CVIndependent

Fri07032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Yadira Rayo-Peñaloza, an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, nearly sat out the fall term.

She didn’t want to spend another semester taking just online courses, which is what she expects all of her classes to be when school starts up again late August.

Rayo-Peñaloza, along with her girlfriend and a few of her other friends, weighed her options, considering the likelihood of finding work during a pandemic and what a pause would mean to her financial aid. Ultimately, she decided she’d remain a student.

“It was a hard decision to just say that we’re definitely going to go back in the fall.”

She also thought about returning to campus in the fall, but will remain at home in Orange County, where she attended community college before transferring. That decision, too, was tough.

“It’s really difficult to concentrate back home,” she said. “‘Are we hurting our GPAs?’ That was our biggest concern,” she said of the conversations she and her girlfriend had. But going back to campus meant taking out a loan, “and I really don’t want to do that.”

Distance learning

So far, eight of the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California system have published their plans for the fall term, with most estimating that only a fraction of classes will be conducted in person.

UCLA, for instance, predicts that just 15 to 20 percent of courses will take place fully in-class or in a hybrid format, and the rest will be taught remotely, while UC Merced expects 20 to 30 percent of classes to be in-person in the fall. Several campuses, including UC Merced and UC Berkeley, plan to end any in-person instruction by Thanksgiving and shift all learning online through the end of the fall term.

The campus guidelines contrast with what UC President Janet Napolitano said in May, suggesting more classes will be conducted in-person with a hybrid model. Instead, the UC plans look more like what the larger California State University has been signaling since the spring: mostly online.

A largely virtual setting has some students concerned about how professors will react.

Louis Susunaga, a 21-year-old student at UCLA, said he’s returning in the fall but taking three courses rather than four, because he’s worried professors again will overwhelm him with assignments. He said one of his professors last quarter assigned per week more than 100 pages of reading, multiple reading responses, a Zoom meeting with a group project, and a pre-recorded lecture. “That’s way more than a normal load, when we were in person.

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easier.”

Safety practices

UC students living on campus should also expect to wear masks in most areas, practice regular social distancing, and track any symptoms to help spot early signs of novel coronavirus infection. Several campuses outlined reductions in how many students can live on campus, citing the risk of disease spread as one reason to limit rooms to one or two occupants.

At UC Merced, students living on campus and others on the university grounds will have to report symptoms through an app—currently in development—and undergo viral testing. They’ll have to wear masks, remain six feet apart from others, sneeze or cough into an elbow or tissue, and self-isolate if they’re showing coronavirus symptoms. The university will set aside “isolation rooms” for individuals who test positive or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Students at UC Riverside will have to clean chairs and tables they occupy with wipes that will be available in actively used classrooms. Beyond standards like social distancing and wearing masks, in-person classes will have assigned seats, and instructors will take attendance to minimize the virus spread and help with tracking if someone in the class has a positive coronavirus test result. But the university’s guidelines also state that instructors should avoid attendance-based grading “to reduce pressure on students to attend class when they are not feeling well or should be isolating.”

Most universities have said they plan on prioritizing giving housing to students with the greatest need, the criteria for which varies by campus (like students who get financial aid, veterans and former foster youth).

Even students who do get on-campus housing will need to show proof of a negative coronavirus test, per systemwide guidelines. UC Santa Barbara may—leadership there hasn’t made up its mind yet—also ask students not to travel away from campus during the fall term.

Fiscal hardship

The caps on students in dormitories, extra cleaning and risk of seeing fewer students in the fall all add to the university’s fiscal anxieties. Through May, the system has absorbed a $1.54 billion hit in added costs and lower revenues, and about $1 billion of that is the result of losses and new expenses in the system’s medical enterprises.

“This is a daunting number,” said Paul Jenny, interim CFO of the UC system, during a UC Regents meeting on health June 17.

Adding to the hardship of planning for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases is the prospect of large budget cuts due to declining revenues from housing and food services, and cuts in state support during a grueling state fiscal period. The system faces a cut of $300 million from state money meant for student instruction in a budget deal between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom—unless the federal government comes through with another stimulus package.

