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RECAP: CITY COUNCIL, OCTOBER 24, 2023
Sewer project circling the drain? Search for fresh City Manager kicks off.
A more than two-hour meeting marked the final appearance of Frank Luckino in the role of City Manager, and the first time Interim City Manager Larry Bowden was seated at the staff desk. In closed session City Clerk Cindy Villescas received a positive endorsement from Council.
As usual, our recap is selective, and we encourage the public to watch the meeting.
The public meeting kicked off with a previously unannounced presentation by Sheriff Shannon Dicus who discussed new legislation affecting the unhoused and addicted and several crime statistics.
Sheriff Dicus was referring to SB43, which expands the state’s conservatorship regulations “to include people who are unable to provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care, in addition to food, clothing, or shelter, due to either severe substance use disorder or serious mental health illnesses.”1 Dicus said that application of the law would be handled by the Sheriff Department’s H.O.P.E. team and the law would enable “sentencing those people to medical treatment, getting them off our streets, and truly getting them the help they need.”
Due to a ransomware attack, the Department is behind in their crime stat reports so Dicus presented information for Twentynine Palms from 2022 compared to 2021: Violent crime: Murder 0; Manslaughter 0; Rape 9 (down by 59%); Robbery 10 (up 43%); Aggravated assault 131 (up 30%); Simple assaults 126 (up 10%). Property Crime: Burglary 77 (up 13%); Larceny 88 (down 15%); Grand theft auto 36 (up 89%).
However, looking at a five year average, violent crime was down by 7%, and property crime was up by 16%. He commented that Twentynine Palms has less violent crime than in some cities but qualified that by adding there is an uptick in violent crime across the State.
Other presentations were made by Anna Stump and Kate Lee Short from the Public Art Advisory Committee, who discussed the kick-off of the Workshop29 series funded by a $100,000 state grant, a recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a presentation to outgoing City Manager Frank Luckino.
The Consent Calendar was voted through, with only the $500,000 design contract for the animal shelter being pulled for discussion. Staff is recommending the contract be awarded to Miller Architectural Corporation in Redlands, who will work in collaboration with Shelter Planners of America. The design contract was approved 5-0.
Equity and Social Justice Element. This was presented by John Criste, President of Terra Nova Planning & Research in Palm Desert. Terra Nova ran the public input workshops and his firm prepared the social justice and equity element approved by the Planning Commission on September 19. We refer you to our recap of that meeting for details. The element was approved 5-0
DISCUSSION AND POTENTIAL ACTION ITEMS: WASTEWATER AND CITY MANAGER RECRUITMENT
Where does 29 go from here with wastewater?
The Council approved a plan to divvy up the City's remaining $2M of sewer system grant money into two tranches—$1 million to fully fund a $1.1 million USGS (United States Geological Survey) wastewater and aquafer study, with the remaining amount allocated to perform complete cost analyses of four different treatment plant location scenarios.
The state has granted the City $50M for wastewater treatment under a program for disadvantaged communities -- a sizable decrease from the $75M that the City had been hoping and planning for.
Due to its recent budget shortfall the state reduced the total amount of grant money available in this program from $350M to $200M, and lowered the per-project cap from $75M to $50M.
Still undecided is the location of the wastewater treatment plant. The originally proposed site close to a residential area triggered objections and even an organized protest. Three alternative sites have been proposed to address these objections, but moving the plant farther away adds anywhere from $2.2 to $9M to the cost of the overall project.
With the original $75M budget, the $2M to $9M of additional cost for relocating the treatment plant seemed feasible. But now, with only $50M to work with, the City faces difficult choices.
The City has only ten remaining weeks to submit to the state its complete plan for construction of both a wastewater treatment plant and sewer collection system.
One of of the main motivations for converting the City from septic tanks and small treatment plants to a sewer system is concerns about water quality, along with the City's need to meet state water quality guidelines in coming decades. Currently, there's no known negative impact to local water quality from septic tanks, but data is lacking.
