Michael Taylor: Nevada County is ramping up enforcement to generate revenue
When was the last time we were united as a nation? When the twin towers fell? At the beginning of this pandemic?
Earlier this year, we seemed to collectively understand the need to shelter in place, to flatten the curve, and to not overburden an already startled health care system. Politics has again divided us, meanwhile the economy steams full speed ahead into a deep recession.
The Great Recession of 2009 affected our local economy greatly. Everyone I knew then was either working in construction, real estate, or the wellness space, and many grew cannabis on the side to get by. Fast forward to last summer’s PG&E power shut-offs. We had another wake-up call for how fragile our local economy is, with multiple businesses going under in only a few short weeks.
The economic impact of this pandemic is going to be far worse and will last much longer. To put it bluntly, the economy is going into a recession and because of the “no-growth, pro-enforcement” culture of our current county government, we — the residents of Nevada County — are going to suffer the consequences.
Earlier this year when I ran for District 1 supervisor, I was concerned about the economic trajectory of Nevada County as well as the dysfunction of the Community Development Agency. I’m even more concerned with the county’s budget now. During the county-sponsored economic webinar with Dr. Haveman, a slide noted that “State Budget Shortfalls Could Be the Largest on Record.” (see 34:20).
Aside from federal and state funds, Nevada County’s main sources of income are taxes, permitting fees and fines. Tourism taxes, sales taxes, and development fees are going to take a hit during this pandemic and a proactive approach toward establishing sustainable means of economic recovery needs to be taken by the Board of Supervisors. While there are numerous paths forward, many aren’t feasible for a variety of reasons.
Tax revenue won’t produce immediate solutions because people are going to have a hard time paying taxes this year.
Generating revenue from development is also unlikely because (1) Nevada County is anti-growth and (2) the current horror stories floating around make residents want to steer clear of county bureaucracy. The permitting required to build a house or start a business is littered with fees and red tape. It’s so bad that most people won’t even pull permits for a simple remodel. If the County was willing to make things easier, there’s potential here and we could get more people to pay permitting fees.
Generating revenue from our local cannabis industry is also an option. Cannabis helped save us in the last recession and it can help save us again, but the county has made permitting processes so difficult and expensive that less than 100 permits were approved in Nevada County in 2019. This is out of thousands of farmers. What better time to streamline permitting processes and encourage partnership with the cannabis industry?
With no signs of streamlined permitting on the horizon, that leaves fines as the County’s next most feasible means of generating revenue, and it seems the county has started focusing on this. Instead of promoting smart, healthy growth in our community, the Board of Supervisors has given the CDA tools in the form of restrictive ordinances to create more enforcement opportunities to go after code violations (i.e. cannabis ordinance, outdoor event ordinance, defensible space ordinance, firearm ordinance, etc.).
While enforcement is a necessity of building codes and ordinances, it shouldn’t be the top funding approach and we cannot allow the County to pursue fines as a revenue strategy. Especially without clear oversight. Unfortunately, the warning signs that this is happening are clear.
The 2020-2021 budget that was recently passed unanimously by the Board included funding for an Unmanned Aerial System program (aka Drone Surveillance). I warned about this in an op-ed I wrote earlier this year: “Coming to Your Property Soon – Drones and Code Compliance.”
On July 14, the Board passed SR 20-3256 to add code enforcement fines to tax rolls in a meeting closed to public attendance. Code compliance officers have previous work experience in law enforcement and the military on their resumes. Rather than looking to enforcement, the county can drive short and long-term revenue streams by improving its customer service and making it easier for property owners and businesses to get through permitting processes. This will also help reestablish community trust.
I also recommend the Board of Supervisors encourage programs that will incentivize healthy growth by:
Hiring CDA staff knowledgeable of all departments to guide customers through the process of dealing with the County.
Ensuring projects get finalized timely by having personnel check in on the progress of customer inquiries.
Incorporating whole turnkey project packages for residential building plans.
Streamlining building and permitting processes.
Allowing a more flexible interpretation of building codes.
Re-introducing Title 25.
As a community, we cannot tolerate enforcement/fine-driven revenue streams as a solution. For a successful recovery post-pandemic, let’s encourage the Board of Supervisors to support smart growth and healthy economic strategies paired with community-focused public service.
Michael Taylor lives in Nevada County.
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