Some schools have been hit financially harder than others. UCLA lost $151 million in revenue through May 31 due to cancelled housing and dining contracts and lost enrollments, according to a COVID-19 cost impact report the system sent to the state’s Department of Finance. The school also spent $18 million to make distance learning feasible. That’s more than twice as much as the $70 million UC San Diego incurred in pandemic-related expenses and lost revenue, the next-highest amount among the campuses. Those figures exclude the schools of medicine, clinical operations and medical centers. 

“This is the most complex planning exercise we have ever done,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said during a campus video chat last week. “We simply don’t know what is going to happen.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Happy Monday, everyone. We have more than 20 story links today, so let’s get right to ’em:

• It was a big news day for the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark 6-3 ruling, the court ruled that gay, lesbian and transgender workers are protected by federal civil-rights lawsand Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch (!) wrote the majority opinion. The court also more or less upheld California’s sanctuary law by declining to hear a challenge to it.

• This just in, from the city of Palm Springs: “In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, continue to flatten the curve and keep residents and visitors safe, the city of Palm Springs would like to notify the community that this year’s Fourth of July fireworks spectacular has been CANCELLED. ‘Due to the fact that the state of California is prohibiting large gatherings there will be no fireworks this year,’ said Cynthia Alvarado-Crawford, director of Palm Springs Parks and Recreation. ‘We thank our Palm Springs residents for their understanding.’”

T-Mobile—and possibly other wireless services—suffered a major outage today. Details are unclear on what exactly happened as of this writing.

• OK, now this is weird: The mayor of Indio apparently told KESQ News Channel 3 that even though Coachella and Stagecoach have been cancelled, Goldenvoice is still considering putting on a large, Desert Trip-style festival in October. We have no idea how such a large gathering would be possible, but as we’ve repeatedly said in this space, nothing makes sense anymore, so who knows.

• Despite rising case numbers, California is still doing OK as a whole in terms of COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Newsom said today.

• Yet again, the president has made a baffling remark regarding COVID-19: “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” Sigh …

• The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the reopening debate taking place in Imperial County, which borders Riverside County to the southeast, and has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the state. Despite the high rates, some people there want to start the reopening process anyway.

• Hmm. Three large California police unions announced a plan yesterday—via full-page advertisements in some large daily newspapers—to root out racists and reform police departments. While some will scoff at this, the fact that police unions are suggesting such reforms is nothing short of stunning.

• Also stunning: A major Federal Reserve official said yesterday that systemic racism is holding back the U.S. economy.

• Sign No. 435,045 that we know very little about the disease: At first, scientists feared common hypertension drugs could make COVID-19 worse in people who took them. Fortunately, now they’ve changed their minds.

• Sign No. 435,046 that we know very little about the disease: Scientists from UCSF and Stanford say that “super antibodies,” found in less than 5 percent of COVID-19 patients, could be used to treat others battling the disease—and may help in the development of a vaccine. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to Dr. George Rutherford, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle: “Between 10 percent and 20 percent of patients with COVID-19 show no antibodies in serological tests, Rutherford said. The remaining 75 percent or more of coronavirus patients develop antibodies, he said, but they aren’t the neutralizing kind, indicating immunity to the disease might not last long in most people.

• The FDA has revoked the emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, aka the president’s COVID-19 drug of choice.

Tesla—and other companies—refuse to disclose coronavirus stats at their workplaces. Neither will county health departments. Why? They’re citing federal health-privacy laws as a reason—even though that’s not necessarily how federal health-privacy laws work.

• Writing for The Conversation, a professor of music explains why for some churches, the inability to sing is a really big deal.

• Also from The Conversation, and also religion-related: Indian leaders are using Hindu goddesses in the fight against the coronavirusand it’s not the first time they’ve used deities to battle disease.

