Desert Hot Springs has been in a fiscal emergency ever since last year’s surprising November revelation that the city was facing a budget deficit upward of $6 million.
In an effort to bridge that gap, the city put Measure F on the June 3 ballot, proposing to drastically raise taxes on vacant parcels of land. Even though more than 60 percent of the city’s voters said yes to the measure, it did not pass, because of a state law requiring two-thirds approval.
Today, after slashing the budget, city officials are considering placing another revenue-raising effort in front of voters, this time in November.
Had Measure F passed on June 3, it would have provided the city with just more than $3 million. Mayor Adam Sanchez said the city has two realistic options for the Nov. 4 election.
“We can go again with a (initiative) similar to Measure F … but we have to change it, because by law, you can’t do the same thing twice,” Sanchez said. “There are people in the community who would rather put an increase in the sales tax on the ballot. That will be part of the debate and discussion at the city council meeting in August.”
Sanchez said he still prefers the parcel tax on vacant lands.
“What’s good about the parcel tax is it’s an opportunity for all the residents and anyone who owns property to make it fair and balanced,” Sanchez said. “The reason we didn’t go to the sales tax before is because it’s all the regular residents who own homes and work here who pay that tax. The parcel tax is on the vacant landowners, many of whom don’t live here. … It’s still a challenge, because you have to get to that 66.7 percent voter approval.”
Per Proposition 13, any increase in special taxes requires a two-thirds majority vote. Measure F received support from 61.5 percent of voters on June 3.
Measure F was proposed as a way for the city to avoid bankruptcy, and to ensure that public-safety services such as police and fire remain viable.
The primary argument against Measure F in the voting guide sent to voters was written by Robert Bentley, who railed against a corrupt City Council and suggested the measure was a “trick” being pulled on residents. The Inland Empire Taxpayers Association also campaigned against Measure F.
Neither Bentley nor the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association responded to interview requests from the Independent.
Michael Burke, a Desert Hot Springs resident and the owner of BurkeMedia Productions, signed the argument in favor of Measure F.
“I was in support of Measure F for one major reason,” Burke said. “Desert Hot Springs has this huge deficit. The City Council worked really hard to reduce it. We needed a solution, and Measure F was brought to the council. At first, they were going to make the parcel tax around $570 per acre, and that was ridiculous. They brought it down to around $375, which I also thought was a little high. After researching it, what the owners (are paying on vacant) parcels … is $29.50, which is ridiculously low.”
Burke said the solution made sense to him after he did his own research.
“Measure F would have raised the vacant land tax to still be lower than (the tax paid by) homeowners,” he said. “It would have made it a little bit fairer, because they would at least have to pay for the basic services that they use.”
After the failure of Measure F, city funding for groups and agencies such as Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, the DHS Health and Wellness Center (which also includes the Boys and Girls Club) and the Desert Hot Springs Police Department was jeopardized.
“During this process, we were already having discussions with the Desert Healthcare District and Borrego (who run the Health and Wellness Center) about how we can minimize our costs of operating the Health and Wellness Center. It’s a $1 million operation,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the city wants to keep its own police department, rather than contracting with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for police services.
“Right now, I hate to say it, but we’re taking the police department on a month-to-month basis,” Sanchez said. “They have their budget now, so they have to make adjustments and reductions within the department. They recently had to let go the records clerk because they had to reduce the budget by $500,000. They can’t afford to remove a police officer, because that’s a priority, so they had to look at administration to reduce some of those costs.”
Sanchez said he hopes that voters realize the city’s budget crisis is a serious matter.
“I think people realized that as we had to do a budget without Measure F, and how we had to reduce the police department and police budget even further, that (the budget situation) was critical. We had to make reductions in terms of staff and accounting. There are a lot of details in the budget where they had to reduce cost. They can’t even have any more training.
“What we have now is a bare-bones police department, because Measure F didn’t pass. But how can a bare-bones police department function without putting their own safety and the public’s safety in jeopardy?”