CVIndependent

Sat04042020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

I have always been awful at living in the moment.

My mind, left unchecked, is always running—usually pondering something out of my control, or a hypothetical, or something in the future (i.e., a hypothetical).

What is this disaster going to do to my business? Will I be able to pay my bills? This was supposed to be opening week of baseball season; what if there’s no season at all this year? I am worried about my friend who’s coming down with something. I’ll need to go to the store tomorrow, and I don’t want to.

You get the idea.

Earlier today, I took a break and took a walk around the block with a friend who lives in my apartment complex. (Social distancing precautions were taken.) It was nice to be outside, and my friend and I had a good talk … but I couldn’t tell you five details on things I noticed on the walk. It was a gorgeous day, yet my mind was babbling to itself with worry, with fear, with what-ifs? and so on.

Wasted opportunity.

Truth be told, my stomach is feeling tight with anxiety as I type this. But if I take a deep breath, and focus on the moment, the now … everything’s OK.

It doesn’t feel OK, but it really is OK. I am home. I am safe. I am well-fed—and in fact, I am sipping a delicious michelada. I am working on something with purpose while listening to comfort music (i.e. the’80s station on SiriusXM). I am comfortable. The rest of my day is slated to consist of work I enjoy, a delicious dinner (homemade soup, salad and then homemade meatloaf) with the husband and cat, and then all sorts of Bon Appetit YouTube videos.

In the moment, in the now, life is good.

Just going through the exercise of typing this and thinking about its truthfulness has that anxiety knot in my stomach loosening … even if just a little. (Like I said, I have always been bad at this.)

For most of us, for most of the time, for most of this shelter-at-home phase, we will be OK in the now/moment. Yeah, we all need to prepare and plan and work to do our all to make sure our future selves—and our future friends, family, community, etc.—are taken care of. Yes, each of us will have bad moments. But we will all be better off if we are able to actually, for example, enjoy the gorgeousness of our spring weather during a walk around the block.

In the moment, in the now, life is good.

Here’s today’s news.

• Courtesy of our friends at Dig Boston, here’s another recap of COVID-19 coverage from alternative newspapers across the country.

The National Guard is here to help FIND Food Bank make sure the valley’s hungry are getting fed

• Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors reminds you that in California, sheltering-in-place is a requirement, not a recommendation.

• The California DMV is extending deadlines and launching virtual field offices. Watch for updates.

• If you’re looking for statewide news on the coronavirus and its effects, one of the best sources is our partner CalMatters. We’ll be republishing a lot of CalMatters’ coverage at CVIndependent.com, as we always do, but there’s always good stuff there.

• Casey Dolan, over at aggregation website Cactus Hugs, has also been doing a daily recap of COVID-19 news and links; here are his for today.

• Audible has launched a new free service with audiobooks for kids and teens during the duration of this COVID-19 mess.

• The city of Indio reminds you that city parks are open, but the playgrounds are closed.

• Jewish Family Service of the Desert—which is actually non-denominational, by the way—is offering telecare therapy for both existing clients and new, as well as other services. Details here.

• Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times checked in with the legendary Vin Scully during these troubled times. Read the story, and listen to the video to hear words of hope from the legend himself.

• Finally, whether you’re a fan of the TV show Schitt’s Creek or not … some excellent advice above.

Keep washing your hands. Stay at home if you can. Call or message a loved one and say hey. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

The California State Auditor’s Office recently launched a new tool, available to anyone with an internet connection: an online dashboard that aggregates, compares and ranks the financial stability of more than 470 California cities, based on detailed and publicly available information.

“For the first time, Californians will be able to go online and see a fiscal-health ranking for more than 470 cities based across the state,” State Auditor Elaine Howle proclaimed in a news release announcing the launch. “This new transparent interface for the public, state and local policymakers, and other interested parties, is intended to identify cities that could be facing significant fiscal challenges.”

The most compelling feature of this new dashboard is the interactive map of California. To uncover relevant financial details, any user can run their cursor over the geographic area correlating to any one of the 470 cities whose financial data is included. When the cursor hovers over a given city, a box opens to show the name of the city and its rankings in the 11 different indicator categories: overall risk, liquidity, debt burden, general-fund reserves, revenue trends, pension obligations, pension funding, pension costs, future pension costs, OPEB (other post-employment benefits) obligations and OPEB funding. It quickly reveals information that, until now, was difficult to obtain.

The data, however, is a little outdated: The city evaluations and rankings are based on 2016-2017 fiscal-year numbers, the most-recent complete data set available for all the cities represented.