• The Riverside Press-Enterprise writes about local public-health officials, people who normally work fairly anonymously, but who have now been thrust into the limelight—and a large degree of public scrutiny, often undeserved—thanks to the pandemic.

• The Legislature is in the process of passing a budget today—even though they’re still negotiating things with Gov. Newsom. Why the urgency? Well, they have to pass a budget by today if they want to continue being paid. In any case, there’s disagreement on how to deal with a $54 billion deficit caused by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The 2021 Academy Awards are being delayed two months due to the fact that most movie theaters remain closed, and most movie productions have been suspended because of, well, you know.

• This column from The Washington Post may leave you beating your head against the wall: “Are Americans hard-wired to spread the coronavirus?

• The pandemic has led some companies to institute the four-day work week. NBC News looks at the pluses and minuses—and finds mostly pluses.

China’s embassy and consulates have been engaging in displays of kindness—like free lunches and donations of medical supplies—in U.S. communities where they’re needed. NBC News looks into this interesting tidbit.

That’s the day’s news. Wash your hands. Please, please PLEASE wear a mask whenever you’re around other people. Fight injustice. Be kind. If you value honest, local journalism, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. The Daily Digest will be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Water infrastructure is finally coming to three underserved portions of the eastern Coachella Valley—if state budget cuts don’t get in the way.

After nearly six years of work by Castulo Estrada, the rest of the Coachella Valley Water District board and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the water district announced in early May that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved two construction grants, totaling about $3.3 million. The funds will be used to complete three projects that will bring safe, reliable water service and fire protection to two disadvantaged communities and one elementary school in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The reason we put out the press release was because the financial agreement was executed,” said Estrada, the CVWD board’s vice president, during a recent phone interview. “Once an agreement has been executed, it’s a contract between the state of California and the CVWD for the execution of the project (for which) the money had been requested, in this case the three east valley projects. That allows us to move forward with bidding the project, so that we can move on to construction. We’ve initiated that (bidding) with money from the CVWD’s own budget. I believe we’ve begun advertising, and these three projects are being presented as a package. The same contractor would construct the necessary works for connecting these systems the public system. The last I heard, we were shooting to award the contract sometime in July, and start construction sometime between the end of July and the fall.”

Garcia, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, welcomed the funding in a news release.

“Together with partners like the Coachella Valley Water District, we have been leading a concerted effort to address the eastern Coachella Valley’s severe water disparities,” he said in the release. “Last year, we focused our legislative endeavors (on) creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure that California dedicated investments towards long-standing water infrastructure needs of underserved areas like ours. I am proud to see our advocacy and hard work result in these state grants that will go a long way in supporting our goal of improving water connectivity and public health for our families and students."

However, the good news arrived just as the state and country were falling into the deepest and most-sudden recession in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Estrada if he was concerned state budget cuts could possibly negate the funding commitment.

“No, these monies have been accounted for,” he said. “But what I think might be at risk—not just for water-related projects, but for all budgets within the state of California—are those (grant applications) that will come up in next year’s budget process. These (projects) have already been encumbered. So, I don’t have any worry about these projects stalling.”

The Independent reached out to the SWRCB to verify that the grant funding was, in fact, completely secure. Public information officer Blair Robertson responded via email: “The bottom line is that there is no irrevocable commitment. That said, we are not aware of the funding for the Coachella projects being proposed for cuts by the governor.”

According to the SWRCB, all grants are subject to a set of terms and conditions, the 18th of which states: “The State Water Board’s obligation to disburse funds is contingent upon the availability of sufficient funds to permit the disbursements provided for herein. If sufficient funds are not available for any reason, including but not limited to failure of the federal or state government to appropriate funds necessary for disbursement of funds, the State Water Board shall not be obligated to make any disbursements to the recipient under this agreement. … If any disbursements due the recipient under this agreement are deferred because sufficient funds are unavailable, it is the intention of the State Water Board that such disbursement will be made to the recipient when sufficient funds do become available, but this intention is not binding.”

Once the connections are built between the CVWD’s existing water-delivery infrastructure and the Oasis Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Thermal Mutual community and the Westside Elementary School, the district will add roughly 200 new customers. While, without a doubt, these projects are necessary, the Independent asked Estrada if he was concerned the new clients may have difficulty keeping up with the monthly water-service charges, especially given the economic downturn.

“That hasn’t been a concern,” he said. “Obviously, before the project moves forward and the monies are appropriated, there is a need to enter into consolidation agreements. There were a number of workshops put together to engage the community and let residents know exactly what it means to get hooked up. Information about bills, and things like that, are explained up front, so that there are no surprises and so that there’s buy-in. All of that took place. Our water (comes) at a very affordable rate, and I think folks are happy when they’re able to connect to our system. I think that their concern about not having access to safe drinking water for themselves, and their families and their kids, outweighs any concern that they might have about a bill.”

While the financial crisis is obviously a huge concern, Estrada said he was confident other needed infrastructure projects in the eastern Coachella Valley would receive strong consideration from the state whenever funding is available.

“When the new funding called the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was created and signed into law last year … (the legislation) created the fund, but it also directed the SWRCB to put together an advisory group, because there was no (statewide) plan. What gets funded? What is the expenditure count? What are the priorities? … It’s made up of 19 people from across California, and I’m one of them. I think we’re very well represented in Sacramento now. We are at the table, and we’re constantly engaging with the SWRCB and their staff. Personally, I now know the SWRCB members in Sacramento, and I’m very happy to know them. We’re in constant communication to the point where (the SWRCB) advised us that … since we have (over the last several years developed detailed) water- and sewer-project master plans (identifying roughly 40 water- and 80 sewer-hookup projects in the east valley) that total multi-millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, they want to help us enter into bigger financial agreements (with the state). So rather than doing small agreements almost on a per-project basis, the next thing that we’re working on is an application for a group of water-related projects that would require a $20 million grant.”

Published in Local Issues

In response to yesterday’s Daily Digest, I received this email from a reader, which is reprinted here, verbatim:

Is your paper written by one person? Articles picked by you? Just curious as to where you’re from? Palm Springs? Just not sure if this is a PS newsletter?

This made me realize that a lot of you are new to the Independent—and that even some of you who have been reading for a while may not know much about me or the newspaper, and/or where these Daily Digests fit into things.

So, if you’ll indulge me, here are my answers to that reader’s questions (slightly expanded upon and edited from my personal response to the reader):

Is your paper written by one person?

No. The Independent has a staff writer and 15 or so regular contributors, writing on everything from theater to astronomy to cocktails to news. Feel free to peruse all of the articles, going back to our late-2012 launch, at CVIndependent.com, and check out our print version archives at issuu.com/cvindependent.

Articles picked by you?

I, Jimmy Boegle, am the editor/publisher, but most of my writers decide what they’re going to be writing about … because they’re the experts in what they’re writing about, not me. As for this Daily Digest email, I write it and select the article links, although I get suggestions from a lot of people—especially from Garrett, my husband.

Just curious as to where you’re from? Palm Springs?

I live in Palm Springs, yes. I’ve been here for more than seven years. If you would like to view my professional credentials, check out www.linkedin.com/in/jimmy-boegle. I have a 25-year history in journalism, going back to my days at Stanford University. I’ve worked for The Associated Press and at newspapers in Reno/Sparks, Las Vegas and Tucson. Before I moved here at the start of 2013, I spent a decade as the editor of the Tucson Weekly.

Just not sure if this is a PS newsletter?

Most of the content in the Independent itself—with the exception of some movie reviews, our comics page, Savage Love and a couple of other things—is written by people in the Coachella Valley, for people in the Coachella Valley. This Daily Digest email, however, was started when the pandemic hit as a way to share news on COVID-19 and the shut-down orders from reliable, vetted news sources, from around the country and world.

So, there you go! If any of you have other questions about the Independent, me, our fantabulous writers or life in general, feel free to send them my way.

And now, what you’re really here for—today’s news:

• I was again part of the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast/videocast, with hosts John Taylor, Shann Carr and Brad Fuhr. Today’s guests were the fabulously smart Dr. Laura Rush, from Kaiser Permanente; Alexander Rodriguez from the On the Rocks radio show; and Debra Ann Mumm from the Create Center for the Arts. Check it out if you dare!

Gov. Newsom announced a revised $203 billion budget today—which includes a lot of deep cuts. One of the most painful—a 10 percent salary reduction for many state workers. However, that cut, and others, could be avoided if the feds chip in and help. Our partners at CalMatters have the details.

• More bad—and by “bad,” we mean “approaching Great Depression bad”unemployment figures have been released.

Unfortunately, most of the job losses are hitting families that are least-prepared to deal with them: Almost 40 percent of lower-income households have been affected, according to Politico.

Cathedral City is the latest valley city to step up and require face masks in many places, following the county’s stunningly ill-advised revocation of the face-mask health order last week.

• Related: From The Conversation comes this headlineMasks help stop the spread of coronavirus—the science is simple and I’m one of 100 experts urging governors to require public mask-wearing.

Could COVID-19 be causing an inflammatory syndrome in children that’s similar to Kawasaki disease? The CDC just issued an alert for doctors to be on the lookout.

Las Vegas may start to reopen soon—and it’ll be a very different experience when it does, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• A live-stream performance featuring John Stanley King, Kal David and other local music luminaries takes place tomorrow (Friday) at 3 p.m., and it benefits the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. Get details here.

• This opinion piece from The Washington Post points out a painful truth: In most of the country, we’re giving up on containing COVID-19and are now scrambling to reduce the harm it causes.

• Meanwhile, in Alabama, legislators proposed spending $200 million in federal funding for COVID-19 on a new State House. Yes, they really did that. https://www.newsweek.com/alabama-senate-leaders-want-use-money-2-billion-coronavirus-aid-build-new-state-house-1503255

• The New York Stock Exchange is partially reopening for in-person trading on May 26. Yay? Or something?

• Finally: One Riverside girl really wanted to hug her grandparents … so she invented the hug curtain.

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Wear a mask, for pete’s sake. Buy our amazing Coloring Book. If you can spare a few bucks, please consider supporting quality, free-to-all, independent local journalism by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow!

Published in Daily Digest

For my friend Matt, it was the permanent closure of Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes—a restaurant where he had his first job—that made him fully realize the world we knew in early March was gone forever.

“I actually cried a few times yesterday, and it’s not just over big-chunk chicken-noodle soup and focaccia bread,” Matt wrote on Twitter. “It’s the realization that our lives will not ever ‘go back to normal.’ Our world is rapidly changing, and change is inevitable. I just didn’t expect it to be this fast.”

So many places, institutions and businesses are going to be wiped out by the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn—which may very well qualify as a depression by the time all is said and done. We are going to see a lot of closed-for-good announcements in the coming weeks and months—like the one we got today, from Cathedral City’s Desert Ice Castle. Many of the places, institutions and businesses that do survive may be changed drastically, too.

However … not all of these changes will be bad.

For example, the Seattle Times is reporting that 20 miles of streets in that city—initially closed to make it easier for people to be socially distant—will now forever be closed to traffic, changing them into permanent places for people to walk and bike safely.

Closer to home, I have been hearing that Palm Springs and other cities are looking into the possibility of closing down some streets and parking lots so they can be used by bars and restaurants. If the science continues to show that the virus doesn’t nearly spread as well outdoors, then this would be a perfect way for businesses to reopen in a safer and more-delightful way.

It’s up to all of us to speak out, advocate and do whatever we can to make sure our “new normals”—both during the fight against COVID-19 and afterward—are the best possible “normals” we can have.

So … let’s get to work!

Today’s news:

I was the guest on today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times’ Coronavirus in California podcast. I talked with my friend Gustavo Arellano a couple weeks ago about the state of local media today—and how completely jarring it was for April in the Coachella Valley to be so darned quiet.

• As of this writing, the county meeting regarding Dr. Cameron Kaiser’s health orders was still going. Will the county Board of Supervisors side with the good doctor or the impatient business community? Watch this link, from the Riverside Press-Enterprise, to find out.

• Gov. Newsom announced today that all California voters will be asked to vote by mail in November—although some polling places will remain open for those who insist on voting in person.

• How long will it be until we can get haircuts again? Mid-June, perhaps? This is what Gov. Newsom had to say about that today: “Phase 3 (which includes the opening of hair salons and barbers) is not a year away. It’s not six months away. It’s not even three months away; it may not even be more than a month away. We just want to make sure that we have a protocol in place to secure customer safety, employee safety and allow the businesses to thrive in a way that is sustainable.”

• OK, OK, maybe mid-July for that haircut? A Los Angeles Times analysis reveals that per Gov. Newsom’s stated criteria, almost all California counties are nowhere near being able to properly move to Phase 3.

• Eisenhower Medical Center has started releasing Coachella Valley-specific hospitalization numbers. The takeaway—we’ve flattened the curve here—but it remains flat, and we’re not on the downside yet.

Yet another person within the White House’s inner circle has the virusKatie Miller, who is Mike Pence’s press secretary, and Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller’s wife.

• From our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent: Counties and cities in California are facing massive, unprecedented budget deficits. Expect horrible cuts and yet more layoffs to come.

• Good news: After a public outcry and a whole lot of negative media attention, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey decided to let the COVID-19 modelers at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University keep doing their work after all.

• The country is heading for a rental crisis, according to this sobering article from Politico.

• From the “We Are Not Making This Up” files: We have verified this TMZ report that 2020 U.S. quarters feature … a bat. Yes, really.

• As predicted, the federal government’s distribution method for promising COVID-19 drug remdesivir has become a fustercluck, or something like that.

• If your iPhone has been acting stupid lately, we have some good news: Apple Store locations are starting to reopen. Aaaand the bad news: The ones in California remain closed indefinitely.

• Even though we’re not sure how this would work in 108-degree weather, we implore the good folks at the Palm Springs Cultural Center and D’Place Entertainment to look into the fact that the coronavirus has made drive-in movie theaters a thing again.

That’s all for today! Please buy our Coloring Book, because it’s 1) awesome, and 2) sales benefit the Independent AND the Create Center for the Arts’ efforts to make PPE items AND local artists. Also, please consider supporting independent local journalism if you can spare a buck or three. Barring anything huge, the Daily Digest will take the weekend off, and we’ll be back Monday.

Published in Daily Digest

Ever since the end of the Great Recession, Rancho Cucamonga has been on a tear.

New retailers and restaurants have sprung up to serve the residents of its gated ‘burbs. The city’s population has swelled with Angelenos in search of cheaper housing. And at last count, its unemployment rate sat at just 4 percent. The city earned an upgraded credit rating earlier this year.

But now that shopping and dining have been deemed non-essential activities, the good times are gone, said Rancho Mayor Dennis Michael.

“Since we recovered from the Great Recession, we generated about $9 million in new sales tax revenue,” he said. “We’ve lost all of that gain. We’re basically starting from square one.”

For local governments still sporting the budgetary scars of the last “once in a generation” recession, this downturn is at once familiar—forcing elected leaders to cut, furlough and delay—and entirely new. Never before in state history has so much economic activity ground to a halt so quickly.

“When we came through the Great Recession, we were able to use reserves to have a softer landing over a period of years,” said Michael. “This is worse than the Great Recession, because everything happened all at once.”

Rancho has it better than most cities. It has healthy reserves, low debts and a relatively wealthy population.

In San Pablo, a city just north of Richmond in the Bay Area with a median income just more than half of Rancho Cucamonga’s, City Manager Matt Rodriguez “is bracing for a ‘Worse Case Budget Scenario,’” he said in an email.

