CITY COUNCIL RECAP: AUGUST 22
Two hours of discussion and debate on the future of the TBID; one hour for all other business
In a marathon three-hour meeting conducted in front of a full house, the Twentynine Palms City Council voted to approve all agenda items, with a few caveats and despite considerable debate on the most volatile topic: the Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) and the $560,000 TBID is holding in reserves. We will cover highlights but recommend residents watch the meeting in full.
In short order:
Elder Robert Kelley put the Lord first “always and in all things” in the invocation.
Alex Thimbaugh and Shane Crowell, two sheriff’s detectives dedicated to Twentynine Palms, were introduced.
Councilmember Joel Klink discussed improvements to Highway 395 and potential bypasses for Highways 62 and 247 should they experience temporary closures.
Mayor McArthur Wright thanked staff for hard work during Hurricane Hilary.
The Mayor also mentioned touring a “rehabilitation” facility to be run by Set Free Church, called The Ranch.1 Not mentioned by the Mayor but apparent with little research is that “The Ranch” facilities run by Set Free are centered around Bible study, not clinical assistance.2
The Consent Calendar was approved 5-0 after a TBID-related payment to Civitas on the warrant register was pulled for comment at the request of hotelier Veno Nathraj.
All public hearing items were adopted 5-0 including updates to the Fire Code and Development Code.
Council members Joel Klink and Daniel Mintz were named as delegates to the League of California Cities conference.
After some discussion about the details, Council voted 5-0 to fund a portable shower facility managed by Shadow Mountain Community Church.3
#17. Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) — 47:36 on meeting video
The future of the TBID has been one of the most controversial issues in the City for some time, with the last meeting prompting the Desert Trail headline, TBID BUDGET TALKS UNLEASH WRATH and a stream of public comments at the August 8 City Council meeting. The considerable bluster in the room was on August 22 was slightly deflated when City Manager Frank Luckino initiated the discussion by suggesting a strategic planning session on the TBID:
We as a community, the folks are the audience, the folks who are born here, all care about Twentynine Palms and the question is is how do we go forward? So what I have been doing as your Manager is looking at trying to bring in an outside third-party consultant, somebody that is an expert in the field, to to lead a strategic planning session of all Council members, TBID board members, probably those folks in the audience, to talk about this and work towards, a plan going forward to hopefully coalesce all of our energies that are out there for the betterment of the community.
Procedurally, the vote before Council was a one-year reauthorization to collect the 1.5% Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) surcharge that funds the TBID. If reauthorized, the hotel, motel and STR owners who pay the surcharge have the option of a protest vote. In a protest vote the opposing side needs 50% + 1 vote to succeed, which would in effect nullify the TBID and eliminate the surcharge, which, theoretically, is funding marketing and events. However, ultimately the TBID is authorized via an ordinance controlled by Council votes, and if the TOT surcharge is eliminated, Council would need to find other avenues for funding marketing and events.
TBID Director of Marketing Brianne Dusastre presented the 2022-2023 TBID Annual Report and 2023-2024 Marketing Plan and Budget. Dusastre pointed to numerous stats indicating increases in website use kicking off with unique visits, “We are pleased to see continued growth in total number of unique site users. So that's up 12% year to date versus year and last year page views are up 14% and most notably, the outbound lodging link clicks are up 20% as compared to last year.”
Does TBID Really Get “Heads in Beds”?
However, the relationship of the TBID website to increased tourism figures remains anecdotal—as City Manager Luckino noted in a brief email interview last week, “No, there has not been any independent analysis on the effect of the marketing. The TBID Board primarily looked at the rise in the market from hotels and STRs as to the results, i.e., increase in TOT.” Additionally, the TOT figures also lack research as to the percentage of TOT attributable to tourism versus business travel, especially contractors working at the Marine Base—a point raised by Council member Octavious Scott later in the meeting.
Mayor Wright kicked off public comment by reading a letter from Ann Congdon crediting TBID marketing for increasing astronomy tourism at the Sky’s the Limit observatory during the Perseid meteor shower. Later in public comment, it was pointed out that it was difficult to distinguish TBID marketing efforts from the attention given the meteor shower in the national press.
Also somewhat muddy was the proposed budget distributed with the agenda, which lacked budget notes for year-to-year changes and featured a controversial $560,669 reserve balance as of August 2023. Budget errors prompted Luckino to distribute a highlighted amended budget to the public prior to the meeting.
All of this resulted in considerable public comment and Council discussion on this agenda item.
Public Comment Coalesces Against TBID
13 members of the public offered comment. Speaking in favor of the TBID were TBID Board Members Patricia Knight and Rakesh Mehta and STR manager Susan Peplow.
Those supporting immediate dissolution included Veno Nathraj, Charmaine Nathraj, and Jessica Dickler from the Oasis Inn and Suites; Nadia who stated her family “owns our Holiday Inn Express”, which is represented on the TBID Board by Marcia Quinteros; Cheryl Cook and Cameron Lutz from America’s Best Value Inn; STR owner Eileen Leslie, along with “Joshwin,” April Ramirez and Joseph Carder. Lutz also commented that he was employed at Desert Beacon, which he said was closing on September 1. (Note: Desert Beacon CEO Eric Menendez contacted us after the article was published to clarify that Cameron Lutz is not authorized to speak on behalf of Desert Beason and that Desert Beacon is not closing.)
A few speakers navigated different terrain with motel and STR owner Ashton Ramsey advocating for a lower tax and thinking outside the box with City promotion, Cindy Bernard being critical of the TBID but supporting strategic planning and a three to six month reauthorization to keep the 1.5% tax in place and STR owner Mary Jane Binge advocating for deferring a Council vote until after strategic planning
Council members Daniel Mintz and Octavious Scott were the most vocal from the dais with Scott advocating for the elimination of the TBID and Mintz seeking middle ground with a shorter reauthorization period and favoring Luckino’s strategic planning suggestion.
Hotels Must Meet ADA Requirements—Do Short-Term Rentals?
Additionally a few hotel owners, including Nadia from Holiday Inn Express and Veno from Oasis Inn and Suites, raised the issue of STRs needing to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. The reason for this line of argument became clear later in the meeting when it seemed that Council member Scott picked up on Nathraj’s comments to argue that STR permits were invalid if they had not met ADA requirements and therefore would be disqualified from a protest vote. As was pointed out by Mayor Wright, the STR permits are currently valid so they would be able to participate in the protest vote likely taking place soon (in fact probably before the current authorization expires on September 30th).
Our research indicates that the argument about ADA compliance by STRs falls into a gray area because single-family residences are exempt from ADA requirements, yet operate as public accommodations, which are subject to ADA compliance. It appears that an exemption from ADA compliance exists for hotel and motel-like services, which are owner occupied and have fewer than five rooms. However, the meaning of “rooms” is unclear. The topic was added as a future agenda item by Scott and Luckino offer that legal would look into it. We requested examples of jurisdictions applying the ADA to STRs but none were supplied by Scott or Nathraj.
Two Hours Later—TBID Reauthorization
Ultimately Council member Mintz suggested dealing with the budget concerns by eliminating the funding for an additional full-time person, and upping the amount allocated to event funding from $120,000 (which had already been increased due to pressure from Mintz and Scott). Council member Joel Klink suggested an increase to $200,000. The final vote of 4-1 reauthorized the TBID for one year with an amended budget, with Scott as the dissenting vote.
With that, the vote goes back to the stakeholders but either way, it seems an extended discussion about the effectiveness of the TBID and how to resolve the City’s marketing and event needs will take place in a strategic planning meeting in the near future.
Public Comment on Non-agenda Items
A report was made by Astrid Johnson and Jane Defalco on homeless services during the recent storm—we’ve reported that information in our preview of the Homeless Committee agenda.
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Excerpt from description of Set Free Ranch run by Set Free San Bernardino: A minimum of 60 days at the ranch is required for completion of phase 1 of our discipleship program and those who are at the ranch are asked to participate in the desire to serve God, grounding themselves in the Word of God and drawing closer to a personal relationship with Jesus.