RECAP: City Council Meeting, December 12
Last meeting of 2023: New mayor, sewer bites the dust, and shout outs to Satan from the podium and Jesus from the dais!
In a two-hour meeting Tuesday, which began business at the 60-minute mark, the City Council mixed end-of-year pomp with driving a stake through plans for a City sewer system. The full agenda for the meeting is here.
In a 180-degree turn from the usual Christian petition, Elliot Balsley, representing The Satanic Temple of Southern California, gave the invocation. This was short and unobjectionable, but concluded with "Hail Satan!"
The invocation's conclusion was followed by a short but pregnant pause. The remainder of the meeting seemed heavily loaded with Christian prayer, perhaps in reaction to this decidedly non-Christian start to the meeting.
The Satanic Temple, founded in 2012, is a non-theistic religious organization which engages in civil rights and social justice activism. Its conception of Satan is literary and metaphorical, not supernatural.
AWARDS, PRESENTATIONS, APPOINTMENTS, AND PROCLAMATIONS
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Bilderain kicked off this part of the meeting by presenting a check to Semper Fi Girls Softball Team for their participation in the "Cash for Trash and Recycling" program. A young lady speaking for the team announced they would donate half the proceeds to Morongo Basin ARCH to help the homeless, and the other half to the Palms-N-Paws Animal Shelter. Animal Control Supervisor Rick Boyd was on hand to thank the girls for the animal shelter donation.
Next, Mayor McArthur Wright presented a plaque to Ash Maharaj, former Vice Chair of the TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) Advisory Board, to commemorate her years of service from October 1, 2017, to October 25, 2023.
The departure of Maharaj has created a vacancy on the TBID Board. The City is seeking applications for this TBID seat from City STR owners, STR property managers and hoteliers. The application deadline is December 18, and applicants should send a resume and letter of interest to City Clerk Cindy Villescas at email@example.com.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Robert Warrick and Deputy Sheriff K-9 Handler Nathan Bakker then presented "Naji," an 11 month-old, person-tracking bloodhound who's the newest addition to the Sheriff's Department staff. Warrick thanked the City for joining with the County and the City of Yucca Valley to fund canine units, and Bakker, Naji's handler, noted that Naji had recently helped locate a missing 10 year-old.
State of the Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) Presentation by Jane Rodgers, JTNP Superintendent
Jane Rodgers, Superintendent of JTNP, spoke to the increased visitation in the Park in recent years—she said the only national park with a comparable increase was Bryce Canyon. She said the Park's increased popularity closely coincided with smart phone uptake, beginning in 2013, and noted that JTNP was just a three-hour drive away for 23 million people.
Rodgers added that in recent years most information people receive about the Park is crowdsourced and from social media, rather than being disseminated by the National Park Service. She said that with campgrounds now booked to capacity year-round, the Park no longer has any real off season. Visitors are far more active—versus 2010, twice the percentage of Park visitors now hike, stargaze, and camp.
Rodgers also touched on the benefits of tourism to the local economy, saying that 75% of the Park's 3 million yearly visitors now stay overnight and 46% lodge locally outside the Park. Park visitors in 2022 spent $171 million locally and supported more than 2,000 local jobs.
She reported construction would soon start on the new Joshua Tree West Entrance Station located one-third mile farther into the Park, which should eliminate the current traffic overflow into the neighborhood near the current west entrance.
Rodgers then outlined a new "Incident Command System" to prevent reoccurrence of a situation like last August's "Perseid Super Event," when a flood of visitors hoping to glimpse the meteor shower overwhelmed Park rangers. Improved information on astronomical phenomena, weather-driven natural events like super blooms, and even celebrity Park visits will drive additional staffing to better anticipate and handle such events going forward.
Finally, Rodgers thanked the City for helping the Park in several ways: City enforcement of the dark sky ordinance to help astrotourism in the Park, publicity on avoiding planting of invasive grasses that spread into the Park, and for City enforcement of its ordinance that prohibits feeding and watering of native wildlife.
Presentation of the City's Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) for FY 2022-23.
This agenda item was added the day of the City Council meeting, an apparent Brown Act violation, which gave the public little opportunity to review the report in time to make public comment.
Finance Director Abigail Hernandez summarized the recently completed full, yearly, third-party audit1 of City finances. Hernandez reported the City's doing fine financially. Revenues, particularly from TOT (transient occupancy tax from hotels and STRs) significantly exceeded what had been anticipated.
City revenue was $1.3 million more than expected, at $13.8 million versus $12.5 million budgeted; and City expenses were $442,000 less than expected, at $11.6 million versus $12.0 million budgeted.
The top six revenue categories were, rounded and respectively from largest to smallest: property tax in lieu of vehicle license fee (VLF) at $3.8 million (this is money from the state, originally to replace local property taxes lost when the state reduced vehicle license fees back in 2004); property taxes at $2.9 million; TOT at $2.3 million; sales tax at $1.6 million; franchise fees at $930,000; and building and road permits, at $711,000.
The Council had no questions for staff or the third party auditor.
