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ON THE AGENDA: CITY COUNCIL AUGUST 23 MEETING
Homelessness, Housing, Social Media, Geological Survey, Tourism, City Manager Pay, and VHRs round out a 17 item agenda
The City again waited until the last legal minute, releasing this 17 item / 207 page agenda packet late on Thursday, August 18. The August 23 meeting is the last meeting of the Summer. Our Council will be back to work full time and meeting twice a month on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday beginning September 13.
There are multiple opportunities for public comment at every Council meeting. Since our Council rarely makes themselves available to residents outside of Council meetings, please use the opportunity of Council meetings to question your Council members on the issues affecting our City.
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Public comment for all items is limited to 3 minutes per agenda item but the public is entitled to speak on multiple items. The public can also email Council and the City Manager and cc the City Clerk requesting that comments be read at the meeting.
Items 2 - 11 on this week’s agenda are on the consent calendar, which means they are voted on in one motion. The public is given an opportunity to speak on these items before the consent calendar is accepted.
There is public comment on items 12-17 prior to the opening of Council discussion on each item. The public may comment on any issue during general public comment at the end of the meeting.
As usual, we’ll be pointing to agenda highlights but we encourage 29 Palms residents to read the full agenda.
#1. H.O.P.E. TEAM, #14. HOUSING TRANSITION SUPPORT AND #16. AFFORDABLE HOUSING
These agenda items look at homelessness from three different angles: enforcement, support and housing.
#1. H.O.P.E. stands for the The Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement Unit of the Sheriff’s department. Per the County and Sheriff Department’s H.O.P.E. website, the program aims to balance pro-active outreach with enforcement of the law, while connecting members of the homeless population with resources that may help them transition from homelessness. The ultimate goal is to reduce the rate of recidivism and reduce the current costs associated to homeless related crime. We’re assuming the presentation at Council is intended to discuss the program as it relates to Twentynine Palms…it wasn’t included in the agenda packet.
#2. As pointed out in Agenda #14, the City earmarked $100,000 in the 2022/2023 budget “to help support the lack of housing opportunities within the CIty of Twentynine Palms.” Per the staff report, the funds are available as a result of “the additional resources from Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) from the growing VHR TOTs.”
Morongo Basin ARCH (Aligning Resources Challenging Homelessness) is requesting $10,000 per month for five months from the City to cover expenses as they await the receipt of funds from previously awarded Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) grants. Among the ARCH programs targeted for preventing homelessness are Eviction Prevention by covering late rent and water bills, Rapid Rehousing via covering deposits and first month’s rent on a new rental and Emergency Sheltering, short term emergency stays in a hotel or local home. Additionally ARCH would use some funds to cover operating expenses and client intake.
According to ARCH, they are experiencing a funding short fall due to recent changes in the economy resulting in increased living expenses and increased calls for help. The City is choosing between granting the funds to ARCH outright, offering the funds as a loan pending receipt of grant funds, or denying the proposal.
#3. This is the contract with Milestone Housing Group for the 91 affordable apartment units being built next to City Hall. It’s a step forward, perhaps. But the City has yet to come up with a plan to replace the 500 single family homes removed from the residential housing market for short term vacation rentals. There’s a big difference between 91 apartments with parking crowded onto 3 acres and a free standing home. The City has committed $1M to the project.
#10. SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY
Most residents have probably noticed that the City is posting to social media more frequently and that most of the content has clear and consistent branding thanks to a contract with a PR firm. Apparently the City is playing catch up to its new and improved social media presence by issuing a formal Social Media Policy, including guidelines for public comments on City social media. No real surprises here except that should comments run afoul of the new policy, the final arbiter for removal is the City Manager…doesn’t he have better things to do? There’s no other staff that can be trusted with this authority?
#11. UNITED STATES GEOLOGIC SURVEY (USGS) (by Jonathan Hume)
The Tuesday, August 23 City Council agenda features a proposal that the City sign a joint funding agreement with the USGS (United States Geological Survey) to produce a detailed study of local groundwater resources and the impact of septic tanks in the Twentynine Palms area.
The primary purpose of this study is to determine how much risk local residents face from potential groundwater contamination from local septic systems.
But closely behind this lies the question: When and for what purpose does Twentynine Palms actually NEED a sewer system? Is there any imminent threat to local water quality? Or conversely, is a significant risk to local water quality many years or even many decades away?
If this five-year USGS study concludes that the City faces a significant and imminent water quality threat, then certainly need for a sewer system sooner rather than later would be an easy case to make.
But what if this study concludes otherwise — what then? Given that TPWD wells are mostly distant from residential areas and septic systems, it’s quite possible this USGS study will find that any significant threat to water quality remains many years away.
