CVIndependent

Sun02182018

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

Indio is the Coachella Valley’s largest city—and faces complex challenges due to the fact that it’s the home of Coachella, Stagecoach and Desert Trip.

In this year’s city election, seven people are running for two seats on the Indio City Council: Incumbents Glenn Miller and Lupe Ramos Watson, and challengers Joan Dzuro, Gina Chapa, Sam Torres, Jackie Lopez and Noe Gutierrez.

Joan Dzuro (right), a retired human resources consultant, cited a lack of both redevelopment funds and a concise plan for redevelopment as problems in Indio, due in large part to the state of California dissolving all redevelopment agencies back in 2012.

“One of the challenges that we have is the loss of the redevelopment funds,” Dzuro said. “… When those funds were removed by Sacramento, it became harder to find funding for that. I’m very encouraged by the hiring of (the city’s new director of economic development), Carl Morgan, because he’s able to come up with plans to talk to investors and businesses, and to try to work on options for some of that funding. You always need more funds when you have a fast-growing city. Public safety needs to be able to keep up with that, and it costs money.”

Dzuro said that her 35 years in corporate human resources give her much-needed experience.

“I’ve dealt with corporations from the business side and the employee side,” she said. “I think that’s the strength I can bring to the council, and bring in jobs and create businesses for the city, and have those businesses contribute new marketable skills to our unemployed and to the younger people graduating from college.”

Gina Chapa, a community organizer who worked for Congressman Raul Ruiz, said the lack of diverse commerce is a big issue.

“We’re struggling a lot with bringing in new businesses, supporting businesses, and actually having a thriving commercial area,” she said. “Also, I see that there’s a huge disparity between different populations in Indio. In order to feel like a complete city, we need to find a way to build bridges between the different communities in Indio. I feel that there’s a lack of ownership or participation. There’s a large population of disaffected or apathetic residents who feel disconnected to their local government.”

Chapa (right) said her roots are in Indio. “I’m a longtime community organizer and community resident. I was born in Indio and went to school in Indio. I’m raising my son in Indio, and I’m connected to various communities in Indio.”

Sam Torres, a former city councilman, said Indio’s slow economic recovery has caused problems.

“We’re starting to see some signs of (recovery in) the last few years, but we haven’t seen the robust economy we thought we were going to have,” he said. “I think that there’s another issue, and that’s the fact we’re starting to see two Indios. One is the north side and the far south side along the polo fields. The south side gets a lot of attention and is a new and dynamic community. But we’ve been leaving out the communities that have always been here. The residents in these communities are the ones who were building this economy. If you look in those neighborhoods, you can see the decay.”

Why should Indio voters put Torres back on the City Council, two years after he lost a re-election bid?

“I know the job. Now I really know this city,” he said. “I tell the truth and tell it like it is: ‘This is the problem, and this is what it takes to fix it.’ I do not bow to special interests, because the city residents elect me, and I don’t have a scheme to make money off this city.”

Jackie Lopez (right), who works as the district director for Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, said Indio’s largest challenge involves commerce.

“The No. 1 issue is places to shop,” Lopez said. “People spend their money outside of Indio. One of my main goals is better economic development. There are a lot of business owners struggling to make it. On the north side of Indio, we have a village market that could be a grocery store that’s sitting there. There are people who live across the street looking for places to shop that are walkable, and they’re getting to the point where they’re relying on their children and public transportation. Even though there are places to shop on the other side of the overpass, it’s too far for them. … I also feel that hotels are another concern with these festivals in our city; a lot of our tourists are staying outside of the area.”

Lopez said her work experience makes her a good fit for the City Council.

“I’m a lifelong resident here and have eight years working for the state Legislature,” she said. “I know how to get our money back from the state. I have worked on numerous pieces of legislation at the state level, (and worked) with our congressman to leverage funds for victims of the Salton Sea.” 

Noe Gutierrez—a behavioral health specialist, writer for CV Weekly and musician—said the city has not focused enough on small business.

