CVIndependent

Wed12022020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Indio calls itself as the “City of Festivals,” and is home to the Empire Polo Club, where every year since 2001—except this year—folks from around the world have flocked to the world-famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

However, Indio is much more than the home of Coachella. It’s the Coachella Valley’s largest city by population, and has some of the area’s highest COVID-19 rates. It’s in the midst of a redevelopment effort, led by a new College of the Desert campus—but those efforts are being challenged by the economic downturn.

In other words, the winner of this year’s two contested City Council races will have a lot on their plates.

In District 5, incumbent and four-time Mayor Guadalupe Ramos Amith is facing challengers Frank Ruiz and Erick Lemus Nadurille. The Independent recently spoke with them and asked each of them the same set of questions, covering issues from how can the city better curb the spread of COVID-19, to what can be done to lower violent crime in the city. What follows below are their complete responses, edited only for style and clarity.

Erick Lemus Nadurille, community health organizer

What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Indio in 2021?

Access to health care is going to be a very strong issue in 2021, and that (applies) to the re-opening, to keeping the residents safe and to keep businesses afloat. We are going to have to take precautions in terms of adding health modifications to small businesses, providing more PPE (personal protective equipment) for residents, and providing health and human resources to residents though city budget funding for both tenant and commercial rental assistance. We’re losing jobs; we’re losing hours at work, so the more we keep people less exposed to the pandemic, and keep them safe at work and staying indoors and less burdened by socio-economic factors, it’s going to make a big change in the way our city can continue to thrive in the future.

The city of Indio has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other city in the Coachella Valley. What can the city do better to reduce the infection rates among its residents?

I think a healthy community is a productive community. We have to keep rent and mortgages paid to prevent defaults. That will put people in a better situation to participate in the local economy. So, first, I think that we have to make sure that the local economy stays open. And we’ll have to look at the mental health of our residents and business (people). There’s just so much happening to everybody. Everyone has lost something. Everybody is passing through a grievance, or a situation that’s very hard. So we have to make sure that we’re investing in mental health and mental-health nourishment. Folks, at least, have to be able to take one step forward, and begin that mental healing process. That goes back to how the city of Indio prioritizes future budgeting of any CARES funding that we may get.

We’re continuing to put economic pressure on folks to keep working, or maybe to sell their house. But we know that the best prevention method is to keep folks indoors, or keep them social-distanced in public spaces. We know that folks are going out, so we have to make sure that our small businesses have the capacity to do these health modifications by offering PPE, or with expanded outside seating and providing PPE to (their employees) as well. Some of these small businesses are already being hit hard and are trying to stay afloat. But they have no money for all this extra equipment. So it really becomes a systemic issue with very little city funding support. There are a lot of great county programs and support from that end, but that’s the bigger picture of serving a broader population. If the city could say, ‘We are going to prioritize health in our city budget,’ then we could take preventive measures and not just leave it in the hands of the county. It’s really about the city not being a leader, right? We should be leading an innovative approach (as a model) to the rest of the Coachella Valley, because we are the city with one of the highest COVID rates in the entire valley.

During 2019, incidents of violent crime in Indio increased over 2018. What can the city do to decrease those numbers moving forward?

Again, I think it goes back to the socioeconomic pressures. I’m an advocate for disadvantaged communities as well, and one of the factors we’re (aware of) is that disadvantaged communities look to crime to provide for their families (due) to desperation. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes, these families have nothing else to do. They’ve already maxed out their credit cards, and they’ve already lost their jobs. Indio is a tragically disadvantaged community. So if we look at how we can support, in terms of (crime) prevention, how available is the city support in these communities? How do these (residents) view the city’s support in terms of social services? That’s not very clear in the city of Indio. We definitely need to make sure that our public safety is present, but present in a way that they’re also expanding their services. I’ve already seen where they’re bringing social workers to some fights. I’m actually very proud of that, because it tells residents that we’re not here just to police you, but we’re here to support you. So, sometimes in these neighborhoods, there’s a stigma where, when people see police, they’re automatically scared or disturbed by the police presence.

Now, the city just got CARES funding to the tune of about $30 million to (allocate) to public safety. (Editor’s note: According to an Aug. 19 article in The Desert Sun, the total amount of CARES funding received by the city was $1.12 million.) That says that the city is investing in preventative measures. That’s a decision that I probably would have revisited in terms of (allocating) that much money. But if the city is investing that much money into the police, then it’s giving the message that the city needs this. So we should be able to see a difference (in crime levels) in our community if the city believes that investing in public safety is the way to stop crime.