Mayor Wright's Presentation of the State of the City Address.
The out-going Mayor’s speech quoted liberally from biblical verses as he cited recent City accomplishments. These included the opening of the culinary kitchen in Freedom Plaza, productive meetings with state senators and assemblymen, multiple ribbon-cutting ceremonies, enhancing the City's partnership with the Marine Base, the renovation and opening of Luckie Park Pool, and the housing of more than 100 homeless during inclement weather.
Mayor Wright continued, thanking his family, friends and some local churches. "Psalm 46 beautifully encapsulate my vision of Twentynine Palms, a gem in the desert. It says, 'There's a river whose stream makes glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High, God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved, God will help her when morning dawns.'"
Wright then presented the Employee of the Year Award to Animal Control Supervisor Rick Boyd. Said the Mayor, "Rick, who oversees our animal shelter, has consistently delivered exceptional results with limited resources. Thank you Rick for outstanding dedication and a job well done."
Beaming happily as he accepted the award, Boyd said, "I've been with the City for 27 years. I wouldn't change it for anything else. It's what we do for the community. I love this community, I love the animals, and I love helping the people in this community."
Wright gave the Mayor's Recognition Award, honoring "a citizen who has made an indelible mark on our City," to Pastor Nick Foley, who leads the Set Free Church in Twentynine Palms and Wonder Valley. (As we’ve noted before, the Set Free Church congregations are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which has voted to expel churches with female pastors and has a long track record of opposing LGBTQ+ marriage and relationships. In addition, its facilities assisting the homeless and drug-addicted are centered around Bible study not clinical assistance.)
CONSENT CALENDAR, PUBLIC HEARING
The Council removed no items from the consent calendar and voted for it unanimously. There was no public hearing at this meeting.
DISCUSSION AND POTENTIAL ACTION ITEMS
Selection of Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem.
Following a unanimous vote and as expected, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Bilderain (District 1) became Mayor, Councilmember Joel Klink (District 2) ascended to become Mayor Pro Tem, and Mayor McArthur Wright (District 5) once again became a Council member.2
Finally seated, newly minted Mayor Bilderain joked, "You guys set me up for success with sewer being the first one, huh? Good job!" He then thanked all for putting their trust in him to lead the City.
Wastewater Alternate Sites and Cost.
The Council voted unanimously to turn down the state's $50 million offer for a wastewater system.
Instead, the City will fund a five-year, $1.1 million USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) wastewater and aquifer study, and as a stopgap seek funding for septic maintenance grants for low-income residents.
This effectively kills any hope of a City sewer system for the foreseeable future.
Spanning the last two years and fed by the dangled glittering promise of state money, 29's sewer design and planning project snowballed rapidly into the largest City initiative in memory.
The idea was hatched during the Covid pandemic, during a short time when the state was flush with funds—it now ends when the state's coffers are strained, on the heels of two years of the highest inflation in the last 40 years. The money available from the State for the sewer’s budget has repeatedly diminished, from $175 million, to $75 million, and finally to a relatively paltry $50 million.
How realistic or believable that $175 million figure ever was is certainly debatable, but it’s now so much (waste)water under the bridge.
Interim City Manager Larry Bowden set the table for the Council with a crystal clear staff report summarizing where things stood. Bowden took sewer consulting firm NV5's analysis (requested in November by the Council) for options for the three wastewater treatment plant sites as a starting point.
The NV5 report—if it was considered in isolation—brought in all three sites at $50 million each, making them all appear feasible.
But once Bowden added all the other costs—including project management, anticipated inflation over the construction period, road resurfacing, full-time inspectors—the true price tag for any of these three options was actually north of $70.8 million.
Moreover, Bowden projected the operational cost at $1.3 million per year, translating to $2,974 to $3,300 yearly per sewer connection.
Public Comment on Wastewater Treatment
In public comment, Bilderain kicked off by reading a letter from George Mulopulos, owner of numerous parcels in City limits, that advocated proceeding with the sewer project, citing what Mulopulos saw as the likelihood the state would eventually force the City to develop a sewer.
Joseph Carder, a vigorous opponent of the envisioned wastewater treatment system, contended that the Council could return the $50 million to the state without worry because "we're not going to lose this 50 million by giving it back, it will be there if our water [quality] ever turns out to be under threat." He added, "if they gave us a mandate, they would have to give us a grant to help us hook up our sewer."
April Ramirez likewise spoke against the sewer plan. Citing the planned USGS study, she said, "the proper studies on the long-term effects on health have not been completed."
Karalee Hargrove, who chaired the City's Wastewater Committee, said when the budget was $75 million she favored moving ahead with the sewer plan, but now that it has been cut to just $50 million she can no longer support it: "In light of the recent report, I would take back my vote." She cited potential cost burdens on low-income households in the city, then added that she supports financial assistance to low-income residents who need help keeping their septic tanks in good working order. She pointed to the risk inherent in relying on state grant money in a fluctuating economy, "especially if California goes into a recession. You can never bank on government money."
