It’s official: Palm Springs now has the highest sales tax in Riverside County. Thanks to newly approved Measure D, the rate will be 9.25 percent. The half-cent sales-tax hike will bring in an extra $6.7 million annually, according to estimates.
Voters in November also approved Measure E, a new tax on recreational marijuana.
These new revenues will be coming into city coffers along with, among other revenue sources, funds from Measure J, the one-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2011.
Measure J has indirectly led to a lot of bad publicity for the city—because some of those funds were and are being used for the now-coming-to-fruition downtown redevelopment project that was embroiled in the shady dealings that led to the arrest of developer John Wessman and former Mayor Steve Pougnet on bribery charges.
With an entirely new City Council taking office over the last two years, it’s worth taking a look at those Measure J funds, as well as the whole city budget—a budget that is, according to many observers, not so transparent and very hard to understand.
Palm Springs, with 47,000 residents (and a lot of visiting tourists), has a general-fund budget of $110,130,162 for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, the city’s various special funds actually total more than the general fund—bringing the total fiscal-year budget to $229,966,656, an amount confirmed by City Attorney Edward Kotkin, although he added that the amount has yet to be audited.
Figuring out what’s going on with all of these special funds is nigh impossible. I spent several weeks trying to get information from the city’s director of finance and treasurer, Geoffrey Kiehl. After not getting a response, I reached out to Councilman J.R. Roberts.
Roberts said there are 64 separate special revenue funds. “I had to look that up,” he said.
Why are there so many funds—totaling an amount more than the general fund?
“Unlike most cities in the valley, Palm Springs has an airport, a sewer treatment plant, a convention center, etc.,” Roberts said.
Of course, having so many separate funds raises questions about transparency and fiscal responsibility. Roberts responded that city’s website OpenGov website is easy to navigate. He also pointed out that Measure J funds are under the strict supervision of its oversight committee.
“Once the Measure J oversight committee has made its recommendations, the money is moved to the various projects that were decided upon,” he said.
However … if everything concerning the city’s use of Measure J funds is clearly posted on the city website, how did the fund end up getting FBI attention, including a raid at City Hall? Robert Stone, a self-proclaimed FBI informant and constant city-government critic who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, said one of the problems is that the public is only able to find out how the funds were spent after the fact.
“The Measure J funds are controlled by the city manager and the council, with recommendations from the Measure J Committee,” Stone said. “The reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, and disbursements are pretty much at the discretion of the city manager for smaller disbursements, and council for the larger disbursements.
“We only find out how the funds have been administered at the end of the fiscal year,” Stone said. “We never know in advance where the Measure J money is going. We only find out as the transfers are made.”
As for the new Measure D funds: In their pitch to voters, city officials claimed the funds would help the city maintain essential city services, such as public safety. However, it’s unclear what the city will do to handle its huge long-term pension obligations.
“Measure D does nothing to address the ongoing $220 million unfunded pension and health care liability of the city,” Stone said, claiming that the burden from pension and health-care liabilities will bring the city to its knees if it does not fundamentally change the way it does business.
One common complaint about the city budget: generous salaries. In recent years, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready has been the Coachella Valley’s highest-paid public official, with salary and benefits totaling more than $420,000. However, the problem extends well beyond Ready: According to TransparentCalifornia.com, 68 city of Palm Springs employees earned more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in 2016—and when these employees retire, they’ll be in line for huge pensions. Councilman Roberts confirmed that former Palm Springs Police Chief Al Franz, who retired in December 2015, is receiving a pension of $189,083 per year.
In other words … when it comes to transparency and getting the city budget under control, the all-new Palm Springs City Council has a lot of work to do.