“We are in the process of getting the 2017-18 information, so we’ll be able to provide that information on our dashboard as well,” said Margarita Fernandez, chief of public affairs for the California State Auditor, in a recent phone interview. “The (dashboard) tool is now established, so we’ll be able to put up the information for 2017-18 as soon as it comes in. Eventually, you’ll be able to look at it yourself and see trending information like, ‘Here’s how they were doing in 2016-17, and now here they are in 2017-18, etc.,’ and whether things are improving, or they’re not improving.”

Despite Fernandez’s attempt to explain the older data, some city representatives see this as a serious defect in the state auditor’s effort at transparency.

“These numbers are two to three years old, and I think that our financial state today reflects that,” said Brooke Beare, the city of Indio’s director of communications and marketing, during a recent phone call.

The nine Coachella Valley cities are, in the category of overall risk, ranked as follows:

  • Palm Springs: No. 46 (moderate risk level)
  • Cathedral City: No. 105 (moderate)
  • Indio: No. 118 (moderate)
  • Coachella: No. 121 (moderate)
  • Desert Hot Springs: No. 308 (low)
  • La Quinta: No. 434 (low)
  • Palm Desert: No. 444 (low)
  • Rancho Mirage: No. 454 (low)
  • Indian Wells: No.  466 (low)

The good news is that none of the nine Coachella Valley cities were ranked in the “high risk” category. The bad news is the three worst-ranked—Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Indio—all were rated as “high risk” in four of the 11 indicator categories studied by the state auditor. It was on this basis that the Independent reached out to representatives of each of those three cities.

As of our deadline, only Indio representatives—Beare, and Assistant City Manager and Finance Director Rob Rockwell—responded. A city of Palm Springs finance executive did reply to an email requesting a phone interview, and asked that the Independent deliver its questions via email. The Independent complied, but received no response to those questions.

Rockwell, Indio’s finance director, applauded the state auditor’s dashboard.

“I think the reporting itself is good, and I appreciate it. I think it’s useful,” he said. “I don’t think it necessarily tells the whole financial story, but I think there are bits and pieces that will allow organizations or municipalities like Indio to go back and do some double-checking on some things, which is exactly what we did in Indio.”

He discussed various actions taken in the last two years by the Indio City Council. “Two of the four areas where Indio was considered ‘high-risk’ were pension funding set-aside, and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) set-aside,” Rockwell said. “In regards to the pension funding, just this year, the Indio City Council committed $1 million to setting up a pension trust … and that money is set aside and can only be used for pension obligations. So the issue of us not having money set aside has already been addressed.

“In regard to that OPEB funding set-aside, in February of 2014, the city created another … trust that in this case is basically for retiree medical costs. We’ve been committing money to that on an annual basis, and (as of Sept. 30), it totaled $1.77 million. So, the City Council recognizes the need—but it’s not been a super-high priority, in the sense that the City Council has been focused on capital infrastructure improvements in the city of Indio.”

Given the pension-funding liabilities currently shown on Indio’s balance sheet, the $1 million currently in the pension-funding trust wouldn’t make much of a dent. Rockwell told the Independent that the point of setting up the trust wasn’t to offset the entire debt amount.

“To think that we’re going to put $50-plus million aside (to cover the amount of unfunded liabilities)—that’s a striking number,” he said. “Really, the purpose of this trust is to set up some money so that, if a recession occurs, instead of having to make cuts to services to pay our pension costs, we can reach into this trust and pay our annual pension costs for a year, or maybe two, maybe three, maybe five, and not have to reduce services (to residents) in years where our revenues might be short due to economic impacts.”

Mounting pension obligations are a concern for all of our valley cities. It was a major topic of discussion in this past November’s Palm Springs City Council elections.

“I think that most California cities, including those here in the valley, are having a tough time dealing with these increasing pension costs,” Rockwell said. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that a lot of cities are even having to face some service reductions to fund their pension obligations. I think obviously that the return on investments that were originally expected did not come through. … The obligation is real, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Cities are just having to adjust, and there are various mechanisms to do that. A lot of cities have changed their retirement formulas. Clearly, the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (which took effect in 2013; it includes compensation limits and establishes minimum contributions by employees) has changed pension funding. I have to say that for the city of Indio, the number of employees that we’ve hired under PEPRA is occurring at a faster rate than we expected. I don’t know how much that’s going to help the unfunded liability, but I can definitely say that there’s a change taking place.”

To view the State Auditor’s Local Government High-Risk Dashboard, visit www.auditor.ca.gov/bsa/cities_risk_index.

Published in Local Issues

The Grub Plug food truck was parked by the Oasis Street curb in front of the College of the Desert’s Indio campus late in the day on a Tuesday.

The city of Indio’s Community Development Department (ICD) was offering the first 120 visitors to their Indio Specific Plan open house—taking place in the college’s main-building lobby—a free food-truck meal, along with the chance to learn information on how to start a food-truck business of one’s own. All the ICD team wanted in return was for each visitor to walk through the display of a half-dozen white boards placed on easels, depicting photos and artist renderings of residential, entertainment-venue and business building options. Visitors were asked to place a colored dot on the images they most liked or disliked.

Judging from the lengthy lines both inside and next to the Grub Plug truck, the marketing strategy was a success, as Kevin Snyder—Indio’s recently hired community development director—and his team look to create a master plan that will guide the redevelopment of Indio’s struggling downtown area.

“In the planning profession, we do things more in a visual (context),” said Snyder, a veteran of similar challenges in cities across northern California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona. “At our first open house, we had a few pictures up, and we just talked to people who came in, and wrote down their comments. This time, we wanted to make (the experience) more interactive, so we produced these illustration boards.”

If you visit downtown Indio today, you’ll experience an often-attractive neighborhood with a traditional Southwest/midcentury-modern architectural look—and a sleepy, deserted feeling. Snyder and his team are planning to change that whole vibe.

“For many, many years, downtowns were the hearts of communities. But then, through changes in market forces and land use, particularly during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, a lot of that activity moved to other parts of communities like malls and shopping centers,” Snyder said. “It’s been a pretty common occurrence, not just in Indio, but across the Coachella Valley, California and the nation. In a lot of communities, there’s been a strong desire to bring downtown back to a place of prominence, where the community can engage with each other to shop, dine, recreate and come together in kind of an historic part of the community. This current Indio Downtown Specific Plan is really an attempt to take the focus to a different level on the key attributes that our city has: It’s walkable, and it’s a grid system.

“Most of the communities in the Coachella Valley have downtowns that are not grid systems, but because we are one of the oldest communities (in the valley), we have the opportunity to develop that grid system for our downtown. The plan envisions multiple activity areas where you can go and listen to music, or watch movies on an inflatable screen, or go grab a bite to eat, or shop in a small boutique retail outlet. There’s interest in having people live downtown. We have some interesting opportunities to look at multi-family apartments, perhaps in a mixed-use orientation where you have retail space on the ground floor with living (space) above. Because we are the eastern capital of Riverside County, we have county personnel here; we have the city work force; and we have the Indio branch of the College of the Desert—so we have roughly 6,000 employees in that immediate downtown area. We’ve talked to developers who do multi-family development. They’ve done some preliminary looks at market-rate rental numbers, and they think (the opportunity) is viable, that they could charge rents here and make money.”

Will downtown redevelopment include low-income housing units—which are sorely needed in the eastern end of the valley? Snyder’s answer was not exactly encouraging.

“In recent conversations with our City Council and the Planning Commission, that same question came up. Our interest right now is in getting market-rate rental units,” Snyder said. “We believe that’s going to be the first push into this marketplace. Now that doesn’t mean that potentially there couldn’t be affordable housing in the downtown area, but right now, we really want to focus on creating that market-rate opportunity so that the private sector sees value in investment. The first people who invest in revitalizing downtown areas are often pioneers who, by having made that investment and taken that risk, show others that it’s worth it, and that they can make money. I worked in a community where we had one party come in and build a 124-unit market-rate apartment complex, and five years later, there was over $100 million in investment money coming into that community.

“When we talked to the council and the commission, we said that these could be four- or five-story buildings, and they were comfortable with that. When you’re dealing with downtown areas, you’re dealing with different footprints. You can’t spread out like you can in other parts of the community. You have to build up.”

How long does Synder think it will take for this new Indio downtown to come to fruition?

“If I knew that, then I’d be playing the lottery all the time,” Snyder said with a laugh. “But I have said publicly that I think we’re probably looking at five to seven years. If you come back to downtown Indio then, I think it’s going to have a different vibe, a different feeling, a different physical presence. Right now, many communities have a goal of making an 18-hour downtown, where, from the morning until 9 or 10 at night, you get an opportunity to have multiple things going on.

“Indio is the place I want to be. I think it’s a great place, and it has lots of great opportunities to envision a different future—and I get the benefit of working with a great team.”

Published in Local Issues