“Downtown Indio hasn’t flourished like it should have,” he said. “I think smart growth is what we need—focusing on small-business owners and helping people get set up and started, as well as following them through. We all know the numbers of small businesses and when they open. Generally, they close within three years. We need to develop a plan we can follow.”

Gutierrez (right) said his experience in understanding people will serve him on the City Council.

“I grew up in Indio, and went to school in Indio, and I understand the backstreets, the different neighborhoods, the different types of people who live in those neighborhoods, and I understand their perception of things,” he said. “I have a huge amount of empathy given my background working as a social worker. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, so I feel I do a pretty good job doing that. … One thing I’m known for is gathering people together, getting them connected and establishing long-term relationships that are beneficial.”

The incumbents have had front-line experience dealing with Indio’s economic challenges in recent years. Glenn Miller said that while some newer areas of Indio—closer to Interstate 10—are fairly prosperous, the city’s downtown is suffering.

“Some of our older parts are taking a toll from the economic downturn,” he said. “It’s getting the actual funding availability, not only from the city of Indio, but also from our business community to invest into some of the areas that have been hit hardest due to the economic downturn, such as our downtown area.”

Miller, who has been on the council since 2008, has seen the city deal with hard financial times.

“When I first came on to the council, we had a structural $13 million deficit,” he said. “We burned through $35 million in reserves. Now we have a structurally balanced budget with over a half-million dollars in reserves, so financially, it is economically sound. But when you start talking about where you want the city to go when listening to our residents, one of the things they ask for is different kinds of shopping and business opportunities, education and investing in infrastructure.”

Miller said he should be re-elected because of his dedication to the city and the fact that he spends most of his free time working for a better Indio.

“I’m the most active and involved council member out of all the council members,” he said. “I’m very much engaged and spend all my free time working with our businesses, nonprofits and residents on what’s important to them.

“Indio will grow not only locally, but regionally. Not everyone who lives in Indio works in Indio. So the stronger the Coachella Valley is as a whole, and the more relationships we can build with College of the Desert and with our school district, it will be an advantage to the city of Indio, and I’m able to engage in those relationships.”

Councilmember Lupe Ramos Watson (right) said she’s concerned that Indio is losing out on sales-tax revenue.

“Our first and biggest challenge is to recapture some of the sales tax that is leaking out to other cities,” Watson said. “Several years ago, we conducted an economic-strategy analysis to figure out how much of our disposable income is being spent within the city boundaries to produce sales tax revenue, and how much was leaking out to other cities. We figured out that more than 50 percent of our potential sales tax revenue is leaking to other cities.”

Watson said she deserves to remain on the council due to the steps that she and her colleagues have taken regarding economic development.

“We just hired an economic development director a couple of months ago,” she said. “Because of the strategy we put together a couple of months ago, we have a plan for the downtown area that we’re completing to make sure the businesses that come into that area not only revitalize the downtown area, but add sales tax to our revenue and augment the opportunities as the ‘City of Festivals.’ With my background in planning in addition to development, I believe I’m a great asset to the city of Indio to help unfold these projects.”

We asked each of the candidates: What is the real identity of Indio?

“I believe Indio’s biggest attraction is that we’re a family-oriented city,” Dzuro said. “We emphasize our parks, the teen center and the Boys and Girls Club of America. We work together as a community with our festivals. The Tamale Festival and the Date Festival are family events. We really try to bring in the families to our community, and I think that’s what we emphasize more than anything.”

Chapa said that she feels the city government is not properly engaging with the older parts of the city.

“We know what it’s all called: ‘The City of Festivals,’” Chapa said. “That’s what it’s marketed as. It … doesn’t have just one identity. We know people understand Indio from the outside because of Coachella and the large snowbird community. As for the identity that it once had, there are many 40-plus-year residents living here who aren’t being included in the new face of Indio and the ‘City of Festivals.’ The identity is something we need to work on as a city, and (we need to) reach out to the community to build an identity so the people can feel like they’re part of the city, and that we can build our city together.”