Then there’s the question: Prior to completion of this study — in other words, prior to concrete knowledge of need for a sewer system — should the City begin construction of a sewer system regardless, within the next year? Or because it looks like, this year, state funding may be available, so direct cost to the City from planning and construction could be relatively low?
Most of the funding for this $1.2M study wouldn’t come from the City itself. The City’s portion would be funded from a $1M grant from the State of California. The balance would come from TPWD (Twentynine Palms Water District), which over the study’s five-year duration would chip in $105K, and USGS itself which would contribute $119K.
The TPWD Board strongly supports doing this USGS study. In addition to solid data about potential septic impact, the USGS study will provide TPWD with a modern, thorough and in-depth analysis of local groundwater resources and aquifers. TPWD’s support for a headlong jump into sewer construction, prior to any solid justification or lack of justification from the USGS study, remains less clear.
As things stand, without a sewer system, significant property development in Twentynine Palms requires a package treatment plant. This increases the cost of building a housing tract or a multifamily development. When the expense of package treatment is factored in, fewer projects pencil out. For this reason there’s little doubt many large parcel owners and developers would prefer to see Twentynine Palms build sewer, regardless of whether or not there’s any pressing need for it from a water quality standpoint.
Coming down hard on the side of building sewer ASAP, there’s little doubt that the City is keenly aware of large landowner and developer sentiment for sewer. But the views of existing local residents? Local residents’ views on sewer may be closer to those of TPWD rather than the City.
#12. TOURISM BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT (TBID)
The TBID is tasked with promoting overnight tourism in the City and is staffed by an advisory board appointed by City Council:
Rakesh Mehta, Best Western Gardens Hotel - Chair
Nalini (Ash) Maharaj, Harmony Hotel - Vice Chair
Heidi Grunt, Historic Inns of Twentynine Palms - Boardmember
Patricia Knight, VHR Management - Boardmember
Maria Quinteros, Holiday Inn Express & Suites - Boardmember
The TBID is funded by a 1.5% Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) which sits on top of a 9% TOT for a total TOT of 10.5% on room rates for overnight stays in hotels, STRs and RV spaces. The estimated budget for 2022 - 2023 is $285,000. In addition to general marketing the TBID is responsible for the VISIT29.org website and the Twentynine Palms Visitor Center. The agenda item is to approve the on-going assessment and 2022-2022 annual report which is included in the agenda packet.
Three questions come to mind:
1. Should the Board represent a larger segment of the tourism industry? No restaurants are represented for instance.
2. Arts, Culture and History is 2nd in a list of “five key destination pillars”. At the July 20 Council meeting it was raised that the City promotes itself as an arts destination, yet spends only $15,000 on arts funding. Since then, the City Manager confirmed that the City has not sought additional arts funding from the numerous grants and foundations offering it. At the July 20 meeting, Councilman Wright asked the City Manager to bring this issue to the TBID. No sign of that here.
3. Related to the lack of arts funding, one of the TBID strategic goals reads Support the growth of local and regional signature events and seek partnership opportunities to bring new events to the city. This growth in “signature” events is mentioned repeatedly in the report, including on page 10: The special projects category of the TBID’s 2022-2023 marketing budget holds funds that will be used towards establishing new events in the city to help drive tourism. Yet review of the budget shows a 66% reduction in the special projects category from $30,000 in 2021-2022 to $10,000 in 2022-2023?
#15. CITY MANAGER CONTRACT AMENDMENT
The Desert Trumpet has been working for some time now on clarifying pay and benefits for upper level staff such as the City Manager and the Finance Director. In fact the two positions were combined when Frank Luckino was hired in 2015 and remained that way until February 2022, when Abigail Hernandez-Conde was promoted from Assistant Finance Director to Finance Director. One might think this would result in a decrease in the City Manager’s salary as duties have changed? But it doesn’t appear that is the case as this item details increases. The change in duties isn’t discussed.
•Base pay: $207,960 per year
•Vacation time: accrued at 160 hours per year
•Personal leave: 80 hours per year, no roll over
•Auto allowance: $500 per month
•Cell phone allowance: $100 per month
•Retirement contribution: 8% paid by City
•Additional retirement contribution: $750 per month to ICMARC or other qualified retirement plan designated by the City Manager
•Additional retirement contribution: $250 per month in return for City Manager opting out of City’s medical insurance plan
•$2500 for membership in professional organizations
•$1500 for out of pocket medical expenses
Note: Also not seeing the expense and travel account in the contract, which has existed in the past.
Total salary and benefits 2016: $202,445
Total salary and benefits 2022: $231,260
#17. VHR POLICY UPDATE
It appears that the 500 permit limit has been reached. But enough from me. Instead, please read “Casual AirBnBer” Heather Vescent’s just published opinion piece 29 PALMS CITY COUNCIL VHR DECISIONS PAVE THE WAY FOR MORE BUSINESSES IN OUR RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS.