TWENTYNINE PALMS CITY COUNCIL VOTES TO CONSIDER MOVING WASTEWATER PLANT
Council Meeting recap for September 26, 2023, plus we do a deep dive into the survey being used to prove resident support for the sewer
This was the last meeting prior to City Council moving to a monthly schedule for the remainder of the year. Per City Manager Frank Luckino, upcoming Council meetings are scheduled for October 24, November 14 and December 12.
After the invocation, the meeting kicked off with a visit from Twentynine Palms Associated Student Body (ASB) Vice President and City Council liaison Elizabeth Marshall, who gave “a general report of what’s happening at the school, sports stats and other news.” As of the meeting, football was 1-1, volleyball 6-2, tennis 1-1. Marshall also reported that cross country has male and female teams for the first time in four years. Marshall concluded by noting the September 22 lockdown.
COUNCIL COMMENTS AND REPORTS OF MEETINGS ATTENDED
In a lengthy report, Council member Daniel Mintz talked about several panels attended at the annual League of California Cities conference, which was held in Sacramento on September 20-22. Mayor McArthur Wright and Council member Joel Klink also took part in the conference. In additional to general sessions, panels attended included an Inland Empire Desert Mountain Vision lunch, Conflict to Conversation, Homeless to Housed, a well-timed Mayor Said What?, What the bleep: Limits on Public Comments, How to Solve Big City Problems in Small Towns, and Managing Difficult Conversations with Constituents.
All Consent Calendar items, numbered were accepted with a 5-0 vote. For details please see our agenda preview.
DISCUSSION AND POTENTIAL ACTION ITEMS
There were only two discussion and action items on this agenda—the wastewater treatment plant location and an expired land use entitlement for land once occupied by a mobile home park. The resolution declaring that all prior entitlements were expired and the property needed to conform to its current service commercial zoning was passed 5-0 with no public comment and little Council discussion. Which leaves…
Item 10: Wastewater Treatment Plant Location
The item was initiated by Council member Octavious Scott and requested as a future agenda item prior to the City Council’s July break. It first appeared on the August 6 Future Agenda Items list. It was finally added to the agenda after Stop the Sewer founder Joseph Carder expressed frustration about it seemingly being ignored and not elevated to Council discussion and the Wastewater Committee also considering alternate locations.
The bulk of the Council meeting was spent on the City Manager Luckino’s presentation and the ensuing discussion of the item—on the meeting video the item starts at 12:20 and concludes at 57:29 of the 67-minute meeting, with Luckino’s 15-minute presentation using some of the same Powerpoint slides that have been deployed since at least February 22, 2022. After much discussion Council voted 5-0 to direct the City Manager to explore alternate locations for the Wastewater treatment plant, with Council member Klink making the motion and Mayor Wright seconding.
Where’s the data? In his presentation, Luckino reiterated claims he’s been making for the past two years, “As population growth continues and more lands are urbanized, water usage, and therefore, septic loading within the District service area is anticipated to increase." He went into some depth on the concept of “septic loading,” but without the USGS survey, these concerns are not backed up by hard data. The five-year USGS survey was slated to begin this year but is delayed as the City will need to reapply for the funding.
What about the survey? The other justifications for the sewer are the available funding and community support. But the money is no longer “here and now,” as Luckino acknowledged that the City is only receiving $50 million of the $158 million in state funding he’d hoped for. That leaves the two points based on survey data. What about that survey?
Does a small sample size really represent the city? Key to Luckino’s argument has been the claim that 77% of Twentynine Palms residents support “sewering the City.” The claim is based on a survey conducted by Probolsky Research, which promotes itself as a “a woman and Latina-owned market and opinion research firm.” A sample of 300 Twentynine Palms residents and 50 Desert Heights residents were polled between May 3 and May 23, 2021, and the poll results were presented to the City in June 2021. The residents were chosen based on “data compiled by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters and enhanced with consumer contact data.”1 The small size of the sample is often underplayed.
Per Healthy Place Index stats, which are based on census data, Twentynine Palms is 26.3% Hispanic or Latino, 12.4% Black or African American and 6.4% Asian, Pacific Islander or American Indian. In addition to being a small sample, the survey demographics underrepresent BIPOC residents.
Were the questions misleading? While Luckino uses the stat of “90% of people polled support infrastructure that benefits the residents,” the actual “yes or no” question in the survey was worded to yield a “yes” response: “The City of Twentynine Palms should invest in infrastructure improvements that benefit all residents” (emphasis added). A “no” response would support unequal treatment of residents. 270 of 300 respondents answered “yes.” The use of percentages disguises the small size of the sample.
The 77% stat follows a series of questions about satisfaction with existing City services, which serve to build trust in the City prior to asking the question about a proposed service—the sewer. Also the question isn’t “Do you support or oppose a communitywide wastewater treatment system?” Instead the question again proposed a choice between everyone benefitting and only some benefitting: “Do you support or oppose a communitywide wastewater treatment system that would bring connections to everyone in Twentynine Palms and nearby communities?”
Additionally the question is about a system that’s never been on the table—the system has never been City-wide—it has always had limited scope. Yet, the City Manager fails to provide that context to Council or that the number of positive responses are from just 231 residents (out of 300 surveyed).
Will the City raise sales taxes to pay for the sewer? Once might wonder how the City Manager plans to raise the $100 million dollar deficit he now faces. As it turns out, one of the survey questions points toward a potential source—sales taxes—by asking two questions: A sales tax increase from 7.75% to 9% would raise $53 million over 20 years and cover more than one-third of the overall cost of a communitywide wastewater treatment system. Would you support or oppose a 1.25% sales tax increase to help pay some of the cost of a communitywide wastewater treatment system? and Tourists and visitors pay a large percentage of the sales taxes in Twentynine Palms. Does knowing this make you more likely to support or more likely to oppose a sales tax increase to help pay for a communitywide wastewater treatment system?
As a March 2021 email exchange between Luckino and Probolsky Research President Adam Probolsky demonstrates, there is no data to support that tourists pay the bulk of sales taxes in Twentynine Palms.
Probolsky writes, “One important figure that will be helpful is the % of your sales tax that is generated from visitors / tourists. That can be a powerful message in selling the sales tax. Share it if you have the figure.”
Luckino replies, “Yeah, that is important, and do not have that analysis, as far as sales tax.”
An unfair burden on the disadvantaged? Yet the inaccurate question remained. In fact, sales tax is considered a regressive tax, especially in a disadvantaged community like 29. People who earn less, such as those who support the tourism industry, pay a larger share of their salary in sales tax when compared to those with higher earnings.
There are industry terms that describe the types of bias evident in the Probolsky questions — question order bias and response bias. Most of the first 19 questions objectively poll the respondents on City effectiveness in service and communication. Question 20 introduces response bias, as a “no” response favors unequal distribution of sewer access. Then questions 21-26 “educate” by asking about piping, cost, groundwater and sales tax.
The education of the respondent is summarized in Question 27, the most obviously biased question in the survey:
“Here are two statements made by Twentynine Palms residents. Please indicate which statement you agree with more.
Smith: The way we treat wastewater in Twentynine Palms is fine today. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I oppose the effort to bring sewers to town.
Jones: Investing in a communitywide wastewater treatment system will improve property values and secure our local groundwater supply. It’s a smart investment for our future. I support the effort to bring sewers to town.
Survey respondents were given a choice between a reasoned educated sounding response and one that appeared ignorant of the “facts” and used “ain’t”. 72% agreed with Jones; 22% with Smith. This is an example of a question with “social desirability” bias—respondents are likely to respond to the answer they view as socially acceptable.
The 2nd to last question in the survey, which contains questionable information about savings, addresses the now failed attempt by the City to take over the Twentynine Palms Water District and annex Desert Heights:
Question 28: The Twentynine Palms Water District and the City of Twentynine Palms cover the almost exact same area and residents. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings that can be achieved if the Twentynine Palms Water District were to be annexed into the City and consolidate operations. This means that the Water District would become a City Department and about 700 hundred residents who live in the water district service area, but not currently in the City, would become part of the City. Do you support or oppose Twentynine Palms Water District being annexed into the City?
When phrased in those terms with “hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings” and with respondents primed for a “yes” response, 71.7% answered that they supported annexation (251 our of 350 respondents in 29 and DH).
But just as with the sewer issue, the more informed residents became about the City’s attempt to annex the Water District, the more they resisted the consolidation. Will the “sewering of the City” meet the same fate?
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City of Twentynine Palms Voter Poll, Probolsky Research, June 2021, pg. 3