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

As Election Day 2016 approaches, a heated debate among City Council candidates is disrupting the tranquility of La Quinta, the self-anointed “Gem of the Desert.”

One issue fueling the controversy is the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase known as Measure G, placed on this year’s ballot by unanimous vote of the City Council. Another issue: the proposed CV Link project.

The two mayoral candidates—incumbent Linda Evans and challenger Paula Maietta, a retail-marketing business specialist and 30-year La Quinta resident—have opposing views on just about all of the important issues.

Regarding Measure G, Evans told the Independent in a recent interview”: “I supported putting Measure G on the ballot, and I am in support of the need for that 1 percent increase. That’s largely due to the combination of how the expenses for things like police, fire, flood control, insurance and maintenance on capital improvements are rising versus the timing of when revenues will come in from development. … This additional sales tax is something that will be protected locally, and should yield about an additional $6 million per year, because that’s what our current 1 percent sales tax share is yielding right now.”

Maietta told the Independent she does not think the perceived budget challenges have been diagnosed correctly.

“First of all, we need a better picture of what really is happening (with our city revenues),” Maietta said. “These financial issues are not new issues.

“I just don’t think that this is a well-thought-out-measure. I think that the proper fiduciary role for the city is to make do with what they have. … They want this sales-tax increase to build up the reserve to $40 or $50 million, which was the amount before the (Redevelopment Agency) was dissolved. Well, we’re not a savings and loan. We’re a city.”

Not surprisingly, this divide carries into the group of five candidates vying for two open seats on the City Council. Candidates Kristy Franklin (the only incumbent City Council member running for re-election; pictured upper right), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (a member of the La Quinta Planning Commission, right), Steve Sanchez (a Marine Corps veteran and businessman) and Victoria Llort (a business woman and vice president of the local nonprofit American Outreach Foundation) all support Measure G.

“The city is just like any other business: money in, and money out,” Franklin said in a recent interview. “You can’t spend what you don’t have—or you shouldn’t, let’s put it that way. So Measure G is something that (the current City Council) wasn’t casual about at all. We did our homework, and then we put together an advisory committee by asking for volunteers from the community, and 14 people said yes.”

Sanchez told us he supports the measure because the state and county won’t be able to get their hands on that money: “That 1 percent, no one can take that. I’m going to vote for it because I want to maintain that quality of life that we’re used to.”

Sanchez (right, slightly below) did have one misgiving, though: “I do wish that there was a sunset date on it so that maybe eight to 10 years from now, the residents would vote again on it.”

Llort pointed out that only 1 percent of the current 8 percent sales tax stays in La Quinta. “This (1 percent increase) would give the city 2 percent. Now, it is unappropriated, so it is a general tax. When and if the voters approve it, I would like to see a citizen oversight committee really monitor the money that goes into the general fund and make sure that it’s spent appropriately and that the rising expenses for police and fire and infrastructure are addressed.”

Fitzpatrick offered a dire view of the consequences of a vote against Measure G. “I hope that it passes, and I’ll tell you from being out there walking in the precincts that I think it’s at about 50-50 right now,” she said. “If it doesn’t pass, we’re really going to have to look at full cost recovery on fees and making some changes in the programs and services that we offer. We have a lot of fees that we subsidize for some of our programs in the Wellness Center, for instance. … We’ll look at our sports programs as well.”

Only Joseph Johnson, a retired investigator for the city of Los Angeles, sides with Maietta in questioning whether there is a pressing need to increase the sales tax.

“I don’t believe that right now, this (Measure G) is the thing to do,” Johnson told us. “If we increase the sales tax on our local businesses, we’re going to have more people not buying here, and that’s going to hurt our businesses even more.”

Johnson (right, slightly below) took issue with the 14-person advisory committee that suggested the Measure G strategy: “If you read this 14-person advisory report, it says right there that they are not taking into consideration any increase in sales tax at all.

“That means the money we’re going to get from Costco—there’s a (revenue) share split that we’ve been giving them for years on sales tax that expires in April, and that’s going to be about half a million dollars in extra revenue for the city, and that was not considered in this report. Also, we have a deal with Hobby Lobby’s landlord … for a few years … but after that, it will bring another $200,000 to $300,000 a year in extra revenue, which is not considered in that report. We’re getting a TJ Maxx and Ulta, and that’s not considered in that report. Plus there’s normal inflation.”

Regarding the valley-wide debate on the CV Link project, most of the candidates are taking a “wait and see” stance in anticipation of the environmental impact report’s impending release, sometime before the end of the year. Here’s a quick rundown of each candidate’s perspective:

Evans: “When we created the Adams Street bridge overpass, we already engineered an underneath ramp that goes below the street so that you can continue on that levee without having to cross the road. We are in the planning stages to do a bridge at Dune Palms as well. So we’re a little bit ahead of the game, in my opinion. We’ll see if it’s completely cost-prohibitive to even consider. … But the concept of what it can represent for our valley, I definitely support.”

Maietta: “I’m not against the CV Link. Certainly, I’m in support of things that get people out of the house and doing healthy things—but this is a boondoggle. Nobody even has any idea of how much it’s going to cost yet. They don’t know who’s going to maintain it, and they don’t know what the maintenance costs are. Who’s going to police it? … It’s not done yet, but as it stands right now, I can’t support it.”

