CITY COUNCIL RECAP: SEPTEMBER 12
The end of TBID (maybe), a new Navigation Center for ARCH
Note: Is everyone suffering from TBID exhaustion yet? Cuz there’s more...in breaking news as we were finishing this recap, a special meeting of the Council was called by the Mayor to reconsider the TBID vote. That meeting is on Monday, September 18, at 6pm.
We are reporting this recap from a partial recording of the meeting posted to YouTube by the City on September 13. Desert Trumpet staff were unable to attend the meeting and a livestream wasn’t available due to technical difficulties per the City staff. The uploaded video does not include the Call to Order, the invocation, any closed session announcements or the introduction of the new SCE Government Relations Manager. The entire agenda with a link to the video can be found on the city’s website.
CONSENT CALENDAR AND PUBLIC HEARING ITEM 9
Consent Calendar Items 4 - 7 were approved with a vote of 5-0 with no public comments and no council discussion. Item 8, The Acceptance of the Work for the Community Development Tenant, was pulled, with Councilman Daniel Mintz noting that it came in under budget at $162,672.60. All items were approved 5-0. See our preview for details. Public Hearing Item 9, the Transportation Impact Fee Study, was also accepted 5-0.
Item 10 - Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID)
The purpose of the hearing was twofold—to discuss and potentially ratify the 1.5% assessment that funds the TBID and to tally the results of a potential protest vote by hotel/motel and STR owners against ratification. There were considerable pro and con comments at the August 22 meeting, but public comment at this hearing was entirely against reauthorization.1 However, as we reported in our breaking news article, the protest tally was less than 50%, the threshold needed for a vote by owners to cancel the TBID.
While less lively than the August 22 discussion, considerable gamesmanship was displayed on both sides of the TBID issue leading up to the hearing and during the hearing itself.
On the City’s end, the letter sent to owners of hotels and short-term rentals (STRs) notifying them of the hearing failed to outline that a protest process existed. Instead, a copy of the reauthorization resolution was attached to the letter. The recipients would have needed to read the details of the three-page resolution to understand their protest rights. At the very least, shouldn’t the City letter have pointed to items 10 and 11 in the resolution—making it easy for the accommodation owners to understand their right to protest and the proper procedure to do so? The lack of City transparency on the protest process might account for the lack of written responses to the City’s letter.
Additionally, City Manager Frank Luckino’s protest vote tally of 18.82% out of 100% of the owners lacked the transparency needed for public trust in the calculation. According to Luckino, the vote was weighted based on the amount of Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT)2 received with percentages of TOT paid determining percentage of vote. However, the protest procedure does not specify or mention a weighted vote process. Also, because the City considers TOT per entity proprietary information, there is no way of checking Luckino’s 18.82% tabulation.
Desert Trumpet submitted a Public Information Request (PIR) for the amount of TOT paid by hotels and STRs and in the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year and that table is below. It appears that even in an unweighted vote, it would be difficult for the hotels to be the sole source of a 50% + 1 protest vote based on revenue, especially if only five to six of 11 hotels and just a few of the STRs participate (there are 11 hotels/motels, 1 RV resort and 482 STRs).
On the other side of the issue, the hotel / motel owners advocating for the immediate dissolution of the TBID referred to "paying the tax.” To be clear, the TOT tax of 9% and the TBID tax of 1.5% is levied on paying guests as a line item on their bill and transmitted to the City by the owners. The tax is not borne by the owners themselves, but by the guests. Additionally, several hotel owners and their supporters alledged that the lack of STR compliance with ADA requirements invalidates current permits, therefore STR votes should not count or be considered in the protest process. To date, the owners have been unable to cite examples of ADA enforcement on STRs by any government entity. And it’s unclear how many STRs would be subject to ADA rules if applied since there is an exemption for owner-occupied properties and for public accommodations with fewer than five “rooms.” Rooms is undefined, and the law predates the explosion in STR rentals.
As we reported in our breaking news summary, when it came to the Council vote, as expected, Council members Joel Klink and Daniel Mintz voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the 1.5% addition to the TOT taxes that fund the TBID and the City’s marketing budget. Up to this point, Mayor Pro Tem Steven Bilderain and Mayor McArthur Wright had largely withheld public comment on the issue. Council member Octavious Scott had reiterated his concern that businesses not wanting to pay the tax (that is, levy the extra 1.5% tax on their guests) should be exempted. When the roll call took place for approving the 1.5% assessment resolution, however, Scott, Bilderain and Wright joined to kill it. The TBID and the 1.5% assessment ends with the close of the fiscal year on September 30 pending further action from Council.
