CITY COUNCIL RECAP: MAY 23
Event Sponsorship & PRIDE 29, Downtown Sewer Fees, and a Utility-Scale Solar Project
A meeting exceeding two hours in length featured lively discussion from Council and numerous public comments. Unfortunately, video of the meeting cut out just prior to the budget discussion but as always, we encourage the public to (in this case) listen for themselves.
AWARDS, PRESENTATIONS, APPOINTMENTS AND PROCLAMATIONS
These were, 1) Proclamation Recognizing May 2023 as California Tourism Month, and 2) Presentation to the Twentynine Palms High School Interact Club and Boy Scout Troop 229 for participation in the Cash for Trash and Recycling Program.
#3-8. The Council voted 5-0 to approve all consent calendar items. These included #5, purchase of a steel drum roller for $53,450.40, and #6 and #7, accept the SR 62 Raised Median Project and Accept the Twentynine Palms Channel Trail Project.
#9. Presentation of the Proposed Two-Year General Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24 & 2024-25.
Finance Director Abigail Hernandez presented an overview of the Proposed Two-Year General Fund Budget for the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 fiscal years.
Highlights included COLA (City wage cost of living adjustment) of 4.6% in FY (fiscal year) 2023-24 and 2.5% in FY 2024-25 and projection of the City's Project Phoenix Community Center, now fully operational, to have operating costs of $164K and $179K for FY 2023-24 & 2024-25, respectively.
Anna Stump, Public Arts Advisory Committee (PAAC) Chair, commented, advocating that the City allocate $15,000 for moving the “29!” sculpture from its current site along Highway 62 to Freedom Plaza, also noting that the piece requires refurbishment due to weathering. Mary Jane Binge then spoke opposing such a move. Both speakers as well as Council appeared to agree on the desire for an “Instagram moment” in the City but differ on what it should consist of and where it should be located. City Manager Frank Luckino noted that the $15,000 is a part of the Special Funds budget to be discussed at the next meeting.
City event funding dominated the Council’s budget discussion. Considerable confusion was evident with specific spending in the current year being mixed up with general amounts in the upcoming budget. This was compounded with Finance Director Hernandez not making a clear distinction between cash funding and in-kind support on the list of City supported events for the current year. “In-kind” funding consists of donated goods and services, rather than an actual cash amount. For instance, PRIDE 29 was supported with in-kind donations such as the City waiving the permit fee whereas the Holiday event requires a cash payout of $10,700 to purchase the tree.
The result was Council members making recommendations not understanding which events were receiving cash support and which received in-kind support. Additionally Council seemed unaware that it’s not uncommon for events to be sponsored by various combinations of the City itself, by the TBID and also occasionally by the PAAC.
Council member Octavious Scott kicked off Council discussion by suggesting the City prioritize Federal and State holidays in event funding, terminating sponsorship of the PRIDE 29 festival and instead budgeting funds to sponsor Juneteenth: “I recommend that we amend the budget to remove the PRIDE 29 sponsorship. Especially if the TBID [Tourism Business Improvement District ] is also sponsoring them too, I don't think it's appropriate. I think that the City should be prioritizing federal and state holidays. I want to recommend that the City sponsor Juneteenth as a federal holiday, $2500 a year.”
The Pride celebration this year in April, which was free to attend, included events in and around Freedom Plaza as well as elsewhere in the City. Hernandez added that the City’s contribution to PRIDE 29 “was that we pay for the permit and equipment they needed, but it wasn't actual cash” given to the event. Council member Mintz suggested that in-kind support be clarified with an asterisk in future funding breakdowns.
Councilman Joel Klink stated that he would like the City to continue sponsorship of PRIDE 29 as-is, with in-kind funding, along with Juneteenth and Memorial Day.
City Manager Frank Luckino summed up the discussion, “So from a perspective of kind of managing staff, just to make sure you're okay with keeping the quantity of events the same — no more no less. I heard Memorial Day. I heard maybe elimination of Pride in the future as far as City funding….Federal events is a priority…So if we add Memorial Day, if we add Juneteenth, we subtract two by way of example, Pride being one of them.”
Scott added, “Well we’re not going to be putting on those events…this is something that we're going to sponsor for community members and leaders to take on…I think we don't have to drop anything, actually, when it comes to that because we're just giving them money. Right?” Luckino replied, “Correct.”
Included in the budget is $50,000 for events, some portion of which will be made available to interested organizations and community members to produce public events via City grants.
The Council approved the General Fund budget with a 5-0 vote.
