The Restructuring Plan––Austerity Mammoth Style, Or Not?

I promised my newsletter readers last week that I would delve into the current “Restructuring” here in Mammoth, so here you go….I’m really trying not to be cynical….

The last three decades have proven to me that life in Mammoth can be very entertaining all on it’s own. Mammoth Lakes is considered a small town but in many ways it doesn’t really fit that description. Part of the entertainment is the constant parade of big city, Type-A personalties that are out to show off what they have. Some are great athletes, some have big wallets, some admire trophies, and some just have their own fanatic passions, or many combinations thereof. And rarely do most of these types spend less than a few days here. They never really “take-it-down” or get the relaxation they truly need. On the other hand, the real “local” folks provide the best comedy. And our Town Council has us approaching a crescendo.

We may never know if the Council has “played” us, or how much of this is being finely orchestrated (more Kabuki dance), but this new Restructuring Plan is certainly going to get us to an interesting result. And whether our Type-A second homeowners and visitors are going to even realize it (or care), they will likely shoulder the burden of our fiasco. But that is yet to be seen. So if you haven’t been paying attention, here’s the nutshell; the Town of Mammoth Lakes (TOML) will be exiting bankruptcy and there will be no bankruptcy. And it won’t likely get the national media attention that it received going in. TOML has settled with the major creditor (MLLA) and is now on the hook for $2 million per year for the next 23 years. That is approximately 10% of TOML’s annual budget. So now TOML is trying to figure out what to cut, who to cut, or what to tax. It has become a substantial public process including a packed-house Council meeting just the other night. And don’t forget that most of the people who own property in Mammoth Lakes don’t get to vote here.

The first round of proposed cuts was right out of the “play”book, or so it appears. Let’s gut the ML police department and close the swimming pool for the kids. So we’re enduring a big pile of indignation. The Council has listened to years of public outcry about the “overpaid and underworked” Mammoth Lakes police department. But now the fear-mongering crowd, including the police themselves, have convinced everybody that Mammoth is a crime ridden community. (As an aside, if the cops had spent as much time busting the few “known” drug dealers and meth-heads in town as they did writing letters and other assorted dissertations defending their jobs, the problem would be gone.) And now we know that the biggest crime spot in Mammoth is Lakanuki Bar in the Village after 10pm. Is that problem solvable? But after all the initial noise, the Council “realized” they have a contract with the MLPD until next summer. So at least we’ll be “safe” this winter. I’m sure there will be plenty of discussion and posturing in the meantime.

And what about the kids and their pool? Now here we have local outrage. Every time this funding has become an issue in the past, dozens of swim-attired kiddies appear before the Council. Makes for great entertainment. This is about a $60K budget item for the TOML. Maybe we need to move the swimming to a local lake…Or maybe somebody could convince the lucrative geothermal plants to sponsor our swim stadium like they do in the big city.

But in the meantime the Council really wants to know how the people feel about these proposed cuts. So a Survey went up on TOML’s website. More embarrassment and ambiguity. Talk about the most poorly written and conceived survey. They’d be better off reading local forums and Facebook for feedback, or maybe visiting the psychic reader next to Nik-N-Willies. But this is all part of the “play.” And more entertainment.

The one really fascinating confrontation arising from all of this surrounds TOML’s prohibition of nightly rentals in single-family home neighborhoods. The opportunists are out in force. This age-old debate in Mammoth has come to what may be it’s most heated state. Both sides have websites and dozens of vehement proponents. The “reasoning” for over turning the long-standing ordinance at this point-in-time is that it will generate substantially more TOT (bed tax) for the financially distraught TOML. Those who want to overturn the ordinance appear to be a faction of single-family home owners who would like to rent their properties to visitors and generate revenues. Those that adamantly oppose changing the ordinance are mostly (long time) local residents who enjoy their peace and quiet.

This ordinance is quite different from many (if not all) other mountain resort communities. This has been debated for years. It may be a sign of the general economic times more than anything else. There is no real hard evidence that allowing these new nightly rentals would generate more revenue. Most think there would just be rental displacement from the condos. But there is little doubt that the consumer/renter would like to rent single family homes. Others argue that the renting would substantially increase the values in single-family neighborhoods and thusly price many local residents out. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see what would happen. But I’ve also lived in condominiums over the years that had nightly rentals happening in the vicinity and can appreciate the concerns. I’m betting it goes nowhere, the argument just isn’t that compelling. Just more entertainment and divisiveness. Kind of like Washington DC.

Meanwhile, other areas of TOML’s budget are under scrutiny; marketing dollars including those now subsidizing air service, and (affordable) housing subsidies, and recreation dollars including those voted for with special taxes, and even highly-paid department heads and Town managers. The Council has to make short term decisions so they can make initial payments to MLLA, but the long-term plan is quite undecided. They are even looking at using an increasing amount of volunteers for everything from policing to recreation. The one I found most entertaining was from the Mammoth Times; “Explore ways to engage volunteers to greet passengers at the airport.” The person who dreamed that up has obviously never been through the airport in Cabo (or any resort in Mexico) where the timeshare salesman hound you with “offers” every step in the airport. So I guess the local real estate agents will be perfect in the role of volunteer greeters at the airport. Or sounds like a job for the old Intrawest sales team…

The TOML is actually fortunate that they have been forced to have these discussions with the public. It would certainly appear that every other governmental body across the country is simply forestalling the same inevitability; the City of Los Angeles, the State of California, and even the good old USA. And at least the TOML debt is small in comparison to the whole and the payment plan is already established. The Town’s austerity plan will certainly be hashed out in the near future. If only the rest of the country could be so concerned and proactive.

But as each faction of opposition grows (and the fear of drunken snowboarders taking over the town), some form of long term taxation is inevitable. The police issues will be vetted over the next eight months. So will a small annual parcel tax be palatable? There are 12,000 parcels of real estate in Mammoth. An annual tax of $150 would guarantee property owners the highest quality police force and all the other service levels provided by the Town (including snow removal). Is that where we are going? Or will it be a recreation tax? A 3% tax on lift tickets and other recreation admissions would cover the shortfall. And those who believe the Ski Area has some culpability in this whole mess especially like this idea. Or how about a combination of the two? Sounds a lot like taxation without representation. And if increased taxation is in all of our futures, maybe it is good to get in the front of the line? Kind of like the old saying about exiting a burning building.

Meanwhile, pray for snow.

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