It appeared that Wright’s flip from his prior vote was inspired by the emotion in the room:
That’s enough. And the reason I voted that way is even though it’s 18%, you guys are making the most noise, so clearly you don’t want it. So we need to go in a different direction.
As noted at the top of this article, the Mayor has since called a special meeting for Monday, September 18 at 6pm. The topic: Reconsideration of Resolution Approving Annual Assessment for Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).
Item 11 - Conflict of Interest Code Update
The State requires that the Conflict of Interest code be updated every two years, yet the City had not updated the code since 2010, putting it out of compliance with Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) regulations for 12 years. The update was approved 5-0. See our agenda preview for details on how the need to update was discovered.
Item 12 - Morongo Basin ARCH Navigation Center Sponsorship
This project was presented to the Housing and Homeless Committee last month and unanimously voted forward to City Council. The Navigation Center would be located at 6594 Adobe Rd. and would use a structure that’s currently vacant. ARCH is requesting one year of monthly expenses: $32,010 plus 10% for indirect costs consisting of monthly costs of $960 in rent and $1200 for utilities in addition to a $2,880 rental deposit.
Per ARCH’, primary objectives include:
•Addressing the immediate needs of Twentynine Palms’ underserved, underrepresented homeless population
•Strengthening homeless prevention methods
•Advocating for the development of affordable housing units
The Center will also provide extreme weather programs and food programs working toward a Whole Person Care Approach.
ARCH Director Astrid Johnson thanked Council for their support:
I've told you this many times. I am so proud of the City. I'm proud of the amount of times that you have connected with us and supported us through the crises when we had the snowstorm ,when we just went through the storm with Hilary, you have been there for us
In comment on the item, Deana Perez spoke about the need for long-term goals, explaining “it's not just the homelessness. It's the mental illness and the addiction behind it.” Council member Octavious Scott spoke of ARCH potentially partnering with organizations “down the hill” to provide mental health services. However, Mayor Wright reiterated his promotion of Set Free Ranch from the August 22 meeting, changing his description of their services from “rehabilitation facility” to a “discipleship program.” The “discipleship program.” is described 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.
We’ve submitted a Public Information request in an attempt to untangle relationships between City Officials and entities such as Set Free and will report more on this topic in a future article.
Commenters Jen DeFalco, Planning Commissioner Alex Garcia, and Maya Bellamy reiterated the need for a Navigation Center. City sponsorship was approved 5-0.
Item 13 - Self Help Construction Program
This item is following up on a June 27 presentation by the Coachella Valley Housing Commission and would authorize City Manager Luckino to negotiate an agreement with the Coalition to build housing in Twentynine Palms. According to Councilmember Scott, the rate of homeownership in Twentynine Palms is 40% compared to 60% in other cities.
Executive Director Pedro Rodriguez spoke to Council on the program indicating their preference is to work with groups of 10-12 people building homes on contiguous lots.
Council unanimously approved the item.
Alice Lawson, who has appeared at several recent meetings, again reiterated concern for children walking to school along Hillside and El Paseo and the need for traffic control.
Eileen Leslie read a statement concerning an interaction with the Karalee Hargrove, the Chair of the Wastewater Committee, during the September 6 meeting.
Joseph Carder reiterated Leslie’s concerns, and questioned why the future agenda regarding moving the wastewater plant initiated by Council member Scott has not been moved forward onto the agenda for discussion.
FUTURE COUNCIL-INITIATED ITEMS
Councilmember Scott asked that three items be added to the future agenda items list, none of which received a second and so died on the dais: that the Wastewater Committee be disbanded, then that the Chair of the Wastewater Committee be replaced and finally to stop the sewer treatment project all together.
Despite the three items failing, Mayor Pro Tem Bilderain pointed out that the Wastewater meeting incident mentioned by Leslie and Carder needed to be addressed, and Mayor Wright agreed. It was decided that the Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, and Frank Luckino would sit down with the individuals involved.
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Procedurally, the vote before Council is 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 collect the surcharge from their guests) 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.