Being a health and human services advocate, I’m more about prevention and making sure that there are community spaces where people are being heard on the issues that affect them the most. Sometimes, though, the city is not going to be the proper medium for people to talk about these spaces. We need culturally competent service providers and organizations to help facilitate these types of meetings about socioeconomic justice. Problems are happening, and again, it goes back to the residents not feeling supported, and that’s why they turn to crime. They don’t see opportunity in their city when there are no jobs, and no visible support. But I think if the socio-economic burdens were eased a bit through rental and utility assistance, then we would see folks be less willing to turn to crime.

Back in June, when the Indio City Council passed a budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021, some reserves were drawn upon to balance the budget. The new budget projects more than $135 million in revenues. Given the economic uncertainty, if those revenue numbers fall short, what cuts or new revenue opportunities would you propose that the city pursue?

In the case of any shortfalls that may occur, I think we have to look at what makes sense specifically for our residents. For example, we shouldn’t stop fixing our streets, because they just get more expensive to fix over time. We may need to stay the course with our current pause on new hires. Also, if necessary, we may need our (city) staff members to take a (salary) hit, as have many of our residents. Overall, the city staff members are paid extremely well in comparison to the average resident in Indio. I think we may need to ask them to take a temporary pay cut, so that we can meet at least the basic needs of our residents. Everybody is going through some very hard times right now, and although we don’t want to make everybody take a hit, we have to level out the playing field better. Our residents are taking a hit, so we should consider making that sacrifice for our residents.

But we are in a very good position in the arts and entertainment culture. That encompasses a lot of what we can do to reposition ourselves with the music-festival industry. I don’t foresee us having a very long shutdown in the public arts. Obviously, we’re going to continue to have these big festivals happen, so we can pivot to continue a stream of revenue that’s city-based events (with) health modifications to the productions. I think that the city of Indio can uplift itself to be on the cutting edge of (finding ways) to improve its economy.

Also, I think Mark Scott (the interim Indio city manager) said it best at the last city council meeting: The city has yet to look at the cannabis industry and how that can play into the future of the city. This topic has been shelved for a long time, and I agree with Mark Scott that it’s about time they think about how these new businesses could help diversify the city economy and tax revenues. This industry could be deemed an essential health business and be included in the conversation of how it could supplement the health policy. Also, we should look at whether different types of cannabis businesses that aren’t just based on commercial product, but involve more of health and holistic approach, can be developed in Indio. So, if Indio focuses on cannabis businesses taking more of a health and holistic approach, it could be very different from what other cities in the valley are doing. And that increased tax revenue could be very significant for the city. That way, we would have more money to fill in the gaps where we’re currently losing revenue.

Certainly, one of the last things that I think residents would want is any new tax, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. So we need to think about what infrastructure we already have for cultural events, and always keep health a priority, and that should help us expand (our economy) into the future.

What topic or issue impacting Indio should we have asked you about, and what are your thoughts on it?

My main concern, and the reason I’m really running, is to give a voice and visibility to the youth, who are not traditionally heard. Being a millennial myself, I want to be a voice for future leaders. We’re privileged to have strong leaders here in Indio, and, we need to make sure that we have room to grow here in Indio. We have to do everything possible (to support) education. The city has provided (support) to the teen center, the Kennedy Elementary School and the COD expansion. That addresses high school age youth, young adults and college age youth. But for the future, if we want to continue to harbor our youth here in the city of Indio, we have to think about how to support that workforce. We need to provide more jobs that are acceptable to our youth, so that they can stay here, shop here and raise families here. In terms of those opportunities, they aren’t (here now). If youth is going to live here, the housing market is not designed (for them). Where I live in Indio, I’m paying $1,600 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. That’s not feasible for someone who is young and trying to grow here. So we need to look at housing options for people from different income brackets, and (provide) a pathway to home ownership. That’s not been the case with the traditional housing platform that (focuses) on bigger homes. We should really think about accessible dwelling units, which are little tiny homes, and begin to provide those solutions. And it’s not just for youth; it’s for families and veterans and the elderly. It’s becoming more expensive to live here in the city of Indio.

In order to retain our local economy and grow it, we have to make sure that our housing economy is suited to diverse types of folks, and not just specifically for people who live here three months out of each year. This is what’s hindering our youth from living here independently, and from developing their professional pathway. We won’t be able to grow our youth into potential civic leaders, because they won’t be able to afford to stay here.

Another example is: I’m running for the District 5 (seat), and there are really no parks (in my district) for families. We don’t have something as simple as having a place for youth to go and keep out of trouble. Recently, I went to a city parks meeting, where they discussed building one on Avenue 44 and Jackson (Street), I believe. Unfortunately, that location, which is close to the freeway, won’t help youth who don’t have transportation. This park is only going to serve folks who live around it. So the city needs to start thinking about transportation, housing and entertainment that’s geared to helping the youth thrive, and stay connected and feel like they’re supported by their city. Not to say that they’re not trying to do that, but there has to be more for diverse youth, not just high school and college youth.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Running for City Council. (Laughs.) Seriously, finding creative new ways to stay connected has been important for me. As a community organizer, I thrive at community events. I like being around people, and we don’t have that any more, right now. So I’ve had to find ways to let people know that I’m still in touch. We have all of these social-media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, and I’ve been someone who has kept it pretty simple. But I’ve had to expand my social-media-app collection to stay connected. Right now, it’s an issue for everybody that we’re isolated and can’t communicate how we’re feeling. We’re on our own, and this isolation is having a mental effect on us. So, any way that we can’t let people know that, ‘Hey! I’m here for you,’ and ask, ‘How are you?’ is something I’ve been trying to do. I’ve been wanting to make funny short (video) clips that get people laughing. And they know that we’re connected still, despite this pandemic.


Guadalupe Ramos Amith, incumbent and small-business consultant

What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Indio in 2021?

In 2021, the No. 1 issue facing our city is the decline in revenue due to the global pandemic, and the shutting down of several businesses that have contributed historically to our sales-tax revenue. We believe strongly that we will have to be a part of that recovery with the small businesses, to make sure that they are able to come back online. Not only so they can provide revenue to the city, but also the products and the services that our residents desire. I suspect that this is something that we will not be able to accomplish in the first year; I believe it’s going to take us a number of years to rebuild the business base that we’ve lost. But, working together with our chambers and our business community, I feel that we can accomplish this.

The city of Indio has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other city in the Coachella Valley. What can the city do better to reduce the infection rates among its residents?

We have a public-outreach campaign, both in English and Spanish, through social media and literature, that we distribute. The City Council recently allocated several thousands of dollars to provide PPE at no cost to our businesses so that they can encourage individuals coming into their establishment to practice safe COVID-19 protocols. Most importantly, I think it’s about getting the word out. Certainly, having a testing site in our city has been convenient for the residents, and we promote that, so individuals understand that they can be tested regularly if they need to be. And it really just comes down to communication and making sure that everyone understands the magnitude of the pandemic and what we need to do to overcome it.

During 2019, incidents of violent crime in Indio increased over 2018. What can the city do to decrease those numbers moving forward?

With the passage of Measure X (in 2016), we made a commitment to the community that we would enhance our public-safety resources, and we’ve been proactively recruiting and sending individuals to the police academy, so that we can hire them upon graduation. Those public-safety dollars that the taxpayers approved are being expended in that way. Also, through our community policing policy and the direction of police protocols, we’ve been able to separate the city into different zones. Now we have individual teams working with individual zones, because each zone has its own unique needs. These teams work together with nonprofits and county health officials, so it is a collaboration, of sorts. And I believe by continuing to enhance our public-safety human resources and infrastructure, we’ll be able to turn that around here rather quickly.

Back in June, when the Indio City Council passed a budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021, some reserves were drawn upon to balance the budget. The new budget projects more than $135 million in revenues. Given the economic uncertainty, if those revenue numbers fall short, what cuts or new revenue opportunities would you propose that the city pursue?

We’re going to re-evaluate the budget here in October, because that estimation that we made at our mid-year budget passage was the best guesstimate we could do without having all of the data in from the previous two quarters. So we’ll have some more solid numbers here in October, and I suspect that (revenues) are going to be a little shorter than what we anticipated they would be. I do not expect to have any proposals move forward for additional taxes on the residents of Indio. I don’t believe that this is the right time (for that). Certainly, we can seek additional revenues, and I believe we’ll start seeing some of those (opportunities) come to fruition, as we have the new 40,000-square-foot supermarket coming online this month. We’ve seen two hotels come online in the last quarter, and those are at full capacity, so they’re going to start bringing in some transient occupancy tax. So, because we’ve made some smart decisions and smart moves prior to the pandemic, we’re going to start seeing a little bit of an increase in revenues from sources that we didn’t have previously. And we’re just now in the process of approving two new auto dealerships in the Auto Mall.

We have potential. It’s just a matter of finessing the budget balance with a little bit of the reserves so that we can get through this pandemic. We do have a freeze on any new hires at this point, until we can get a better handle on whether we’ll have any festival revenue in the coming year. But I don’t foresee any proposals on increased taxes. I think we’ll get by with our reserves and the increased revenues from the additional businesses that are coming in. 

