All five candidates for the three Palm Desert City Council seats up for election this year, not surprisingly, say they’re proud of their mid-valley city.
All agree that the city’s wide roads, pleasant parks, good schools and upscale neighborhoods are virtues that continue to make Palm Desert an attractive destination for tourists and new residents alike.
However, the city is facing fiscal and developmental challenges that could threaten the future growth and fiscal stability of Palm Desert.
The Independent spoke with each of the candidates and discussed their concerns, their priority issues if elected, and their views on Measure T. The only city measure on this November’s Palm Desert ballot, Measure T calls for a 2 percentage-point increase—from 9 to 11 percent—in the city’s transient occupancy tax (TOT), charged to every traveler who stays in a hotel within the city’s borders.
On this one issue, the candidates agree: They all say they’re voting for the increase.
Incumbent Van Tanner (right), a retired insurance-company executive and former member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, is wrapping up his first term on the City Council. He was the most outspoken proponent of Measure T.
“Wherever (tourists) go to stay, they’re going to pay a TOT. Well, we’re the lowest in the Coachella Valley, and (if Measure T passes), now we’re going to be right in the middle. So the 2 percent is going to generate $2 million in additional revenue, and it is something that we need to pass. It’s not a question of how we’re going to do it; we need to do it.”
Businesswoman and local pastor Kathleen Kelly explained why she supports Measure T.
“We have the absolute lowest TOT in Coachella Valley, and there’s nothing strategically beneficial to the city in holding that spot,” she said. “We’re not gaining an advantage by being last. We’re just forgoing the opportunity to appropriately look for income to cover the added expenses that the tourism brings with it.”
Susan Marie Weber (right), the other incumbent who is running for re-election as her first term draws to a close, said she’s a libertarian who normally does not like taxation. However, she supports Measure T.
“A hotel tax is a little bit different. It’s more like a user fee, which is a voluntary tax,” she said. “We use the (TOT) money to make sure that the roads are clean, that we have public safety available to keep you safe, and we have our other amenities.
“Two years ago we tried to pass a similar measure, but it was so specific that people living here thought they were going to be taxed,” Weber said. “But this time, it’s clear that the resulting revenue will go into our general fund to be used as we (the City Council) think it should be used. For instance, the police and fire services surprised us with increases, so we sure could use a little more money to offset those costs.”
Gina Nestande is the wife of former congressional candidate and former State Assemblyman Brian Nestande. She said she hopes to contribute her fundraising and leadership skills to the council’s work.
“This one time I am—but it’s only a Band-Aid that the city needs right now,” she said about Measure T. “We can’t rely on raising the TOT every couple of years to help our budget. We need to increase revenues, diversify our economy and keep the young people here—or if they do go off to college, (we need them) coming back here to work. But that will only happen if we have the infrastructure here for them. We can’t just rely on the golf and tourism industries. Tourism is great, and we can be a wonderful tourist destination—but again, we have to think bigger.”
Jerry Martin is a former golf professional, entrepreneur and insurance agent who is the driving force (pun intended) behind El Paseo Cruise Night and several other car-centric events.
“I am in favor of raising that TOT by 2 percent,” he said. “It doesn’t really affect the residents of Palm Desert, and that added revenue is really important. We need to come up and be more in line with the rest of the cities here in the desert. You know there are a lot of additional costs (regarding tourists) involved in operating the city, especially when it comes to fire, police and ambulance service, so those funds will be really important.”
The candidates also largely all agreed on the strong need for improved cooperation among the nine Coachella Valley city governments.
Kelly (right), who moved to the valley at the age of 7, made the case succinctly: “Regional cooperation is increasingly important to our quality of life in Palm Desert. As the Coachella Valley has built out, we have increasingly become one large community. So it’s not possible to go it alone, even if someone philosophically thought that was desirable. Reaching across party lines, generational divides or other potential boundaries to inspire and facilitate collaboration—that’s my skill set.”
All the candidates voiced cautious optimism that the CV Link project—a proposed valley-long pedestrian/bike path—could be completed if no undue burdens were placed on Palm Desert’s citizens, and if environmental-impact studies raised no major concerns.
Some of the candidates identified one key issue on which they’ll work first.
“There’s the redevelopment of Highway 111, which is already in progress,” Martin said. “Many buildings along the highway will be given a facelift, and there are plans to put the stores, markets and services on the first level, with living spaces on the top levels. Younger people are gravitating toward a lifestyle where they can leave their homes and apartments and walk to shops and restaurants.”
Weber sounded the alarm regarding the potential financial risk posed by the generous pension and retirement packages being granted to city employees. “We need to complete a pension review,” she said. “We started a couple of years ago to try to change our method so that when new people were hired, they’d come in under a different pension structure, but we’re still doing like 30-some percent, you know? So if you’re earning $100,000 a year, we’re putting $30,000 aside in pension for you. Way to go, huh? That’s unsustainable, and we’re going to be in a death spiral if we don’t work on that.”
Nestande (right) highlighted education and Salton Sea protection. “I’d like to focus on fast-tracking the Cal State University,” she said. “It is our only four-year university (located in the valley), and it has limited degree programs. I’ve met with the chancellor, and they really have a wonderful agenda to try to increase the number of degree programs offered here.”
She suggested this new approach for saving the Salton Sea: “We need to think regionally and expand beyond Palm Desert. What’s been proposed is that the big stakeholders create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District. This plan has to be approved by a vote of 55 percent of the citizens, but if it were to pass, it could raise as much as a couple of billion dollars.”
Tanner said he would focus his work on developing and implementing a new general plan for Palm Desert.
“It’s a systematic way to take our city into new areas over the next 20 years,” he said. “It deals with land use as well as economic fiscal responsibility, because we want to make sure that our tourism stays strong, and our retail sales stay strong. That’s what’s going to create the revenue for our general fund for everything that needs to be done in the city.”