Last week, presidential candidate Jeb Bush made a pitch in a rural Nevada town.
Elko, Nev., about six hours north of Las Vegas, has a population of about 20,000 people – but it’s not the first time presidential hopefuls have stopped there.
As part of a special KNPR series of interviews with local and regional mayors in the state, Elko Mayor Chris Johnson joins KNPR's State of Nevada to talk about the coming year.
Johnson has been mayor of Elko since 2011. He talks about the Elko City Council voting to extend a ban on medical marijuana establishments, despite wide public support.
Where do you stand on the issue of medical marijuana?
I think about what that medical marijuana is and I do have concerns in the way that the state is handling it. I don't think that the state is handling it right. I think with the higher costs of the licensing and what it costs to get into it, I think that is causing issues.
We'll just keep working with this and just come to the best place that we can. As we see things change across the country, it takes a little bit of time to get there. I can't argue that it is a wrong thing to have and listening to the benefits of. But as elected officials, we always have that challenge to put things on paper and budgets and trends and that's where I have concerns.
This month the Elko County Commission introduced an ordinance to increase the sales tax from 6.85% to 7.1%. Do you have any idea how much addition revenue that would generate for Elko?
Well, for Elko County it will generate $3.5 million.
Will that benefit the city in anyway?
Well, yeah. I mean I would like to see it benefit the cities more. Of course, they have the funding formula based on assessed valuation and population. I would have really like to see the County Commission stay with that formula. The driver and the reason they wanted to raise the tax was to fund the rural fire department. The state of Nevada made a change in what they would fund for the NDF (Nevada Division of Forestry) side of things and the counties are having to fund that on their own. So, the process began with how do they fund that now that they don't have the resource from the state of Nevada? So, that's how this sales tax came up.
There was a first impression that the tax could only be raised by a quarter cent. So, they started in the process, 'hey, we need $1.5 million to fund the fire district and where can we put the other dollars?' Well, the county proposed to have those dollars going to rural roads... So I pushed that one: it should be a funding formula that is in place now and you could still do your fire formula and get the fire department funding and have the other monies come back to the cities and keep the balance as much as possible and where the taxes are generated.
Will there be a direct allocation of money from the county?
With a couple of meetings, I was able to convince the commission to allocate funding to the city. So, out of the $3.5 million they're going to allocate $500,000.
What will you use it for?
Streets. If you go back and look at the NRS (Nevada Revised Statutes) it has to be used on a road plan or a fire district.
Nevada has had a property tax cap of 3 percent on homes for more a decade. Would it help Elko and would you support changing or lifting that cap?
No doubt about it. The legislature definitely needs to change that. That's one of the reasons that the commission looked at this sales tax increase. If they were to do it right, there should have been a fire district pass and that should have been more along the lines of property taxes.
Access to quality health care can sometimes be difficult in rural areas. Is there anything you can do as mayor to address a lack of health care options?
Yeah, And we've been doing that. If I would have known now, what I knew way back when, when the county sold the hospital, I would have been definitely against it. I think success of any rural community is have control of medical, own the hospital and have control of your water and sewer. If you have where you're managing those then your destiny is a lot easier to define.
With the owner [of the hospital] being in Tennessee, some of the issues we've had in Elko just really seem to come back to: is Elko hospital a money source for the national corporation or is it really servicing the community? And I think there is real concern. I think having that local control. You gotta put money to the bottom line but it really seems that the amount of profit that they're making and the service they're providing to Elko is not in balance.
If you could talk to Gov. Brian Sandoval right now and tell him what Elko needs most from the state, what would it be?
We've got to fix the net proceeds of mines. Mines are paying a tax and it's a relatively heavy tax and it's been in the Nevada State Constitution. The problem is the money is distributed to the county of origin of where the mineral is mined. And there's counties that have a huge amount of balance in their accounts and then Elko is continually struggling to maintain services needed.
Elko is carrying the weight and yet the money is not coming to the county.
Chris Johnson, mayor, Elko
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