State land proposal imperils charity

No one ever went broke underestimating the good sense of government in Nevada.

But when I heard the Division of State Lands was actually considering charging the goodhearted folks at Easter Seals for real estate the charity has been leasing for decades at $1 per year, I had to laugh.

There had to be some mistake, right?

They couldn’t be serious, could they?

No one could be that dense, that politically tone deaf. Surely such a thing wasn’t possible even in Nevada, where bureaucratic decision making at times gets downright surreal.

We’re talking about Easter Seals here. For decades the charity has provided needed assistance to adults and children with disabilities. From adult day services to early childhood intervention, Easter Seals in 2012 served more than 8,000 clients from its offices at 6200 W. Oakey Blvd. Whether the economy has been booming or busting, its mission hasn’t varied.

I decided to clarify the lease confusion with a call to Easter Seals Nevada CEO Brian Patchett. Instead, I discovered he is somewhat confused, too.

Yes, he said. After 30 years, the lease is ending. Without a lease renewal by the state, the charity will be forced to start paying from $40,000 to more than $80,000 a year in rent depending on the determination of the fair market value of the property. Its buildings were constructed with community donations.

Even the lower amount figures to have a direct impact on the services the charity will be able to provide.

“We’re working through this issue at this point,” Patchett said.

His trouble might be greater than finding a way to renew a long-term lease. With the submission of Assembly Bill 125, the state Legislature is considering changing the role of the administrator of the Division of State Lands in determining the amount the state charges for leases. One of the changes calls for the executive director of the office of Economic Development and the state lands administrator to “jointly approve the lease and establish the amount of rent to be received for the state land.”

Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, the bill’s sponsor, said similarly worded legislation was considered last session. She traces her interest in getting the most out of state-owned land back to a conversation she had with then-Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Although Kirkpatrick said she wasn’t aware of a state lease issue involving a nonprofit, she did offer, “I have always said that we have to be sure that nonprofits are not taking business from regular businesses.”

You needn’t search far before hearing stories of the state employee unions’ concerns over the potential for lost state social service worker jobs to the expanding mission of nonprofits such as Easter Seals. Although the state employee union has been given assurances no jobs will be lost in the current budget cycle, in an uncertain economy the fretting is understandable.

What is inexcusable is the thought that anyone in Nevada has the audacity to quibble over who is in charge of providing social services to the legion of needy children, adults and disabled here. This state ranks among the lowest in the nation when it comes to funding social services for the poor, elderly and disabled.

And the threat of raising the rent on Easter Seals, no matter the political motivation, can’t be countenanced. Not because even the higher amount would put the charity out of operation, but because it has been a valuable part of this community for decades.

“That’s money that goes to help quite a few people,” Patchett said. “The potential impact would be to any other nonprofit, whether the organization is providing disability services or is a museum.”

After calls went out Tuesday, Division of State Lands Executive Officer James Lawrence said in a message that a final lease figure had not been determined.

“There has been no specific dollar amounts that have been raised at this point in time,” Lawrence said. “The question was asked of us of what we thought the appraised value might be, and we threw out some numbers based on some of our information.”

Patchett has found a kindred spirit in Ed Guthrie, the executive director of longtime Las Vegas nonprofit Opportunity Village, which has a campus built on state land and a long-term lease.

“You’re not only picking on Easter Seals,” Guthrie said, “you’re ultimately picking on a 2-year-old who needs the services.”

Ironically, Easter Seals was founded in 1981 as the Nevada Association for the Handicapped by state Assemblyman Vince Triggs, who devoted much of his life to improving the quality of life for Nevadans with disabilities. The idea that in 2013 the Assembly is considering legislation that might end up twisting the arm of Easter Seals Nevada is appalling.

But, come to think of it, not all that surprising.

This is Nevada, after all, where government-funded social services are an afterthought, and worthy nonprofits are often reduced to hustling for table scraps.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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