By Mark Waite
Nye County has some promising economic developments, like the expansion of Spring Mountain Motor Sports Ranch and a mining reclamation company interested in acquiring the Amargosa Valley Science and Technology Park, Assistant County Manager Joni Eastley told the Nevada Assembly Government Affairs Committee Thursday.
Nye County and other cities and counties, give a report to the committee every session. Eastley reminded the board Nye County is the third largest county in area in the U.S., with over 18,000 square miles, with 98 percent under federal management.
“That leaves only 2 percent of it in private hands, or the hands of the folks from whom we derive a portion of our tax revenue,” Eastley said.
Nye County has two centers of government in Pahrump and Tonopah that are 170 miles apart, Eastley said. She said the county tries to take advantage of technology, referring to videoconferencing, to connect both areas of the county.
Nye County has 379 approved budgeted positions, Eastley said. The county is grateful to employee units for agreeing to take furloughs and delay merit increases, she said. Public works comprises 41 percent of the county’s general fund budget.
“We have some cautious optimism about our fiscal outlooks. There are some things in Nye County that are happening that give us some sense of hope,” Eastley said.
The addition of another 120 acres to Spring Mountain Motor Sports after a direct sale from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, will create 140 jobs and is valued at in excess of $100 million, she said.
The SolarReserve project at Crescent Dunes, a 110-megawatt solar plant, broke ground in August 2011. Eastley said it’s outside the town of Tonopah which won’t receive any direct tax revenue. The county will receive some tax benefits, but SolarReserve received tax abatements granted to renewable energy projects.
Eastley didn’t elaborate on green energy abatements approved by the 2011 Legislature, which is a sore spot with county officials, but she said there are already benefits to the Tonopah economy.
“We are seeing a bump in our occupancy rates go up in hotels and restaurants, then after construction there will be approximately 40 people working full-time to man the operation. Then I just found out last week there will be another 45 to 50 just to clean the mirrors that need to be cleaned, each twice a month,” Eastley said.
She also spoke about mining operations on the Highway 95 corridor, the Corvus Gold project near Beatty, which will be provided water by the Beatty General Improvement District, and the Metallic Gold project across the Esmeralda County line from Tonopah that may require moving Highway 95. The greatest impact will be felt in Tonopah which doesn’t have housing for all the workers, she said.
Nye County has one lease and three options to lease property at the Tonopah Airport, a formerly World War II air base, Eastley said. One of the leasees, Solauro Industries, has begun construction of a facility at the airport to mill mine tailings transported from mining operations off-site, she said the company now wants to lease the Amargosa Valley Science and Technology Park near Lathrop Wells for 99 years. The company would install a water pipeline, which will be subtracted from the lease price, she said.
The science and technology park was envisioned when the High Tech Corridor project was unveiled in the late 1990s, but in 2007 Nye County was forced to return a $3 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant when it failed to deliver the promised 160 short-term and 460 long-term jobs and $31 million in investment, only a water tank and a well with high levels of arsenic.
Eastley touted the county’s leadership role in the Brownfields Program, designed to clean up contaminated industrial sites. Nye County recently wrote a $1 million Brownfields grant that will be split with four other counties. Nye County wants to use the grant to not only address opportunities for Brownfield cleanup sites but also identify potential transmission corridors for renewable energy, she said.
“It’s not necessarily land that is contaminated, it’s land that people think might be contaminated or it’s widely believed that it’s contaminated,” Eastley said.
In the past, Nye County used Brownfields grant money to acquire the old Pink Motel in Tonopah and clean it up, Eastley said, they then used money from the Payment Equal to Taxes from the U.S. Department of Energy for Yucca Mountain to build an emergency services office and fire station.
While the county had some success stories, Eastley also detailed the problem areas. Sales tax revenues are down 28 percent from the year 2007 and the assessed value of real property declined 26 percent. But Assemblyman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, felt it was an unfair comparison.
“We were still kind of in our boom and coming off of it, so we were in this false, inflated economy,” Neal said. “We were at a place we were never going to return back to in 2007, it was a myth, that inflation was a myth to begin with and we should’ve been more structured as far as letting our housing economy shoot through the roof.”
Eastley said the Nye County unemployment rate is among the top 10 highest in the country. But she added, “although the unemployment rate is around 14 percent, that’s predominantly in Pahrump which is very close to Clark County. In Tonopah the unemployment rate is only about 5 percent, it fluctuates between 5 and 7 percent.”
Neal asked if the high Pahrump unemployment was due to the construction industry. Eastley said that’s a big part of it, people bought affordable housing in Pahrump during the boom and drove over the hill to Las Vegas.
Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, asked what would happen if Nye County didn’t receive full funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a federal program that compensates counties for the value of federal land. Eastley said Nye County will receive $2.8 million in PILT money this year.
“If we were to lose that funding we would absolutely have to lay people off and potentially look at services we are not required to provide and in Nye County services we are not required to provide are animal control, the senior nutrition program and the veterans service office,” Eastley said.
Eastley told Assemblyman Elliott Anderson, D-Las Vegas, the mining company would move Highway 95.
“I worked in the mining industry for 14 years so I know gold is where you find it and you get what you can get,” she said.
State unfunded mandates could have over a $2 million impact to the Nye County general fund, Eastley said. She mentioned the state sweep of the Indigent Accident Fund, but didn’t elaborate.
“The rurals are really struggling now. The more they work together and work together for the betterment of the citizens the better for us,” Assemblyman James Oscarson, R-Pahrump said.
Eastley said Nye County is prepared to do anything to help the state economy but is hindered by obstacles, like BLM regulations required to open mining operations.
Oscarson wanted Eastley to elaborate on the 120-page Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy prepared by Nye County in June 2012, after the county decided to act as its own economic development authority. Eastley was unaware of the CEDS document.