CVIndependent

Fri05252018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

A recent review of the budgets of all nine Coachella Valley cities confirms what multiple sources have mentioned over the last several months: The costs of providing police and fire protection have been rising every year—and could soon become a worrisome financial burden.

“About 50 percent of our general-fund budget at this time goes specifically to public safety,” Coachella City Councilmember V. Manuel Perez told the Independent in a recent interview. “In the course of the last few years, public-safety expenses have increased between 5 and 7 percent every year.

“The passing of Measure U a couple of years ago, which was a 1 percent sales-tax increase, is the only reason why … we’ve been able to sustain ourselves—and we understand that these annual (public-safety cost) increases are going to continue.”

With 50 percent of the general fund being allocated to public safety, Coachella falls in the middle of the pack, as far as valley cities go. Given different accounting methods, a direct comparison is difficult to make. However, Indian Wells is at the low end, spending about 35 percent of its general fund on public safety, while Cathedral City is on the high end, around 65 percent.

This is not just a problem here in the Coachella Valley, and studies have been done across the country over the past decade in an effort to determine what’s driving the trend in rising public-safety costs, even when adjusted for inflation. But because there so many variables at play, these studies have not uncovered a single root cause.

In the Coachella Valley, five cities—Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Coachella and Indian Wells—contract out public-safety service to Riverside County and Cal Fire, while the other four cities—Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs and Indio—still maintain independent police departments. Only Palm Springs and Cathedral City have independent fire departments. Yet independence does not seem to be an indicator of how large a city’s budget allocation will be, since Palm Springs comes in on the low end at about a 45 percent budget allotment, with Cathedral City on the high end at 65 percent.

Back in 2013, Desert Hot Springs was in the midst of a financial crisis and explored outsourcing services to the county. “We were looking at our police force and what we could do either with the sheriff’s department or keeping our own police department,” said Mayor Scott Matas, who was a City Council member at the time. “When the sheriff’s department’s initial bid came in to us, it appeared that it was a couple of million dollars less. But after the interim police chief and his staff tore the bid apart and compared apples to apples, when the sheriff’s department came back for a second round, we found out it was actually going to cost us $1 million more, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for us to keep our own police department.”

Desert Hot Springs is now on better financial footing. “Recently, we actually gave a little bit back to the police department, which was cut by upwards of 22 percent when the fiscal crisis was going on,” Matas said. “It’s been nice to keep our own police force. It’s more personable when it comes to your community policing, because you have the same police officers there. When you contract out, you never know what that face is going to be. We have that issue with our county fire contract. We’re very fortunate that some of the firefighters who work in this community have been here a long time, but for the most part, they rotate in and out all the time, so you never have that same chief, or you never have the same firefighters.”

Indio City Council member Glenn Miller, who has also served as the city’s mayor, touted the benefits of Indio having its own police force.

“About 80 percent of the police officers working with us live in our city,” Miller said. “We have a large contingent that is home-grown, and then a lot of them have moved into the city, including our police chief, Michael Washburn, who came from Seattle. So they are vested in the city, and that does us a lot of good. … When they live in our neighborhoods, they get to know those communities.”

What solutions are mayors and city councilmembers looking at to keep public-safety spending in check?

“When it comes to county fire, they’ve just been given larger pay increases, which then trickles down to the people who contract with them,” said Matas, the DHS mayor. “We were hoping to open another fire station eventually, but now we’re looking at just trying to keep the staffing that we have. … It’s always a challenge with public safety. We’ve been very fortunate with our police services. Crime is down. We’ve got a great chief (Dale Mondary), and we’re working in a great direction, but with this fire budget coming up, I don’t know how we’re going to do that.”

Coachella’s V. Manuel Perez said there’s no way his city can keep pace with the public-safety cost increases as things stand now.

“We have to figure out how we can work with other valley contracting cities to come up with a long-term solution for this problem,” Perez said. “Maybe we can come up with some sort of (joint powers authority) between the cities to support an agreement to help pay for public safety.”

Newly elected La Quinta City Councilmember Steve Sanchez agreed that it’s worth exploring whether the valley’s cities should join forces … perhaps literally.

“I think that’s something we need to discuss amongst all our council members,” Sanchez said. “We need to look at all options, whether it’s (joining forces with) Indio or other cities, or if it’s just staying with the sheriff’s department—whichever makes the most sense.”

Miller said East Valley cities have already started talking about working together more.

“When I was serving as the mayor of Indio, up until the end of this last year, we discussed with (La Quinta Mayor) Linda Evans and (Coachella Mayor) Steve Hernandez the possibility of doing an East Valley coalition plan that would include combining police and parks, and … making a better community overall by working together as one. We could lower costs for each individual city by economies of scale. Also, we talked about economic development, youth programs and senior programs. Not that we were going to give up our autonomy, but we’re looking at ways we could partner up to get a bigger bang for our buck, and maybe do better for our residents by being able to provide additional services.

“With public safety, we’d look at what we could do, since we’re right next to each other, to institute a regional police force. It’s something that we’re open to. You never shut the door on any option.”

Published in Local Issues

Desert Hot Springs has been in a fiscal emergency ever since last year’s surprising November revelation that the city was facing a budget deficit upward of $6 million.

In an effort to bridge that gap, the city put Measure F on the June 3 ballot, proposing to drastically raise taxes on vacant parcels of land. Even though more than 60 percent of the city’s voters said yes to the measure, it did not pass, because of a state law requiring two-thirds approval.

Today, after slashing the budget, city officials are considering placing another revenue-raising effort in front of voters, this time in November.

Had Measure F passed on June 3, it would have provided the city with just more than $3 million. Mayor Adam Sanchez said the city has two realistic options for the Nov. 4 election.

“We can go again with a (initiative) similar to Measure F … but we have to change it, because by law, you can’t do the same thing twice,” Sanchez said. “There are people in the community who would rather put an increase in the sales tax on the ballot. That will be part of the debate and discussion at the city council meeting in August.”

Sanchez said he still prefers the parcel tax on vacant lands.

“What’s good about the parcel tax is it’s an opportunity for all the residents and anyone who owns property to make it fair and balanced,” Sanchez said. “The reason we didn’t go to the sales tax before is because it’s all the regular residents who own homes and work here who pay that tax. The parcel tax is on the vacant landowners, many of whom don’t live here. … It’s still a challenge, because you have to get to that 66.7 percent voter approval.”

Per Proposition 13, any increase in special taxes requires a two-thirds majority vote. Measure F received support from 61.5 percent of voters on June 3.

Measure F was proposed as a way for the city to avoid bankruptcy, and to ensure that public-safety services such as police and fire remain viable.

The primary argument against Measure F in the voting guide sent to voters was written by Robert Bentley, who railed against a corrupt City Council and suggested the measure was a “trick” being pulled on residents. The Inland Empire Taxpayers Association also campaigned against Measure F.

Neither Bentley nor the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association responded to interview requests from the Independent.

Michael Burke, a Desert Hot Springs resident and the owner of BurkeMedia Productions, signed the argument in favor of Measure F.

“I was in support of Measure F for one major reason,” Burke said. “Desert Hot Springs has this huge deficit. The City Council worked really hard to reduce it. We needed a solution, and Measure F was brought to the council. At first, they were going to make the parcel tax around $570 per acre, and that was ridiculous. They brought it down to around $375, which I also thought was a little high. After researching it, what the owners (are paying on vacant) parcels … is $29.50, which is ridiculously low.”

Burke said the solution made sense to him after he did his own research.

“Measure F would have raised the vacant land tax to still be lower than (the tax paid by) homeowners,” he said. “It would have made it a little bit fairer, because they would at least have to pay for the basic services that they use.”

After the failure of Measure F, city funding for groups and agencies such as Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, the DHS Health and Wellness Center (which also includes the Boys and Girls Club) and the Desert Hot Springs Police Department was jeopardized.

“During this process, we were already having discussions with the Desert Healthcare District and Borrego (who run the Health and Wellness Center) about how we can minimize our costs of operating the Health and Wellness Center. It’s a $1 million operation,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said the city wants to keep its own police department, rather than contracting with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for police services.

“Right now, I hate to say it, but we’re taking the police department on a month-to-month basis,” Sanchez said. “They have their budget now, so they have to make adjustments and reductions within the department. They recently had to let go the records clerk because they had to reduce the budget by $500,000. They can’t afford to remove a police officer, because that’s a priority, so they had to look at administration to reduce some of those costs.”

Sanchez said he hopes that voters realize the city’s budget crisis is a serious matter.

“I think people realized that as we had to do a budget without Measure F, and how we had to reduce the police department and police budget even further, that (the budget situation) was critical. We had to make reductions in terms of staff and accounting. There are a lot of details in the budget where they had to reduce cost. They can’t even have any more training.

“What we have now is a bare-bones police department, because Measure F didn’t pass. But how can a bare-bones police department function without putting their own safety and the public’s safety in jeopardy?”

Published in Local Issues

There is no question that the city of Desert Hot Springs is in financial trouble: The city is facing a deficit of $6 million or more.

However, bankruptcy is off the table, as far as the newly elected mayor, Adam Sanchez, is concerned.

Sanchez was elected to the DHS City Council in 2011, and ran for mayor against incumbent Yvonne Parks in 2013. Sanchez won by the narrowest of margins—12 votes.

During a recent interview with the Independent, Sanchez discussed the economic issues that Desert Hot Springs faces, as well as his plans for the city, and his first month in office.

“It feels like it’s been a year,” Sanchez said. “I think the obvious reason why is because one day after the election, we’re told by the mayor, the city manager and finance director that we have a deficit of $6.9 million. Hearing that right after the election, it’s enough to make you stop in your shoes and start thinking about where this started going wrong—and (why) didn’t anybody notice it? Since then, it’s been basically a quick roller-coaster ride, going down. Being on a roller coaster going down, you’re holding on. The last month has been holding on and trying to figure out how to go about reducing the deficit, because we know we have to be at a balanced budget by June 30.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Sanchez attributed much of the deficit to Desert Hot Springs’ police force and city employees, along with their pension plans. While many American cities that have gone through financial stresses have placed the blame on city employees and their pensions, Sanchez said it’s a bit more complex than that when it comes to Desert Hot Springs. However, in a city of 27,000 people, there are no questions that some of the city’s salary figures are mindboggling—and smell of possible corruption.

“I think the biggest concern came when they did the numbers on the police department: They were working the regular shifts, but also double shifts,” Sanchez said. “The detectives were working overtime constantly. Most of the detectives worked during the day, but the crimes happen at night, so why pull them out again? When they did the breakdown on it, they were averaging $200,000 a year per police officer. A study came back and showed that we were the 20th-highest in the state for paid employees.”

Sanchez said other employees within city government were also taking advantage of a flawed system.

“We had a city manager making $217,000 as part of his salary, and then $900 a month for a car allowance,” Sanchez said. “When you look across the state and cities similar to ours, the city manager is making anywhere from $140,000 to $160,000. On top of that, the police chief’s salary went up, too. … All of a sudden, you have a police chief who could be making close to $190,000.”

Sanchez said that while he was on the City Council under Parks’ leadership, he was hesitant to vote for any of the city budgets without transparency and full disclosure.

“With the prior administration, when they did the audits, a lot of this was kept private from us. … In the two years I was on the City Council, I was never asked to sit down with the auditors and look over their reports; none of us were. The only ones who were that I’m aware of were the mayor and city manager. A lot of us were left out of the loop from the entire process.”

Sanchez didn’t list that as the only issue; he said he’s learning a lot from an audit, still taking place, that Sanchez ordered after he took office.

“Within the police department alone, they had their own budget analyst who was working with the police chief and city manager, and the city had its own finance director. We had two different analysts, and they weren’t communicating with each other.”

Sanchez has pledged that there will be more transparency under his administration.

“We’re trying to put together a system where the city manager, the finance director, the mayor and the whole council will act as one finance committee. Before, it was the mayor and the mayor pro-tems that did it along with the city manager, so the City Council was left out. … Everybody needs to be communicating, and we can’t afford to be overspending.”

Of course, more business development in Desert Hot Springs could help the city avoid future budget problems.

“Right now, Two Bunch Palms resort wants to do a major expansion. … They want to create a whole new spa area, a new dining area, and add additional condos. They want to invest a tremendous amount of money and expand the resort to where we can showcase our health and wellness. In the next year and a half, that’s what we’re going to be working on with them.”

Speaking of health and wellness: Those are words Sanchez uses repeatedly, as he believes health and wellness can lead to economic opportunities for the city, and well-being for the city’s population. He spoke with pride about the city’s new health-and-wellness center and the programs it offers.

“What you need to have is programming directed toward creating a healthy family,” he said. “To have a healthy family, you have to make sure the kids are seeing the doctor. At the same time, you have to make sure the family is well-educated in health needs. A lot of it is education and preventive medicine. Why can’t we find ways to take advantage of that? All of a sudden, now you’re building a community around health and wellness, so we can get away from what we hear now, which is violence, more crime, and a city government that can’t keep its budget balanced.”

Sanchez said that if he gets his way, Desert Hot Springs will keep its police department, and there will be no cuts to education. The painful 22 percent cut in pay for the police department and other city employees will hopefully help save the city’s budget going forward, he said.