DISCUSSION AND POTENTIAL ACTION ITEMS
#10. Intention to Levy Monthly Sewer Fees on Property Owners and Businesses in the Project Phoenix area
As mentioned in our latest City Council Agenda recap, the City intends to levy sewer fees on 19 parcels in the Project Phoenix area. The sewer tax increase was justified by way of a Protest Process, which required 33% of property owners to submit “protest votes” to the City to prevent this tax from being levied by the City. Many of the Project Phoenix businesses impacted by this tax increase lease the properties from owners rather than owning outright, meaning they did not have the opportunity to protest the tax levy as the protest forms could only be submitted by property owners. Out of 19 affected parcels, only one property owner protested the tax increase.
Eileen Leslie, who intends to operate two businesses in the affected area, called the sewer tax a burden on small businesses, while Carol Edwards of Mara noted that the tax increase is the difference between hiring a server or not.
Council member Scott made a motion to table the issue, and Klink suggested raising the tax 2.6% annually instead of 4.6%. Council member Klink stated he does not like the 4.6% annual increase and the burden it places on small businesses.
City Manager Frank Luckino noted that even with the proposed yearly increase, the City is already providing a substantial subsidy versus the cost of the package treatment plant project and that any reduction in the increase would mean a few more dollars out of the City coffer. He added that the updated tax must appear on the upcoming tax roll, so the Council must make a decision by August.
The Council voted 4-1 to table the discussion with Council member Daniel Mintz voting against.
#11. Potential Commercial Solar Field
Peter Bobro and Robert M. Smith from solar development firm E-Group PS LLC presented a proposal for a 50MW, 175-acre utility-scale solar farm covering the northern portion of two parcels totaling 467 acres, just east of the Harmony Acres neighborhood.
Per Community Development Director Keith Gardner, “Currently, our General Plan and our Zoning Development Code do not allow commercial solar fields. But with recent changes in state law, the state reserves the right to take jurisdiction over these types of applications. So staff has taken the position that if they want to come to the City, we'd like to negotiate some community benefits — as opposed to them going directly to the state and essentially leaving the City out of the process.” While AB 205 also contains provisions for local review and community benefit for projects to move forward, Gardner is playing the hand he’s been dealt.
The project is proposed by E Group PS LLC, an out-of-state Delaware-based limited liability corporation with two Temecula-based principals—Tomas Oresansky and Martin Melicharek, along with agent Peter Bobro. They currently lease the Single Family Residential RL5 zoned parcels from Las Vegas-based Proactive Properties LLC. A principal of Proactive Properties is “Barrett & Mulopulos.”
In his presentation, E-Group spokesperson Robert Smith pointed out, “The proposed area is over 1400 feet away from the nearest residences.” He also stated that the property was chosen for the solar farm because it is flat and at a lower elevation than surrounding properties and is adjacent to an electrical substation, lowering costs. The developers stated that they hope the project will generate 200 to 300 construction jobs. “It's our intention that almost all of those be filled by local community members and employees to the extent possible,” stated Smith.
E-Group plans to submit an application to the City for this project in the next month, and hopes that the City will be receptive. Per Smith, “What we're looking to do is partner with the City. Hopefully, we'd like [the City] to at least consider the idea of lifting the [existing utility-scale solar] moratorium."
But if the City takes an uncooperative stance, E-Group says they will take the route of State approval instead of City approval. Smith said, “To be clear, that's not what we want to do….We don't want to go around the behind your back and go off to the state legislature. That's not our intent here. Our intent is to find a project that we can partner with the City and partner with the community, that you can be proud of, and that we get approved here as opposed to Sacramento.” Smith argued that this was just the beginning of the process and claimed E-Group welcomed community input.
E-Group’s solar proposal was met with questions and consternation by Council members and commenters.
Opening public comment, Mayor McArthur Wright read a letter from Russ and Gina Kohn urging Council “to please help your own constituents to not let this huge solar farm be built in our City. And please uphold our City code.” Veno Nathraj questioned whether the number of jobs created were sufficient benefit to the community.
Pat Flanagan, a Director at Morongo Basin Conservation Association, commended the project for the type of panels employed but pointed out its location “on a sand transport path” and expressed concerns about the erosion and drifting sand that might result, saying “We don’t want to be Phoenix.”
Joseph Carder asked “How much power will we get to keep?” Smith responded that the power goes to SCE, which then controls it, but “Another option is that we can negotiate a deal that actually provides the power directly to the City.” Luckino chimed in, mentioning a program known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) which allows cities to purchase or generate electricity for their residents and businesses.