Franklin: “CV Link is not a priority for me, and that’s because we don’t know how much it’s going to cost to maintain it. We’re asking for a sales-tax increase, so to ask the citizens to pay for something from now into perpetuity when we haven’t a clue what the cost is going to be, I can’t buy that. My gut reaction to this is that it’s being pushed down our throats, and I don’t like that.”

Sanchez: “In theory, I think it’s a great project. But when it first came up, I was 100 percent against it for many reasons. The costs were uncertain. Without knowing things like what the ongoing maintenance is … I need to find out what all of that is before I can make a final decision on it. The information that is out right now has changed my mind from 100 percent against to being on the fence.”

Llort (right): “We don’t know what the CV Link is going to cost. That being said, I am in support of the 2-3 mile portion that would go through La Quinta. It is placed very conveniently along the wash right behind one of the business strips along 111, but also right behind the high school. The portion of CV Link that goes through La Quinta is to be built on land not owned by the city, but by the CVWD. … I reserve the right to analyze and study everything diligently to make sure that it’s still in the best interests of La Quinta.”

Fitzpatrick: “I’m conditionally supportive of the CV Link, but we need to see the EIR. That being said, I think that it’s a project that would generate tourism. We built several bike-path kind of facilities when I worked with … Los Angeles. Those kinds of projects always bring tourists and always bring users and always prove a tremendous benefit, especially in La Quinta, where our brand is health and wellness.”

Johnson: “In general, a bike path running all the way from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea is not a bad idea. But … it’s the most ugly path you’ll ever see. They show pictures of people walking their dogs along this thing, but do you think walking dogs on concrete when it’s 120 degrees out is practical? No, it’s not. … As for funding, they say that tourism is going to increase so much that one proposal is to take any increases in (each city’s) hotel tax and use that to fund this project. That’s problematic, because when the cities need money, that’s one of the few sources of revenue that they have.”

Published in Politics

Andie Hubka was five years into running a successful gourmet cooking school when she had an idea: What if she offered a dinner of seasonally driven, creative dishes once a week? Would people come?

“I just started getting the itch to do a restaurant night,” said Hubka, co-owner of the new restaurant Cork and Fork in La Quinta. “So we put together an underground supper club, for lack of a better word, and became really well known for that, and before we knew it, we were turning people away, because we had more people coming than we could seat on any given night.”

With the dinner nights an obvious hit, Hubka saw a craving for interesting, wine-paired dishes. She decided it was time to leave the quiet classroom of her cooking school and enter the fast-paced world of restaurant ownership, which happened officially when Cork and Fork opened to the public on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

“We’re packed every night. We just can’t believe it,” says Hubka. “We knew we were going to be busy, because we had an existing clientele, but the big surprise has been the people from out of town and people we’ve never seen before, who are super-excited about it. We’re sold out and actually oversold every night.”

Cork and Fork is not that big of a place—it seats about 50 people—but packing the house night after night is quite a feat for any new restaurant. But it helps, says Hubka, that there are precious few places in the area that serve the type of cuisine her team creates.

“I come from Los Angeles, where you have lots of options and lots to choose from, but out here in the desert, it’s pretty devoid of interesting food,” said Hubka. “There are a lot of steakhouses and a lot of meat-and-potato places, but there isn’t a lot of ethnic or creative cuisine.”

Not that Hubka is beating her guests over the head with unapproachably complex dishes. Her tactic is to take things people recognize and give them a twist. Add to that a well-trained staff who can suggest appropriate wine-pairings, and you have what is turning out to be a concept people get excited about.

The menu is broken down into snacks, salads, pizzas and favorites that are holdovers from the restaurant’s former life as an underground supper club. Baby-back ribs, Thai shrimp cakes, tamales, mac-and-cheese and a good amount of salads and other dishes take diners on a winding road without delving into anything too strange or unknown.

“You’ll notice there really isn’t a common denominator,” says Hubka. “The only theme is that everything has to be really good.”

The most popular items thus far have been dates stuffed with Point Reyes blue cheese and topped with toasted almonds and chive-infused oil. Guests have also been crazy about the wood-fired “Coachella” pizza—think dates, applewood bacon, goat cheese and pickled onions—and the french fries made with local sweet potatoes.

“We make food that people recognize, but that are all small plates, all shareable,” says Hubka. “The focus is on wine and food pairing, trying a lot of different foods with wines. We call it a ‘unique wine and food experience.’”

The wine list is also a bit different than what many local diners may be used to, since there are few California wines. Instead, the emphasis is on wines from other renowned wine-producing regions such as South Africa, Oregon and others.

“I still run the cooking school, and the teacher in me wants to expose people to different things,” says Hubka. “We’re constantly having to explain our wine to people, but we’re excited to do it because we want people to experience it.”

Hubka says the restaurant is currently open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Happy hour, which includes specials on drinks and bar snacks, happens all night on Wednesday and Sunday and from 4 to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.

Cork and Fork is located at 47875 Caleo Bay Drive, Suite A106, in La Quinta. Call 777-7555, or visit corkandforkwinebar.com for reservations or more information.

Published in Restaurant & Food News