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Little-known conservation district studies tax increase

Until recently, the Southern Nevada Conservation District has flown mostly under the radar.

That low profile is about to change, though, now that the seven-member board has the power to ask voters to consider a tax increase. That power has the business community and elected officials asking questions about plans for the district, now known mostly for its annual Christmas tree-recycling program.

The Southern Nevada district is one of 28 conservation districts in the state. All of which gained the ability, thanks to a bill passed by legislators in 2015, to put a question on the ballot asking voters to approve a property tax of up to $25 per parcel. As it stands, the districts get a couple of thousand dollars in state funding. This year the Southern Nevada Conservation District received $4,000.

The possibility of a tax hike caught the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce by surprise. Chamber Director of Government Affairs Justin Harrison, who showed up at the district’s monthly meeting Thursday, said the chamber had a lot of questions and noted that he hadn’t heard of the conservation district before talk of the ballot question.

The ballot question isn’t just about money — it’s about marketing.

“A lot of people don’t know that conservation districts even exist,” said Nevada Association of Conservation Districts President Jake Tibbitts, who lobbied the Legislature on the bill. “If people hear there is going to be a ballot question and the conservation district is going to propose a per parcel fee — I think people would be pretty interested in what the conservation district is going to be doing with this money.”

If a county commission gets wind of a fee, there will be questions, he said.

Asked if part of the point of the ballot question was to get attention, Tibbitts said, “Yes. Absolutely.”

Seeking clarity

In Clark County, that’s exactly what’s happened.

On Tuesday, the commission plans to discuss what the district is up to and might look at changing its unusual election process. The conservation board consists of five elected supervisors and two appointed positions, one representing Clark County and the other representing cities in the district.

As it stands, volunteer board members who aren’t appointed are chosen in the nontraditional fashion of a “mass meeting of electors,” where a meeting for the election is noticed and whoever from the public shows up casts a vote by secret ballot. Ten people showed up at the last election. Conservation districts came as a response to the poor agricultural practices that helped create the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and there are about 3,000 such districts across the nation, according to the National Association of Conservation Districts.

Harrison was adamant at the Thursday meeting that board members need to be elected traditionally.

He also raised questions about the group’s overall transparency, noting that it was difficult to track down its first meeting of the year. The website said the third Wednesday of every month, but then that had changed to the third Thursday of every month, except that this month the group met on the fourth Thursday because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Amber Bosket, an elected board member and the group’s secretary, attributed the confusion to lack of staff.

Harrison said the chamber was open to supporting conservation efforts in the community, but more information is needed about the district and how exactly it would spend what could be a large sum of money.

The district hasn’t yet nailed down the details on how it would use new funding or when it wants voters to decide. It had looked at putting a question on the November ballot asking voters to approve a $2.95 fee on each parcel, bringing in an estimated $2.1 million. But the board decided to slow its efforts based on negative feedback from the County Commission and the chamber. Also, there was anxiety about being able to put together the effort in time for the already-crowded 2016 general election ballot.

Board members noted Thursday that it would be ideal to go forward with County Commission support. Although the commission could not stop the district from putting the question on the ballot, commissioners could make the ballot question a more difficult task by forcing the election to be by mail. It was also noted at the meeting that in Wyoming, word of a potential ballot question caused a county commission to just give funding to a conservation district, rather than offer a ballot question.

Board members also expressed a desire to switch to a traditional election process.

Where money might go

Bosket said the Southern Nevada Conservation District would like to use funding to hire staff and dole out grant money to community conservation initiatives, such as the Clark County School District’s gardening efforts.

More specifically, the district would like to give $600,000 to Southern Nevada Strong, a regional planning effort that outlined several initiatives, thanks to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. The environment was one of the effort’s areas of focus. But only the planning was funded, Bosket said. The district hopes to help those plans come to fruition by providing funding, she said.

Before the Great Recession, the district had a staff and an easier time getting grant funding, at one point managing $1 million in funds, Bosket said. Now the district offers an annual tree recycling program, holds a storm drain pollution prevention poster contest for fourth- and fifth-graders, recognizes conservation efforts in the community and supplies educational materials to teachers.

Board Chairman Chris Magee, who was appointed by the cities within the district, declined to be interviewed because his job as executive director of sustainable facility development at MGM Resorts International requires him to get approval to speak publicly. The Review-Journal contacted Magee on Jan. 21, and Magee said Thursday that he had not returned the reporter’s message because MGM had yet to approve his request to talk about the conservation district.

One concern from both the County Commission and the Chamber of Commerce has been the overlap of services already provided by agencies such as city and county parks and recreation departments.

Tibbitts said overlap is a legitimate question.

“I think that’s often the case with government to be honest,” Tibbitts said. “There is overlap; that has always been one of my pet peeves. We have a lot of entities doing the same things, and we are dividing the resources instead of combining them.”

Ideally, he said, conservation districts would partner with efforts, such as those of weed control districts, to create synergy of services. At their meeting, Southern Nevada Conservation District board members discussed overlap, noting that they would hope to partner with community organizations with similar aims.

Tibbitts said that as far as he was aware, only the Southern Nevada Conservation District and Nevada Tahoe Conservation District — the state’s two largest conservation districts — are considering ballot questions.

The state’s 28 conservation districts are diverse in their efforts, Tibbitts said. The Nevada Tahoe Conservation District does water quality and sediment control projects and receives several grants to do forest thinning and wildlife protection, he said.

Tibbitts said community support is a two-way street for conservation districts. To win support, districts need to do their part in pitching the public on their projects.

“I believe conservation districts are one of the best-kept secrets in the state,” Tibbitts said.

— Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes

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