CVIndependent

Mon02192018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

It’s official: Palm Springs now has the highest sales tax in Riverside County. Thanks to newly approved Measure D, the rate will be 9.25 percent. The half-cent sales-tax hike will bring in an extra $6.7 million annually, according to estimates.

Voters in November also approved Measure E, a new tax on recreational marijuana.

These new revenues will be coming into city coffers along with, among other revenue sources, funds from Measure J, the one-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2011.

Measure J has indirectly led to a lot of bad publicity for the city—because some of those funds were and are being used for the now-coming-to-fruition downtown redevelopment project that was embroiled in the shady dealings that led to the arrest of developer John Wessman and former Mayor Steve Pougnet on bribery charges.

With an entirely new City Council taking office over the last two years, it’s worth taking a look at those Measure J funds, as well as the whole city budget—a budget that is, according to many observers, not so transparent and very hard to understand.

Palm Springs, with 47,000 residents (and a lot of visiting tourists), has a general-fund budget of $110,130,162 for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, the city’s various special funds actually total more than the general fund—bringing the total fiscal-year budget to $229,966,656, an amount confirmed by City Attorney Edward Kotkin, although he added that the amount has yet to be audited.

Figuring out what’s going on with all of these special funds is nigh impossible. I spent several weeks trying to get information from the city’s director of finance and treasurer, Geoffrey Kiehl. After not getting a response, I reached out to Councilman J.R. Roberts.

Roberts said there are 64 separate special revenue funds. “I had to look that up,” he said.

Why are there so many funds—totaling an amount more than the general fund?

“Unlike most cities in the valley, Palm Springs has an airport, a sewer treatment plant, a convention center, etc.,” Roberts said.

Of course, having so many separate funds raises questions about transparency and fiscal responsibility. Roberts responded that city’s website OpenGov website is easy to navigate. He also pointed out that Measure J funds are under the strict supervision of its oversight committee.

“Once the Measure J oversight committee has made its recommendations, the money is moved to the various projects that were decided upon,” he said.

However … if everything concerning the city’s use of Measure J funds is clearly posted on the city website, how did the fund end up getting FBI attention, including a raid at City Hall? Robert Stone, a self-proclaimed FBI informant and constant city-government critic who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, said one of the problems is that the public is only able to find out how the funds were spent after the fact.

“The Measure J funds are controlled by the city manager and the council, with recommendations from the Measure J Committee,” Stone said. “The reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, and disbursements are pretty much at the discretion of the city manager for smaller disbursements, and council for the larger disbursements.

“We only find out how the funds have been administered at the end of the fiscal year,” Stone said. “We never know in advance where the Measure J money is going. We only find out as the transfers are made.”

As for the new Measure D funds: In their pitch to voters, city officials claimed the funds would help the city maintain essential city services, such as public safety. However, it’s unclear what the city will do to handle its huge long-term pension obligations.

“Measure D does nothing to address the ongoing $220 million unfunded pension and health care liability of the city,” Stone said, claiming that the burden from pension and health-care liabilities will bring the city to its knees if it does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

One common complaint about the city budget: generous salaries. In recent years, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready has been the Coachella Valley’s highest-paid public official, with salary and benefits totaling more than $420,000. However, the problem extends well beyond Ready: According to TransparentCalifornia.com, 68 city of Palm Springs employees earned more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in 2016—and when these employees retire, they’ll be in line for huge pensions. Councilman Roberts confirmed that former Palm Springs Police Chief Al Franz, who retired in December 2015, is receiving a pension of $189,083 per year.

In other words … when it comes to transparency and getting the city budget under control, the all-new Palm Springs City Council has a lot of work to do.

Published in Local Issues

On Nov. 7, voters who live in the city of Palm Springs will go to the polls to select two new members of the Palm Springs City Council.

This election will mark a complete changing of the guard, so to speak, after the indictment of former Mayor Steve Pougnet and a couple of developers on corruption charges two years ago. The two new members will replace retiring City Council members Ginny Foat and Chris Mills, and joining three new members who were elected two years ago: Geoff Kors, J.R. Roberts and Mayor Rob Moon.

With City Manager David Ready, this new council will help guide a city that is enjoying the best of times … and, at the same time, suffering through the worst of times.

The city is more popular than ever as a tourism destination—yet it is enduring the aforementioned scandal involving its huge, signature downtown development project. Some areas, such as the Uptown Design District, are enjoying a resurgence—yet the homelessness problem continues to worsen.

The Independent’s Brian Blueskye recently spoke to each of the candidates about these various issues and more. He asked them about the issue of homelessness; the new vacation-rental ordinance; the lack of affordable housing in the city; ethics and transparency;the downtown redevelopment project; and the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Finally, he asked each candidate whether the city is opposed to fun—a charge against the current council leveled by some, including the Cactus Hugs website.

Here’s what each of the candidates had to say.

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Christy Holstege

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Glenn Flood 

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Henry Hampton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Judy Deertrack

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Lisa Middleton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Robert Julian Stone

Published in Politics

Of the six candidates running for the Palm Springs City Council this year, Robert Julian Stone is certainly the most blunt.

The author, film critic and community advocate certainly was not shy about sharing his views during a recent interview—including a conspiracy theory regarding the current City Council and two of his opponents.

But before we get to that … on the subject of homelessness, Stone was rather thoughtful and analytical. He told me the recent film The Florida Project was helpful in exposing the national problem of homelessness.