Luckino added he anticipates the solar farm proposal to return to the Council in six to twelve months.
Mary Jane Binge objected to the project on aesthetic grounds and its proximity to the Harmony Acres neighborhood, Terence Latimer questioned whether any competing bids or developers existed, and Susan Peplow encouraged the Council to negotiate the strongest possible benefit package for the City.
Coming out swinging to kick off Council discussion, Scott led with, “I'll just be completely honest, and I'm going to be speaking for the residents of Twentynine Palms. The idea of forcing your way into our home, I find offensive. If you want to go to the state — I'm not a friend of Sacramento,” later adding, “It sounds like a shakedown to me.”
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Bilderain noted, “I live on Two Mile Road in Harmony Acres. So the first thing I'm gonna see if I look past a mile is the solar farm. So just for y'all to know, there's a Council member sitting on this who is actually affected by this, if it happens.” But he went on to express apprehension about litigation, some willingness to work with the developer, and to “fight for what's best for the City.”
Klink noted he too lived close to the proposed development: “My question is, they’re the first one that's going to come to Twentynine Palms, and they're going to be the first ones that are going to be okayed by the state. If we say ‘No,’ what happens down the road when there's another one, and then another one, and all of a sudden we have these huge solar farms? Not just one, but five or six?” Klink voiced concern about loss of City discretionary approval authority and agreed with Bilderain that the City ought to aggressively negotiate to get the best possible benefits.
Mintz closed out Council discussion of this item by complaining about the increasing number of mandates coming from the state: “Trust me, I don't like it. That's why I [chose to] live in Twentynine Palms, because we weren't regulated so much by the state. But pretty much they're just trying to dictate whatever we're doing.” He compared this new renewable energy mandate to the new state housing mandates, saying “You can build a four-plex on a large lot in a single family home residential area, and there's nothing we can do about it. There's a lot more things that are coming down [from the state] that we just haven't been affected by yet, because we're kind of far out there.”
#12. Vacation Home Rental Ordinance
In recent months, City Council has gone back and forth with the Planning Commission regarding various segments of the Vacation Home Rental ordinance. One such aspect is that of the $1M insurance liability requirement for VHR owners.
Most homeowners insurance policies do not provide coverage for short-term rental use without an endorsement or separate policy. Short-term rental coverage protects the VHR owner’s home and personal property, plus protects against liability risk arising from temporary paying guests.
Klink recused himself from this discussion due to his owning an insurance business, a potential conflict of interest.
Luckino advised that “All permits that are issued by the City, we are indemnified… So requiring insurance, a little or a lot, doesn't change our risk level for the City.”
Mintz said after inquiring with San Bernardino County and the Town of Yucca Valley, he discovered that neither municipalities require liability insurance for Vacation Home Rentals and proposed a motion that the City of Twentynine Palms remove the requirement for liability insurance. The motion passed 4-0.
FUTURE COUNCIL INITIATED ITEMS
Scott proposed “formation of a youth council to aid in the development of our youth in the community.” Klink recalled that there used to be one, but it faltered due to lack of interest. Bilderain noted he’d discussed this with local school leaders and recently, as the Covid era has receded, he has heard ample interest in such a program.
Alice Sansa (?) voiced concerns about traffic safety near Oasis Elementary School; Karen Harper advocated for a City budget line item for Juneteeth; Carol Edwards argued for a duplicate “29!” sign in Freedom Plaza; Terence Latimer suggested the City collect data on City event enjoyment and attendance; Joseph Carder spoke against the City’s proposed sewer project; Mary Jane Binge spoke in favor of maintaining the “29!” sign’s current location but repairing it, and complained that Freedom Plaza was drastically underutilized; and Ronnie Tiger (?) voiced concern about traffic safety and noise on Highway 62 near Tamarisk Avenue.
CITY MANAGER UPDATE
Luckino noted several things: A 20% year-over-year uptick in foot traffic downtown and specifically in the Project Phoenix area, saying this marked good progress; that City staff is looking at Big Bear’s event application process as a model that 29 could emulate; City staff is examining improvements to stoplight synchronization and signage, which could yield improved traffic safety; and that the Wastewater Advisory Committee would be meeting on Tue, June 1, at 5:30 p.m.
Disclosure: Desert Trumpet co-founder and editor Cindy Bernard is currently a member of the Public Arts Advisory Committee, which is a part of the City of Twentynine Palms.
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