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24 Aug 2020

A $3 Million Question: After a 3-2 Palm Springs City Council Vote to Fully Fund the New Downtown Park, Local Business Organizations Strenuously Object

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An artist’s rendering of a portion of the planned downtown Palm Springs park. An artist’s rendering of a portion of the planned downtown Palm Springs park. City of Palm Springs website

For more than five years, Palm Springs residents and business owners have waited for the arrival of a showplace downtown park. In 2018, the Palm Springs City Council approved plans to deliver the attraction by the fall of this year—plans which were derailed by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve taken a long time to get to this point,” councilmember Lisa Middleton told the Independent, “and I want to see a completed project there.”

Pretty much everyone agrees with that statement. However, there’s significant disagreement about how the project will be completed—which became apparent after a contentious 3-2 vote at the Aug. 6 Palm Springs City Council meeting.

The short version of the controversy is this: Councilmembers Grace Garner, Christy Holstege and Dennis Woods voted to proceed with the original, fully funded plans for the park—overturning a decision made two months prior to scale back those plans and save the city about $3 million. Middleton and Mayor Geoff Kors disagreed.

The longer version is much more nuanced and complicated.

“As a council, we recognize that we are in a fiscal emergency,” Kors told the Independent. “With the decision to reduce staffing dramatically by cutting 80 staff positions in fire, emergency medical, police, facilities, planning and permitting, there’s no department that didn’t have substantial cuts. I’ve been out there advocating for more funding (help) through communications with the White House, with our member of Congress and with our state elected officials. But at a time when we see businesses closing and people unemployed, we should not be spending money to the extent called for by the original downtown park design, when every other capital-improvement project has been stopped, including road re-paving and money for our community centers and our neighborhood parks. So I supported doing a modified park, as the majority of council did previously, rather than funding the entire park right now.”

Holstege—in the middle of a re-election campaign against two opponents—explained her vote to proceed with the fully funded park plan.

“In the budget discussions (in June), the majority of council had tried to defund $3 million from the existing park project, and save those funds for reserves, while building a temporary park in the meantime.

“I, along with a (different) majority of the City Council, decided that it would be more prudent to go forward with the initial park design, because the city has already spent $3 million in building the initial design. So if we were to pause or cancel or change the park, much of that $3 million would be wasted. There are $600,000 in parts that we’ve already purchased for the water feature that would have been wasted. Already, there’s been a lot of underground work for the water feature and other parts of the park. We have an active contract with the contractor, so we were looking at roughly $400,000 in delay and cancellation fees. That’s already $1 million in waste of taxpayer dollars.

“Then we were looking at probably $1 million in city funds just to put in grass and decomposed granite, which is basically dirt, and there would be very little shade. I think that’s an unusable park. And then one day, it would probably cost another $1 million to rip that grass out to put in the future park. Then we got an estimate that it might cost us double to build the rest of the originally designed park at a later date, as opposed to right now while it’s in construction.”

What caused the sudden shift in support for the park within the City Council? Most notably, city staff members shared news at the Aug. 6 meeting that a previously unexpected $3 million in Measure J sales taxes was projected to arrive during the 2020-2021 fiscal year—money that could offset the $3 million in costs planned to be returned to the city’s ledger.

Another contributing factor may have been the admirable salesmanship displayed by the park’s renowned architect, Mark Rios. As one can see in the video of the meeting on the city of Palm Springs website, Rios touted the benefits in store for tourists and residents thanks to the park’s ambiance and appearance, backing his belief that the City Council should stick with the original full park construction plan regardless of the widespread financial pain.

Middleton said her decision to vote on Aug. 6 against the fully funded original park plan was strictly budgetary.

“At this point, we do not know how long the COVID-19 crisis will continue,” Middleton said. “So I felt that the prudent thing for us to do was to wait and get some more months of revenue in to see where we’re going to be in terms of finances.”

Kors said he voted against the fully funded original park plan on Aug. 6 because of the process.

“Several months ago, we stated that we wanted the park to be reviewed and have alternatives for a reduced park brought back (for council consideration),” Kors said. “When the (2020-21 fiscal-year budget vote) came, the majority voted to reduce the park funding by $3 million and requested that different options to do that come back to council. So, on the (Aug. 6) agenda, there were six different options—and none of them was to overturn the prior vote and approve the original design. So, neither council nor the public had any indication that this was going to be brought up. Given the transparency and new rules that we’ve passed over the last few years, I thought if that discussion were to be had, it should have been properly noticed so that people were aware of it.

“The public had no idea that there was any extra money. It wasn’t on the agenda, and if we’re going to put more money back in the budget, then that needed to be noticed in the agenda, so that the public and the council were aware—and then we should have discussed what the top priority was for that funding. For me, I would have put it into public bathrooms at community centers and neighborhood parks. That was the unanimous recommendation of the Measure J Commission as to what we do with that money. So I thought that the vote was dismissive of the commissions. It was dismissive of community-member comments who were involved in the original park design. It was dismissive of what the downtown businesses said was best for downtown. And I think it was improper to delegate money that hasn’t been confirmed for certain, without the public even knowing that this was a possibility.”

On Aug. 13, the controversy received fuel in the form of an open letter from the directors of three Palm Springs business organizations—the Main Street Palm Springs Downtown and Uptown Business Association, the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, and P.S. Resorts—opposing the fully funded original park plan.

“What happened at last week’s City Council meeting was focused discussion on returning to the original $9.5 million park design,” said the letter, in part. “This was not the discussion noticed in the published agenda. The agenda detailed six less expensive park options. As such, it was questionable and non-transparent; it provided no opportunity for residents and stakeholders to express their opinions. … As community leaders, we call for an open and inclusive discussion on shared community priorities, with updated and accurate budget information. We call on the mayor and councilmembers to hold a special public meeting to discuss how the $3 million of newly available funds should be spent, and to pause any action on the downtown park.”

Holstege said everyone is not “sharing the same set of facts” about the park.

“I was a bit concerned to see some facts in that op-ed that were not true, and were different from the facts that were presented to council,” she said. “We’re in very difficult times as a city and a country, and we’re all facing difficult personal times. I think it’s important to come together as a community and work from the same set of facts, disagree with respect, and understand where each other is coming from. I think some of that is missing in our civil discourse right now because of where we are as a country. … I reached out already to the business community when I saw their op-ed. They want a private space for private events, and the Marilyn (Monroe) statue downtown in a location that’s visible. So I think we can keep working together to achieve everyone’s goals, and we don’t have to be opposed.”

Both Kors and Middleton said they hoped the matter would return to the City Council for another vote.

“Whether this could come back as a budget discussion, and if one of the people who voted for it think it’s appropriate to bring it back so the public can have more input, are questions the city attorney will have to answer,” Kors said.

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