Eileen Leslie said, "The numbers just aren't working for us," suggesting the City await completion of the USGS study.
Jonathan Hume spoke in favor of proceeding with the project despite the cost, pointing to the strong dependency of new housing and new affordable housing on sewer. "The sewer would serve 200 vacant parcels. You might think, what good is that to us, serving those vacant parcels? That's where new housing could be built! With sewer service they would pencil out. That's what we're turning down."
Veno Nathraj, who served on the City's Wastewater Committee, counseled, "Let's wait, let's get the proper studies done. Let's get the proper planning done so that we can make sure our City moving forward is not a hodgepodge City."
Council Discussion of Wastewater Plan
The matter moved to Council discussion. Wright recalled, "the reason we originally started [the sewer project] was because the state threw a lot of money out, we were looking at $180 million.” He contrasted that with today, where "the state has gone down on the money... it just constantly went down and down and down.” Wright said, "I just don't see us doing this project, I think we should just stay with doing the USGS study, checking septic tanks and making sure they're good."
Councilman Mintz concurred, citing the cost overruns the City faced completing Project Phoenix, as well as the potential cost burden on residents that an underfunded sewer project might entail.
Councilman Scott, a longtime opponent of the project, likewise voiced opposition to moving forward with it. He cited the City's small size, saying "the census says we're a population of about 30,000 people, [but] we're really not, half of our population resides on base and they have their own sewer system. We're really a city of about 15,000."
Scott contended the City had been moving ahead on this project "without proper planning," but that he'd support some future, well-planned wastewater treatment system, saying "I recommend that we look at a long-term strategy on how we can build a sewer system for the city."
Councilman Klink agreed the project was no longer viable given the succession of budget cuts. He moved to decline the state's $50 million offer for wastewater treatment, fund the USGS study, and seek funding for septic maintenance grants for low income residents.
The council agreed and Klink's motion passed with no dissenting votes.
GENERAL PUBLIC COMMENTS
Jen DeFalco, who works for Morongo Basin ARCH, commented on several homeless-related issues. First, she said ARCH needs $7,000 from the City, which she understands was leftover from the City's homeless fund. Second, she said that a group of local teens has beaten or doused with water several unhoused people in the last month; to help prevent this she requested that the City reach out to the Sheriff to better enforce the existing curfew for minors. She finally reported that in the last month, three homeless or near-homeless residents had died from fentanyl overdoses; she asked whether there was some way the City could get Narcan into the hands of unhoused residents to try to reduce such deaths. (Narcan, also commonly called Naloxone, is a medication now available over the counter that reverses the effects of opioids like fentanyl.)
Joseph Carder commented, thanking the outgoing and new Mayors. He also voiced appreciation for the evening's invocation: "I'm an atheist. But that is what this country is about, freedom. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion."
LeAnn Clark, Secretary of the Twentynine Palms Ministerial Association, then spoke, thanking the City "for assisting us in setting up the gymnasium for the annual Community Thanksgiving Service that we held for the community on Sunday, November 19." She complimented the City's recent Light Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting events. Then, speaking on behalf of Action 29 Palms, she assured everyone that both "Mural #9, Johnnie Hastie & The 29 Palms Stage," and "Mural #15, Desert Wildflowers," will be restored.
Thomas Elkins, a Boy Scout who has often spoken before the Council, then briefly reminded Council members about their promise to resuscitate the Youth Advisory Council.
Eileen Leslie then expressed regrets about what she viewed as the City's lack of progress and vision over the course of 2023 and hoped for a better 2024: "I pray that you will make a collective, positive resolution for 2024 to find out what the vision for our city is, from the citizens, and implement a plan to make a happy 29."
CITY MANAGER UPDATE
Larry Bowden voiced appreciation for the recent Light Parade event, saying "to a 60-year resident, that was pretty dang awesome." He advised that the bridge on Split Rock, which awaited funding for 12 years, is now slated to begin construction in early spring.
Mayor Bilderain weighed in, warning attendees that at future Council meetings no clapping would be permitted. He again thanked the City for the honor of letting him serve as Mayor.
Bilderain then asked Wright to close the meeting with a prayer. It was quite Christian:
Father in the name of Jesus, we thank you for this day, God. We thank you that we were able to come together as a Council and to discuss the business for this City, God. And we thank you for blessing us to move forward into 2024 with your blessings, God, leading and guiding us, Heavenly Father, and we will make the right decisions for this City, for this community. And God we ask that you will bless this community to come together, Heavenly Father, and that we will all be blessed. God we thank you now for giving us your son Jesus to die on the cross for us, Heavenly Father, we thank you for your blessings in our lives, Heavenly Father, and have your way God. In Jesus name we pray, amen.
The next City Council meeting will be on Tuesday, January 9 at 6:00 p.m.
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The auditing firm was Rogers, Anderson, Malody, & Scott (RAMS).
This was in accordance with the district number-based rotation procedure the Council passed back in May. This replaced the prior procedure, where rotation was based on highest vote totals in the most recent election.