What topic or issue impacting Indio should we have asked you about, and what are your thoughts on it?

At some point, I believe that the city of Indio needs to re-address the districting. I was not in support of separating the city into districts, and now we’re starting to see some of the defects of that. Community members feel that, because we are separated into districts, some council members don’t necessarily listen to, or are (not) concerned with, (the residents’) grievances. When it comes to project approvals, because it’s not an individual council member’s district, (the residents) don’t feel that they’re being heard. That’s kind of a sad situation when a community feels it is split up and no longer has the support of the full City Council to be heard and to make sure that the decisions being made are made in the best interests of the whole city. So, I really would like to address the re-districting. I know that we were in a position where we didn’t really have a choice because of the potential lawsuit if we didn’t go into districts. But I haven’t really seen any positives come out of being broken into districts. I feel that the community feels disconnected because of the districts. Eventually, we are going to have to sit back and evaluate (what) the districts have done for us over a 10-year period or such. Right now, It’s too soon.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’ve become a lot more familiar with my home, which I’ve come to adore as my safe haven. I’ve become a lot more familiar with my pool. I think I spent more time in my pool this summer than I have in the five years that I’ve lived (at my current home). But the one biggest benefit has been that I’ve grown closer to my adult—I call them adults, because they’re 19 and 21—children, who still live with me, because they’re going to college. Before the pandemic, the hustle and bustle of them going to college and me working made it really hard for me to connect with them. But after that first month’s period of adjustment, they settled in and got into their routines. Now they come out and have lunch with me, and we have dinner together. So I’ve really enjoyed becoming re-acquainted with my home, and actually having the opportunity to get closer to my children.


Frank Ruiz, Audubon California director of the Salton Sea program

What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Indio in 2021?

In 2021, we’ll still be dealing with COVID issues. In the wake of COVID-19, the economy, health and everything else (impacting) our communities will continue to be issues in 2021. I think that the economy of Indio will be stressed out in the wake of COVID-19. The concerts may not happen next year. So, I think it’s a reminder that we need to diversify the businesses that we attract to the community.

If there is a lesson we can learn from the last economic depression, it is that we need to be proactive and not reactive. So I hope that we do not have a budget shortfall. But, if that is the case, then I think we need to evaluate the status of our city budget. That will help us to provide current long-term budget projections. It is necessary to do this, because it will offer the City Council members critical information to assess the essential needs for services, staffing levels, business and residential needs. So, we need to make sure that we assess the whole situation in order for us to make sure that we plan well. And we shouldn’t be waiting until 202; we should actually be doing it right now. We should be proactive. In order to help the community and prevent the impacts that we experienced in the last recession, I think this assessment should prioritize and approve a city financial plan for the residents and the businesses, as much as assessing our financial future. This is based on the challenges of the federal, the state and the local levels. I think what happens at the federal and state levels will eventually end up affecting the local communities, so we need to pay attention to that. It isn’t going to be dialectic. I always say that we need to be looking at both sides, looking at both angles. The City Council needs to have input from the (Citizens’ Finance Advisory) Commission, and the businesses and residents in order to really assess the situation comprehensively.

The city of Indio has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other city in the Coachella Valley. What can the city do better to reduce the infection rates among its residents?

I think what’s occurring in Indio shouldn’t be isolated from (what’s happening) in the rest of the communities in the west end. There needs to be a collaborative effort, especially among the communities in the eastern Coachella Valley. I say this, because the east end communities tend to be more impacted at socioeconomic levels due to many other factors like health-care access, education and information. Sometimes multiple families occupy one house. So, I think we need to address (this issue) with the city of Indio and in conjunction with other local city governments.

First, I think that more information and education in our community is key. And making more information available in Spanish, and perhaps in other languages of ethnic groups that live within Indio, will improve the education, and that is a must. Second, I think we need to work in a very collaborative way with different clinics and hospitals to provide resources. There needs to be a close connection with the county Department of Health, so that the resources can be allocated to the eastern Coachella Valley and to make testing a lot easier, faster and more accessible to people. So, (by taking) those two actions, I think we can probably curb the number of infections that we are experiencing in the eastern valley. This isn’t only in Indio. According to the numbers from the Department of Public Health, the whole eastern Coachella Valley has been highly affected. But with these two approaches, I think we can improve on and curb the number of infections.

During 2019, incidents of violent crime in Indio increased over 2018. What can the city do to decrease those numbers moving forward?

