Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
As the urbanization of Fernley progresses and as city leaders try to figure out how to provide the same kinds of services as similar-sized cities that have three or four times Fernley’s annual revenue, into the fray steps new city manager Benjamin Marchant.
Marchant started as city manager on Sept. 5, coming from Coventry, Rhode Island, where he was town manager since 2021. He was previously the township manager in Springettsbury Township, York, Penn., city manager of Coquille, Ore. and city administrator in Jerome, Id.
Marchant said the Fernley opening coincided with him looking to further his career in public service and he said he believes Fernley is the right fit for him, and he for it.
“I see in Fernley a really good community that has a lot of challenges in its current and future and I’m excited to work with the city to help grow the city, help it find a path to success, so that its success doesn’t come as next year’s headaches,” Marchant said.
The biggest challenge in Fernley’s present, and likely to continue at least into its near future, is a lack of revenue in comparison to other similarly-sized cities in Nevada. And while the city not receiving its fair share of the state’s consolidated tax is one frequently cited reason, simply getting a reallocation of C-tax wouldn’t nearly solve all of Fernley’s ills.
With a population now around 24,000, Fernley has only a $13.7 million general fund budget for the current fiscal year, including just $240,870 in C-tax revenue. But even if Fernley received Elko’s share of $17.2 million in C-Tax, it would sill be about $20 million shy of Elko’s $50 million budget for a city of 20,564.
If Fernley received and equal C-Tax to Mesquite’s $12 million, it would still have $15 million less than Mesquite’s budget of $40.8 million in a city of 22.322.
Marchant said his goal as city manager is to help Fernley find the solution to that problem.
“That’s why I was excited to take the job, because I have not worked with a growing community that’s facing challenges just like this,” he said. “The city’s definitely operating at a comparative disadvantage with all the other cities in the state because it has a third of the revenue of the other cities in the state. The city doesn’t have the consolidated tax distribution and yet it’s still expected to provide the same level of service as the other cities with a fraction of the staff, at a fraction of the wages, and that’s already been a problem presented to me by developers saying we’re not getting anything reviewed in a timely manner.”
The big question is how do you do that, and for many in the community, the answer is to grow, particularly through the kind of industrial development that rescued Storey County from even worse financial woes than Fernley is facing.
But Marchant said that answer also comes with several caveats.
“This is exceptional because there’s so much opportunity and it’s going to take some really careful planning to not mess up,” he said. “If we grow faster than what we can afford to maintain what we have, then everyone’s going to lose. That same tax dollar is going to be stretched further and further and you’re going to get less benefit from it.”
Comparing Fernley’s budget to Elko or Mesquite isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, because $14.8 million of Elko’s expenditures this year are for public safety, and Mesquite’s public safety expenditures were $13.1 million in fiscal year 2022/23. The City of Fernley doesn’t fund either a fire department or police department, which is one of the reasons it doesn’t receive a larger share of C-Tax.
So while Marchant will join the other city officials in trying to find ways to get more of the C-tax distribution, that alone won’t solve the city’s problem, especially if it created a police department and in turn spent all of the subsequent C-tax revenue for that.
Which, Marchant said, brings the discussion right back to where it started, which is, how does the city fund its services with the money it has?
“Government can’t run like a business because where a business can sell out of their stuff and have a good day, no one wants to see the city run out of gas for plowing roads in the wintertime or run out of water during the summer in a drought,” he said. “At some point there’s going to come a reality check that the city can’t provide more services or has to reduce services. You can’t always get more for less. At some point you cross the threshold of getting less for less and losing what you have. Hopefully I’m here to prevent the city from getting to that point.”
Which brings the discussion back to growth, but Marchant said, only if it’s the kind of growth that actually benefits the city.
“Certainly, the city has an opportunity to leverage the investments of new growth for improving itself, but one of the problems is if the taxes that are generated by this new growth are captured by the county and not remitted to the city, we’re in no better situation with all the new growth than without it,” he said. “In fact, we might be in a worse position.”
And in addition to the fiscal concerns of managing growth, Marchant said the city must consider what is in the best interest of residents, not just the city’s spreadsheets. The city’s population has already more than doubled since it was incorporated in 2001, and Fernley is a much different place now than it was then.
“The question is if it doubles again, what does that look like?” Marchant said. “You have to balance the nature and character of the town, the people that have long history here and care deeply about the community, and yet you also have the newcomers that are making this their home and wanting to have a nice community. And sometimes there’s a little difference in expectations of what level of service you’re going to enjoy.”
As it is, the end result is that Fernley is a rural area that is becoming more urban, especially as more people move in and demand urban amenities.
“It’s not my place to make decisions about what should happen, I’m going to follow the leadership of the city council and the citizens and how they want to see the town grow, but that means people need to get involved,” Marchant said. “How do you envision the north side of (Interstate) 80 developing, how do you envision the town growing to at once embrace the business investments that are coming here, but also maintaining the quality of life for the residents who are here now and who will be moving here in the future?”
Marchant grew up in upstate New York, went to high school in San Diego and graduated from UC San Diego. He went to college intending to get into the foreign service, but after graduation, got a job in the San Diego mayor’s office, where he worked with a lot of international delegations.
“Come to find out, it’s everything a city does that they were interested in,” Marchant said.
At that point he decided to seek a master’s in public administration and go into city management as a career.
He is a father of four kids, ranging in age from 14 to 22. Two of them go to college and two are in high school who live in California with their mother. Outside of work, Marchant said he likes hiking, love playing disc golf and enjoys doing anything outdoors.
Marchant said he attended Fernley’s Homecoming football game and has been to several Chamber of Commerce and other community group events and has enjoyed the people he’s met so far.
“Old timers and newcomers, everyone is here to work and everyone is here to live a good life, see their kids go through the school system and graduate,” he said. “The pride in the community, the Vaqueros, it’s all part of this vision for a great place to live, work and play and I’m happy to be a part of that.”