[The Strip Sense]
Clark County could learn from Eureka’s fiscal responsibility
Wed, Aug 17, 2011 (5:15 p.m.)
Photo: Steve Friess
Up where the air is thinner and the West’s legendary open spaces are truly gigantic, they could do things the Vegas way. They could assume the good times will always roll and both build and spend with impunity. They could later blame forces beyond their control for “blindsiding” them with an inevitable bubble burst.
But that’s not the Eureka way. Here in the “Friendliest Place on the Loneliest Highway,” they’ve been through too many booms and busts to fall for that again. They are determined to learn not just from their own past but also from our spectacularly miserable present.
Eureka County, population 1,964, according to the 2010 Census, and 320 desolate miles north of Las Vegas, is the heart of America’s gold country. Along with the mines in neighboring Lander County, this region provides the sixth biggest lode of that most precious metal in all the world. There’s China, South Africa, Australia, Chile and Peru, and then there’s the Silver State.
Eureka is an alternate economic universe, an anomaly compared to most of the nation and certainly the rest of hard-hit Nevada. Gold, trading at about $250 an ounce a decade ago, now sells for more than $1,700, a dizzying height that many believe could double again before it levels off. The price is being driven up by uncertainty in the world economy and the weak value of so many government-issued currencies. In such volatile times, gold is to investors what pacifiers are to babies.
As a result, it’s more lucrative than ever for Big Mining to dig up as much gold as exists, and these parts thrive. The unemployment rate in both Eureka and Lander counties is 5.7 percent, less than half Nevada’s 12.4 percent average. Eureka’s government and school district are so flush from the taxes the mining companies pay that they don’t know what to do with all the dough.
And far from a foreclosure crisis, one of the most pressing problems facing the area is that there simply isn’t enough housing. More than 5,000 miners are bused into the region from as far as 100 miles away each day to work jobs that often pay more than $50,000 a year. Thus, the county is taking a spare $11 million it has lying around to underwrite a housing development that could have more than 200 units and add hundreds of new residents. The only grocer in town is contemplating an expansion in anticipation of the influx.
The hue and cry during every legislative session in memory has been that mining ought to pay more. They’re enjoying a bonanza that they get to extract from our lands and they pay obscenely little for it, the argument goes. Mining’s chief response, which is a bit of clever misdirection, is to insist that the state should create a broad-based business tax and stop constantly trying to soak a few specific industries. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t figure something out until Carson City grows the cojones to actually enact such fiscal reform.
Up here in Eureka, though, that drama is of little interest because they’ve got all the money they need from Big Mining. Newly repaved roads are black ribbons of silk; the school just built a gorgeous new football field; several historic buildings on—what else?—Main Street have been lovingly refurbished.
Oh, and Eureka County sits on a $50 million cash reserve. But here’s the surprise: Most of that actually was built up by the county’s budget director, Mike Rebaleati, over the course of 30 years. Can you imagine Clark County being so disciplined?
“You gotta understand that our economic fluctuations are severe,” Rebaleati, whose family has lived here since the 1870s, told me. “When the mines do run out of gold—and they will someday, of course—they’re going to go away and we’ll see a 90 percent drop in our tax revenues. We manage the money so we have some for the down times, too.”
Wow. Planning for calamity? It’s such a brilliant idea, all I can think of to say is, “Eureka!”
Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. E-mail him at SteveFriess@aol.com.