The $1.1M USGS survey promises to fill these data gaps -- it will provide residents with a clear picture of where Twentynine Palms stands regarding the impact from septic tanks, and answer the question of whether or not a sewer system is urgently needed to address potential threats to local water quality.
However, the USGS report on these risks has a projected completion date in 2027, four years away.
The other big motivation for converting the City to sewer is the need to support greater housing density and affordable housing. Per outgoing City Manager Frank Luckino, staying on septic limits housing density in the City to single family residential homes on 2.5 acre lots—a housing type that plenty of people like, but one that's far from affordable. Without a sewer system, or expensive small package treatment plants, apartment buildings or typical small lot housing tracts can't be built in Twentynine Palms due to state wastewater requirements.
In public comment, Joseph Carder said that in 2018 the state passed bill AB 1215 which enabled grants for septic-to-sewer conversion when needed, so the City could get the same $50M later from this fund if needed. Carder suggested the City wait for the USGS study to be completed, then take action if needed.
Karalee Hargrove, Chair of the Wastewater Advisory Committee, also commented. She asked the Council whether it was possible, given the newly limited $50M budget, to build just the treatment plant itself and build the sewer collection system later. Luckino replied that City staff had broached exactly this question to the state, but the answer was no, the state wouldn't fund a "bridge to nowhere" of a treatment plant without a sewage collection system.
Hargrove further emphasized that building more affordable housing in the City is heavily dependent on building wastewater treatment, saying "I know people who own lots in this [wastewater system] Phase 1A. The minute this comes in, they're building housing, and not expensive housing, affordable housing."
Finally Hargrove informed the Council that the Wastewater Advisory Committee has been working well together and they very much want to continue their work.
Councilmember Daniel Mintz complained repeatedly that he had yet to see firm cost estimates for the sewage system, both customer costs and ongoing operational costs to the City. Luckino promised Mintz he'd request cost projections from the City's third party engineering firm, for all four treatment plant locations.
The motion to fund the USGS survey and obtain full cost analyses for all four scenarios passed 5-0.
How widely should we search for a new City Manger?
City Manager Luckino pointed out that it would likely be March before a new City Manger would be in place given the holidays. Before Council was the decision to use an outside firm with statewide or nationwide reach or to use the City’s Human Resources Department, which would likely limit the applicant pool to local and county-wide candidates.
In public comment, Susan Peplow recommended the use of a professional recruitment service, “given all the responsibilities the City Council already has on his plate, and the significance of the undertaking” –– advice that the Council would ignore.
Council discussion was marked by a failure to recognize that the profile of communities adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park has increased since 2015. The danger expressed by some Council members of national candidates applying for the City Manager position and not understanding that Twentynine Palms is located in the Mojave Desert is less than it was eight years ago.
Councilman Daniel Mintz recommended going with “internal recruitment” first, then hiring a firm if the candidate pool isn’t sufficient, “if it takes a little extra time, it takes a little extra time.” Councilman Joel Klink concurred. Unmentioned was the limited time for the search, since as a City retiree, the Interim City Manger has a six month limit on his contract. Nevertheless, Council voted to “use HR as internal recruitment for City Manager” 5-0.
The final 15 minutes of the meeting were marked by tributes and warm good-byes for outgoing City Manger Frank Luckino. Speaking were Karalee Hargrove, LeeAnn Clarke, Andrew Fulbright with Council members Mintz, Klink and Octavious Scott adding to the praise. Interim City Manger Larry Bowden added, “Eight and a half years ago, I gave Frank the keys to the City. I won't use what the acronym I was gonna say, but he gave them back. I hope you guys find somebody that is anywhere near as good as him. And I'll give them the keys too but you better be sure I like ‘em.”
Desert Trumpet writer Kat Talley-Jones is a member of the Public Arts Advisory Committee, which is a part of the City of Twentynine Palms.
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