Torres said Indio is not reaping the economic benefits it should be.

“The city of Indio is the ‘City of Festivals,’ but we used to be the second seat of the county, and we’re now in the backseat to Palm Springs,” Torres (right) said. “Any of the big events they have here, even at the casinos, they call it ‘Greater Palm Springs.’ We provide the neighbors and facilities, but the cash registers are ringing in the west valley. The local leaders have allowed that to happen and don’t have a plan to bring that identity back to Indio, and that’s where we made a huge mistake. It’s called the ‘’City of Festivals,’ but we’re really the ‘Greater Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce Backseaters.’”

Lopez said she wants Indio to once again be considered the hub of the Coachella Valley.

“We have so much potential, and we’re still growing,” she said. “On the other side of the freeway, I just found out we’re getting a Sonic and some other new places to shop and eat. The hope is to make sure we have a council member who will reinvest back into our community. We do pay taxes, and we’d like to see some of that money come back in infrastructure or attracting new places to shop and eat in downtown Indio—becoming the hub of the valley again.”

Gutierrez also said the city does not capitalize enough on the ‘City of Festivals’ label.

“There are some blinders on us,” he said. “We’re known for Coachella, but we don’t really expand on that. We’re just the site for Coachella. … We can’t rely on one-time events where people come, hang out and then leave, and probably never come back. We need a continuous inclusion of all age groups, ethnicities and everything.”

As for the identity of Indio, Miller (right) feels it has a lot to offer culturally.

“It’s the ‘City of Festivals’ and the city of culture. The city also has a bright future,” he said. “I think people see that in our rich history and being the largest city, but … multiple art developments and art pieces are going up throughout the city by world renowned artists who want to be part of the city of Indio and its culture.”

Watson said that she feels the city’s identity as the “City of Festivals” ties everything together.

“We’ve always celebrated our culture through the festivals,” she said. “It’s a community of celebration; Indio is full of hard-working individuals who work through our seasons to fulfill every need of their families, and when it’s time to celebrate, it’s done through our festivals. That is … a hard working community that understands that we need to work hard and work together to build a community that meets our needs.”

Published in Politics

Unless you’re one of those people targeted to receive vitriolic mailers from candidates blasting other candidates, you may not even know there’s a primary election taking place in California on Tuesday, June 3.

Even if you do know about the election: Are you one of those who doesn’t think it really matters—and might blow off voting?

Midterm elections are notorious for low turnouts, largely because the hype isn’t as great. They’re the elections in which nasty low blows and last-minute revelations dominate, yet they are often the elections which affect us most: city council members, judges, county supervisors, sheriffs and school board members are chosen. These are the offices closest to our everyday lives, and yet only the most ardent citizens follow these elections.

In the Coachella Valley, we have a couple of really interesting races, especially in light of the new open primary that means all candidates are in the same race, and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, go into a final runoff election in November. California voters approved this by ballot initiative in 2010, another midterm lower-turnout election, apparently hoping it would end political gridlock. So much for that notion. If you don’t like this system, you should have voted against it.

As I recall, Republicans pushed for this open primary, because they felt they were getting completely shut out of California politics in this largely Democratic state. Its supporters claimed to want all parties to have an equal chance. That’s why you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, Peace and Freedom, and Green party candidates all running on this ballot, as well as some candidates who don’t identify with any party.

One of the offices up this election is Riverside County supervisor. We have the chance to fill this one seat with what would be the only non-Republican on that panel—and the first Hispanic, V. Manuel Perez. He was recently appointed as majority floor leader of the California Assembly, but he is termed out and cannot run again for that seat. Perez is running against present County Supervisor John Benoit. These are the people who decide how county funds are spent, and oversee programs that cater to populations and nonprofit efforts at the local level. How often have you heard complaints that the supervisors don’t take enough interest in our end of the county? This is a chance to impact who sits in that seat.