I have been a member of the Indio Police Department (as chaplain), and I’ve been responding to a lot of the family crises over the last 10 years—so, I know the community rather well. One, we have the largest community, and numbers-wise, we probably are as big as Coachella, La Quinta and Indian Wells all together. So, (that) will increase the number of cases in the city. Nonetheless, I think we need to allocate resources better. Our community is growing rapidly, and it’s projected to be one of the communities with the highest growth in the coming years. So this is one of the reasons why I am a proponent of not defunding the police, which is very popular in certain circles, but rather of finding a new way to allocate resources.

One of the initiatives that I would love to continue with the police department is creating forums with different leaders. We had an initiative (coupling) the police department with faith-based communities. There were quarterly meetings, and they were addressing homelessness issues, active shooting cases and all the concerns that both national and local leaders have. Now, I would love to expand that initiative in order to allow the community members to have better participation, and to develop relationships between residents and first responders. Lastly, I think that when there is mutual cooperation between leaders, different nonprofit organizations and the police department, it allows the police department to do much better work. Now it’s not the police versus another group, but it’s all about the community of people who live here. So, if I get elected, that’s an initiative that I’d love to continue expanding.

Let me give you an example: Indio is one of the police departments that has a clinician on staff. So whenever there is a case (involving) mental health, rather than dealing with that in the old traditional ways, now there is a clinician, and there are four different officers who are trained in how to handle (such situations). I think programs like this will continue to help us prepare to respond better, to use less force and implement better ways to promote improved public safety in this community.

Back in June, when the Indio City Council passed a budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021, some reserves were drawn upon to balance the budget. The new budget projects more than $135 million in revenues. Given the economic uncertainty, if those revenue numbers fall short, what cuts or new revenue opportunities would you propose that the city pursue?

First we need to make an assessment of how bad the situation is. I am not a proponent of cutting services right away, if there are other ways to make (a balanced budget) happen. It is critical to make a really good assessment. We need to look at what the short- and long-term needs are. What are the capital improvement projects, the city services and the staffing levels? Maybe some people need to retire earlier rather than later. We need to look at the business and residential needs. Maybe we need to put a hold on some of the infrastructure developments until we are able to balance the books. So I feel that we do not need to react quickly, but rather do a thorough assessment of the situation. Maybe we need to cut services across the board, rather than cut programs that would definitely affect certain groups disproportionately. I would hate to see that happening, because we are a very diverse community, and I will fight to prevent any group (from being) disproportionately affected.

What topic or issue impacting Indio should we have asked you about, and what are your thoughts on it?

For me, one of the biggest concerns is public health. Indio is growing rapidly. But with that growth, there are going to be a lot challenges when it comes to the health of our local families. We are trying to accommodate a whole different generation that is coming behind us. And when I talk about health, I talk in a very comprehensive way, and in a very holistic manner. I talk about the physical, the emotional, spiritual and psychological aspects of good health. In Indio, we do not have good parks. I’m a longtime resident of this community, and it’s hard to say that. I have a family—my wife and two kids—and, if we want to go to the park, any park, we either go to La Quinta or to Coachella. Now, Indio is the second seat of the county (of Riverside), and we still don’t have quality parks for our rapidly growing families. So, part of my health initiative will be to make sure that we are part of a bigger (plan) to develop green and open areas so the families can spend time outdoors. Nationwide, we are having a huge health issue, and Indio is not the exception to the rule, and especially the Latino community, which tends to be more prone to health issues. I am a big environmentalist and a social activist, and I think we need to work with nonprofits, with churches and other groups that will allow us to develop programs and implement them in collaboration with the different segments of the community. If we don’t do this, then I think we are going to have a huge health crisis, sooner rather than later. The whole health question is a big umbrella for a lot of the initiatives and improvements we need to do in this community.

That brings us to the other problem of: How we accommodate the next generation that is coming behind us, which is (made up of) millennials and some of the younger Generation X-ers? We need to make sure that this community provides the appropriate atmosphere for these young families. Right now, it’s a very young community. I would love to see everything that we launch, whether businesses or infrastructure projects, be with the intentions of accommodating the young families. This will be my intention and something I will work hard on.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Honestly, it’s been really hard for me. I’m a big outdoor guy, and I love hiking. But, for me, being inside now has allowed me to catch up with so many of the books that I haven’t been able to read in the last three or four years. I’ve been forced to go back and return to my habit of reading. You know, it’s not my preferable (activity), although I love reading—just maybe not as extensively as I am right now. But, due to the current conditions, I’ll take this any given day.

Published in Politics