a surprise and the department has been “scrambling” to investigate the area. 

However, Magoon said, there was no study provided with the discovery, but rather a single sample taken from Swan Lake. 

“We did not know if it was sampled at a verified lab, we did not know how it was sampled, so we immediately set out to get our own samples to verify the information,” Magoon said. “Unfortunately because of the new EPA drinking water rules, all the labs are backed up. We won’t have that information for four to six weeks.” 

Brekhus said since the discovery of the PFAS, the city has been sending “drinking water to a farmer” to uphold their obligations, which she called “backwards.”

“We got a contract with a farmer to use water that was effluent which we wanted out of that basin,” Brekhus said. “Now we’re paying for drinking water to farm.” 

Brekhus said she wanted the council to control the budget on this issue. 

“I don’t want to give you $38 million,” Brekhus said. 

Council member Devon Reese shot back at Brekhus after she spoke over her allotted time. 

“I understand Ms. Brekhus, you haven’t committed to any of the money along the way, so I understand why you wouldn’t continue to commit to it,” Reese said. 

The full budget proposal can be viewed here. 

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.