In the newly designated State Senate District 28—formed through redistricting and covering the desert communities, southwest Riverside County and Corona—the open primary is taking center stage. Drawn to be a Republican district (fair or not, that’s the way these things get done), the 28th has an active campaign that’s not always pleasant to watch, especially because it’s an “open” seat, meaning there is no incumbent with a presumed advantage up for re-election.

Four Republicans are running alongside two Democrats. Philip Drucker, a local attorney and educator, is a first-time candidate; he’s a lifelong Democrat, though he’s not well-known in local Democratic politics. The other is Anna Nevenic, who has run for various offices in the past, and is considered by local Democrats as something of a political gadfly.

On the Republican side, four candidates are vying for votes. Bill Carns is a business owner who is seen as having little chance to pull many votes. The other three Republican candidates are all political veterans who are running very hard campaigns.

Bonnie Garcia previously served in Sacramento, and was known for a while as the woman who wouldn’t “kick (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of my bed”; she has responded strongly to attacks on her integrity and family issues by her opponents.

Jeff Stone is a county supervisor who touts that he knows firsthand as a medical professional (owner of a compounding pharmacy) that Obamacare is a disaster. Of course, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is already law, is not on the ballot, and is not administered by county supervisors.

The Riverside County Young Republicans and Coachella Valley Young Republicans endorsed Garcia. The Southwest Young Republicans of Riverside County are going with Stone.

Also on the ballot for this Senate seat is Republican Glenn Miller, City Councilmember and former mayor of Indio. Miller describes himself as a fiscal conservative with progressive views on “social issues,” saying he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has recently been endorsed by no less than Equality California, a gay-marriage activist organization, and by some local Democrats (although these endorsements do not yet appear on his website).

These endorsements have caused no end of dissent among local Democrats, who ask: Why endorse a primary vote for a Republican, when there is a credible Democrat on the ballot? Wouldn’t that mean there is less likelihood that the Democrat might be one of the top two vote-getters? Or are they willing to bet on a friendly Republican, assuming any Democratic candidate will lose in the final election, anyway?

Some Republicans ask whether they can support a candidate who has gotten support from Democrats, especially pro-gay-marriage activists. Doesn’t that mean he’s a RINO—a Republican in Name Only? Are they saying not to vote for Miller because he might actually get elected? Is ideology more important than winning?

Since the district is presumed to be majority Republican, and since it’s not a bad bet that the primary will result in two Republicans being the highest vote-getters, why shouldn’t the Democrats hedge their bets and support the moderate Republican who could be a friendly ear in the State Senate? Remember the Rush Limbaugh “Vote for Hillary” campaign to hurt the Obama campaign, assuming Hillary could be beaten by John McCain?

I thought this kind of crap was what the open primary system was supposed to eliminate. What happened to caring about why they’re running, and how they plan to address issues and policies that matter to us?

Are you willing to let these decisions be made by political hacks playing games, or will you fulfill your responsibility as an American citizen, do some homework (the links are all here) and show up to vote for the best candidate?

The primary election is Tuesday, June 3. You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the results.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed Philip Drucker and Glenn Miller on my radio show. I have not publicly endorsed anyone. Podcasts are available at www.KNewsRadio.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The sun is descending behind the San Jacinto Mountains as the classroom portion of the daily First Tee of the Coachella Valley program gets under way in the pro shop/education center of the First Tee golf course in Palm Desert.

“I show respect for my surroundings by picking up trash wherever I see it,” declares James, a member of the “Player 3” group (ages 7 to 9). He is addressing his fellow First Tee students, a few parents, lead instructor Jeff Harrison and LPGA-USGA program director Amy Anderson.

This group is learning how to incorporate into their daily existence the “nine core life values” emphasized by the program. Instilling these character traits in each and every participant is the primary mission of the First Tee staff here in Coachella Valley—and all of the chapters worldwide.