On the subject of his narrow win over Yvonne Parks, Sanchez talked about how he refused to believe he’d lost on election night, when preliminary results appeared to show Yvonne Parks had been re-elected.

“People were telling me the election was really over,” he said. The number (of votes I was behind) had dropped so quickly, from 97 to 24 on the second day after the election, and people were saying, ‘Oh my gosh; it’s not over yet.’ On the third day after the election, at about 2 p.m., they posted the results and had me up by 12.”

Sanchez said he was the youngest of three children to a single mother, and he grew up in the Boy Scouts, learning the value of public service at an early age. He also has a degree in recreation management.

“For me, it’s almost like the best time to be here in Desert Hot Springs, building this health-and-wellness initiative that I want to build, to change the overall image of the community to being a positive place for families to live, and for us to be proud of the fact we have the great hot mineral waters, the best-tasting drinking water—and now we have a government in the city that’s engaged and involved to where we care about one another,” he said.

Published in Politics

Over the summer, a former Jewish temple in Desert Hot Springs was converted into the Desert Hot Springs Community Health Center.

The building on Pierson Boulevard had been purchased by the now-nearly bankrupt city of Desert Hot Springs in 2008 and was condemned, partially torn down, and eventually sold to the nonprofit Borrego Community Health Foundation at a tremendous loss before its revival. (Meanwhile, a brand-new building behind the Vons grocery store on Palm Drive, which was constructed by the city to be a health-care clinic, sits unoccupied.)

Despite the controversies and boondoggles, Borrego has managed to bring much-needed health-care services to Desert Hot Springs, and the clinic has been well-received by citizens of Desert Hot Springs (including myself) since the October opening.

“We’ve been seeing that the community was hungry for what we offer,” said clinic site manager Sergio Ruiz. “Little by little, people are finding out that we are here, and we are seeing more and more patients as time goes on.

“… We’re here to serve, and when people come into our clinic, one of the things I’ve heard most often is that it’s an experience, because (we are) typically seen as the clinic for the uninsured. We are that, and we are here to serve (the uninsured), but they don’t expect to see as beautiful of a facility—and great service as well.”

The services offered by Borrego at the Desert Hot Springs location, beyond primary care, are extensive: in-house specialty care, physicals, immunizations, diabetes care, hypertension care, pediatrics, some gynecology services, and urgent care. The new building replaces a much-smaller clinic that had operated for several years in DHS.

Borrego assists clients who are without the ability to pay by offering sliding-scale fees and helping people without health insurance find health-care coverage through government programs for which they may qualify.

“As a federally qualified health care facility, we have the ability to offer government-sponsored programs,” Ruiz said. “We have a position here within the clinic that we call the ‘care coordinator specialist,’ and that person … has the knowledge to enroll people in different government-sponsored programs. That’s what we aim to do, but as a last resort, we offer a sliding fee. It’s a program for the noninsured or underinsured; the minimum payment right now for that would be $30, and that depends on income and (the number of) members of the household 18 years old and below. What people don’t realize about us is that $30 includes most labs, also.”

Ruiz said that some people don’t realize there’s often help available.

“The reality is most people qualify for something, and we try to place them in government sponsored programs, depending on what the visit is for,” Ruiz said.

Borrego offers services that most community health centers don’t have the resources to provide, Ruiz noted. However, the clinic—located in a city that has long been underserved by medical professionals—does face a challenge.

“One of the areas where we fall short is that we can take care of most things that are primary care; however, when the need arises to refer to specialty care, that’s where we encounter bumps in the road, because people (may not) have insurance. That’s why we place an emphasis on getting people on to government-sponsored programs. For the common cold and cough, we can take care of that here; however, when we need to refer to specialists, that becomes out of pocket for the noninsured.”

When it comes down to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), Ruiz sees it as a good thing for both consumers and the health-care system.

“It will mean more people qualifying to receive services,” he said. “For some people, it’s sort of a scary time because of paperwork and so forth. What we have done here is sent people to specialized training to enroll people … through Covered California.

“I think, in general, the population will be better served if they enroll in these programs. I feel that the number of people receiving what we offer is going to increase dramatically.”

The Desert Hot Springs Community Health Center, at 66675 Pierson Blvd. in Desert Hot Springs, is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 760-676-5240, or visit www.borregomedical.org/clinics/desert-hot-springs-community-health-center (although the clinic’s physical address on the website had not been updated as of this posting).

Published in Local Issues