“The solution everyone talks about is the ‘housing first’ solution,’ Stone said. “It’s the best solution for a certain number of people who find themselves without homes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are three things human beings need to be productive in society: They need food; they need shelter; and they need clothing. If you take any one of those things away from them, they cannot be a productive member of society. That’s the challenge that we’re facing: We must provide shelter, but how you go about doing that is a very expensive proposition, because (homelessness) numbers continue to grow. The ‘housing first’ solution works best for people who are living one paycheck to another. When you fall out of your housing, and you’ve lost your job, or you have a ruined credit rating because you’ve been evicted, or you’re unemployed—what it takes to get back in is the first month’s rent, a security deposit and employment. If that’s not immediately available to you, you’re out on the streets. The ‘housing first’ model works really well. because (these people) aren’t used to living on the streets, don’t want to live on the streets, and want to get back into a stable situation.

“If you’re talking about the people who don’t want four walls and a roof over their heads, or have addiction and mental health issues—those people are more difficult to handle.”

Stone said the vacation-rental situation in Palm Springs has been poorly handled.

“Airbnb is not going to go away, and it’s here to stay. The thing that we need to do is figure out the best way to manage it,” he said. “I don’t think creating a $1.7 million-a-year bureaucracy to handle the problem was necessarily the right way to go. When Palm Springs did their big vacation rental ordinance, they did not run it through the Planning Commission; they didn’t hold public hearings over a period of time. It was mostly Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts in a back room coming up with this proposal, which went through a tumultuous unfolding when they got slapped with petitions to recall them and recall this ordinance if they didn’t change it. It was badly handled, and the biggest thing they missed was they didn’t do any density controls, and there’s nothing that prevents 98 percent of the homes next to your home from becoming short-term vacation rentals—and that’s a problem.”

Stone didn’t mince words on transparency—especially involving the funding for Measure J, a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment.

“They’re certainly transparent on the general-fund portion, but there are dozens of other side funds that don’t appear anywhere in the public forum for the city’s residents to understand or (figure out) exactly what’s going on with that money,” he said. “The city budget is $110 million; the other dozens of other funds make up an aggregate of another $110 to $120 million—things like the airport fund, the Measure J fund, the utility tax fund, the gas tax fund—and they’re run like a sideshow. They’re controlled by the city manager, who dips into those funds to transfer into the general fund as he sees fit, or to transfer from the general fund into those funds when they have shortfalls. Some have income; some of them, like the golf course fund, have income and expenses. We never really get a true picture of what our budget is, because half of it is run behind a curtain, and that’s a problem.”

Regarding the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Stone said the city needs to work with the tribe in a more cooperative fashion.

“That’s a very difficult question, because the city has taken a position that changes from day to day depending on the subject on the table,” Stone said. “Sometimes, they say, ‘They’re a sovereign nation; we have nothing to do with them.’ I’ve heard Ginny Foat articulate that many times, saying they don’t get involved in their business. At the same time, we have a master plan … a bilateral agreement that both sides signed and should be adhering to. But when it comes down to enforcing it, the city never tries to. We need to invite them to the table. … If you look at the history of Palm Springs and the tribe, it’s very checkered. We need to have a better agreement with the tribe; we need to have one that is neutrally supportive. With the way the downtown (redevelopment) project was handled, and the 31 counts of corruption which relate directly to the downtown plan, we can’t really take the moral high ground when it comes to the tribe’s property, given the way the city handled their own downtown development.” 

Stone is not happy with the downtown redevelopment project.

“I think the hotel is a scar on the landscape. It will always be that,” he said. “If you look at the very first building near Tahquitz (Canyon Way) and Palm Canyon (Drive), that building which will house the Starbucks, that’s exactly the scale we were promised: It’s single story; it’s a tall building, and it’s a nice addition to the neighborhood. Then you look at these other buildings, and they’re horrible. It’s better than what we had, because what we had was terrible, but it’s so much less than what we deserved.”

What does the city need to do to be more transparent? Well, here’s where that conspiracy theory part comes in.

“The first thing that we can do is elect me,” Stone said with a laugh. “I also want to talk about where we’re headed if the Lisa (Middleton) and Christy (Holstege) train pulls into the station: We are going to be doing old-school Chicago politics with Councilmember Geoff Kors in the role of Mayor Richard Daley. We’re going have two people seated solely because of the support and the campaign management and campaign contributions that came from a sitting councilmember. Lisa’s campaign is being run by Geoff Kors’ husband. … They are the chosen two—so Geoff Kors will have the two votes he needs if they are seated, and then all bets are off, because it’ll be government by Geoff Kors, for Geoff Kors and about Geoff Kors. If you think that those two women are going to do anything to oppose what he wants, you’re too naive to be talking to—because that’s what we’re going to get, and that’s very troubling, because that’s not good for democracy.”

When I asked Stone whether he thinks the city is opposed to fun—a criticism some have made against the current City Council—his answer, much to my surprise, involved the ethnic makeup of the city.

“They are so not fun,” Stone said with a laugh. “Hell to the no on that! I’m sorry, but we have too many white people living in this town. I lived in San Francisco, and I’m used to living in a very diverse city where Caucasians were the minority. I was born and raised in Detroit, which was largely an African-American city. That’s the kind of demographic I’m used to. I’ve lived here full time for the past 12 years, so if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors: I know where the bodies are buried, and I can hit the decks running when I sit in that chair. I understand the demographic that lives here, because I’m a part of it, but I always wish there was more diversity in the community and diversity on our City Council. I’m sorry—I’m a white male, and I can’t help it.”

After our interview, he emailed me additional thoughts that were a bit more measured.

“Las Vegas has glitz, but Palm Springs has chill,” Stone said. “And chill is cool, sophisticated, and somewhat fragile. We can’t let (the city) be dragged into the vortex of beer bongs and guzzler helmets. So if the City Council may seem a bit stodgy on some points, I think it’s because they have an intuitive understanding of what makes our city special, and a commitment to maintaining it.”

Published in Politics