“We want to make them good citizens,” says executive director Glenn Miller. “I don’t really care if they become great golfers.”

The First Tee international organization lists the United States Golf Association, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the Masters Tournament as founding partners. So wouldn’t it be correct to assume that another underlying objective is to develop the next Tiger Woods or Stacy Lewis to represent U.S. golf on the international stage? “No, I don’t think that’s the case,” insists Miller. “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. Fair to good, probably, if they keep playing. But the next Tiger Woods? Well, it could happen, but that’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

That focus is on teaching students the appreciation of, and adherence to, the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment in every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to these basic “nine core life values,” the Coachella Valley chapter has incorporated instruction about “nine healthy habits.”

“We’re trying to get our kids to eat better, walk more and do things that are healthy for them,” Miller says, “get them to think about eating apples, grapes, oranges and yogurt rather than only potato chips and soda.”

In order to promote the budding self-esteem of committed participants, at the end of each school semester, the First Tee national office honors all participants who present a school report card showing an A/B level of achievement by presenting them with a certificate for their hard work and perseverance.

“Our First Tee team focuses heavily on the A/B scholar classroom accomplishments of our youngsters,” says Miller. “We’re looking for transformation in how they conduct themselves. We get input from the parents who tell us how much more reliable, confident and poised their child becomes, and we get great satisfaction from that feedback.”

First Tee was founded in 1997; Coachella Valley’s chapter started up in 2007. Palm Desert City Council members Dick Kelly (who passed away in 2010) and Robert Spiegel (who still serves on the council) were the catalysts in bringing First Tee to the valley under the supervision of the Desert Recreation District. They supervised the ownership transfer of the current 27-hole, par-three First Tee home golf course on Sheryl Avenue, just off Cook Street, from the city of Palm Desert to the Desert Recreation District. The program’s reach into the community has grown rapidly since then.

“We have about 1,350 student participants enrolled in all phases of our program in 2013,” Miller says. “They range in age from 4 years old to 18. We have four full-time instructors and about 150 volunteers who give regularly and generously of their time and effort. In each of our sessions, which are categorized by age and learning accomplishment, we have one instructor or volunteer present for every four students.”

The First Tee depends on community support for almost all of its operational funding as well. “The First Tee national organization contributes roughly $20,000 per year to our chapter,” Miller says. “So we rely almost completely on our fundraising success. The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation was one of the first supporters to come to the table. Also, the Houston Family Foundation and the First Foundation have been strong contributors.

“Most of the funds that come in are utilized for equipment and scholarships for a lot of our youth,” Mr. Miller continued. “We don’t turn anyone away—we just don’t. We want to make First Tee available to any kid in the valley who would like to learn golf and those core values that come with it. The challenge is: How can we help them succeed in life?”

Assistance comes from several of the golf and country clubs in Coachella Valley. “The people at the Springs Country Club have been a godsend for us!” says Miller. “All together, they’ve raised some $200,000 through their fundraising tournaments for the First Tee. Our kids have access to play at the Classic Club, Desert Winds in 29 Palms and the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

“The Marrakesh Country Club has welcomed our kids, and this Dec. 14, they’re staging their inaugural First Tee Golf and Putting Tournament benefit. And next Feb. 15, for the first time, we’ll be staging our annual First Tee Benefit Golf Tournament and fundraiser at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club.”

Given the First Tee’s strict policy that its students demonstrate the core values of honesty, integrity and responsibility at all times, what is the official First Tee stance on the use of mulligans during a round of golf?

Miller pauses for a second. He then diplomatically replies, “Mulligans are very good for fundraisers.”

For more information on the First Tee of the Coachella Valley, visit www.thefirstteecoachellavalley.org, or call 760-779-1877. Memberships are $120 per year, although discounts and scholarships are available based on income.

Below: First Tee of the Coachella Valley executive director Glenn Miller: “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. … That’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

Published in Features