San Pablo relies on the local casino run by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians for 60 percent of its discretionary funds. Since state and county officials declaredshelter-in-placeorders in mid-March, the city has been hemorrhaging $2.3 million every month, said Rodriguez. That’s about 5 percent of the city’s annual general fund every 30 days.

City managers aren’t known for their colorful language, but municipal leaders across the state are now facing economic conditions that seem to define hyperbole.

“Staff estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will devastate the city’s general fund,” wrote Monterey’s City Manager Hans Uslar last month. The city then voted to ax up to 84 jobs.

Down the coast in Anaheim, home to Disneyland, Mayor Harry Sidhu offered a sober reminder to his colleagues on the council last month: The Magic Kingdom and its ancillary hotels and shops provide half of the city’s jobs and half of the city government’s revenue.

“As to when Disneyland Resort will open, I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone knows,” he said.

And in Yountville, the town of roughly 3,000 in the heart of the Napa Valley wine country, the decline in hotel and sales tax revenue has resulted “in about a 74 percent loss in revenue,” said Mayor John Dunbar, who is also president of the League of California Cities, in a live-streamed discussion with CalMatters.

That’s 3 out of 4 of the city’s expected tax dollars now gone.

“Yes, unfortunately you heard me correctly,” he added. 

Cities without much fiscal wiggle room heading into the pandemic will do particularly poorly, said Bill Statler, a municipal finance consultant who spent decades working for the city of San Luis Obispo.

“The roots of fiscal trouble are in the good times,” he said. “If you have strong revenues during the good times, build reserves, pay down unfunded liabilities, and invest in capital projects, then when the inevitable bad times come, you’ll have more resilience and flexibility.”

Still, in ways that highlight just how unusual the current economic downturn is, there are clear exceptions.

With a strong tourism and hospitality sector, “I would have used Santa Monica as a poster child for how some cities have really good financial DNA,” said Statler.

Last month, Santa Monica’s city manager was pushed out of his job after his proposed budget cuts elicited massive public outcry. Now the city is considering laying off 337 workers.

If there is any type of California city best suited to weather the current recession, it’s bedroom communities.

“Those cities that are highly reliant on property taxes and not sales—it’s not to say that they won’t suffer, but their treasuries won’t get depleted immediately,” said Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That’s because while sales taxes and tourism-dependent revenue sources like hotel taxes are paid into local coffers with each transaction, property taxes are paid twice a year. Property-tax revenues tend to be stable from year to year, too, because California law assesses residential or commercial buildings based on purchase price rather than current market value.

“For cities that rely on sales,” said Pagano, “it’s not like a downturn that we’ve ever experienced before. This is just an immediate shutting off of the spigot.”

The divide between municipalities that rely heavily on property values versus those that do not is a Tale of Two Cities. According to a CalMatters analysis of municipal tax revenue data from 2018, the cities that rely most on property taxes are Mountain View, Pleasanton, Newport Beach and San Clemente—all wealthy.

Cities that are dependent on sales and hotel taxes are more of a mixed bag, with some well-to-do tourism destinations, but also many working- and middle-class towns with below-average incomes or cooler housing markets: South Gate, Hemet, Merced, Redding.

And for cities hoping for a helping hand, very few have been extended.

The state, for one, has its own financial troubles. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Finance Department is now projecting a $54.3 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year. That’s twice the size of the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. 

“I’m going to do everything I can to work with these cities and counties,” Newsom said at a press conference last week before the deficit projection was announced. “But I can assure you this: We are not going to be in a position, even as the nation’s fifth-largest economy, to provide for the needs of all the cities and the counties without federal support.”

The federal government has already directed $150 billion to cash-strapped state and local governments through the CARES Act, the financial-relief bill signed into law last month. About $9.5 billion of that went directly to the state government, with another $5.8 billion for cities or counties—though only to those with populations of more than 500,000.

Even for the lucky six California cities that qualify for the help, the funding comes with strings attached, said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who was also in the CalMatters live-streamed conversation.

“It has to be COVID-related; it’s not supposed to be used for revenue replacement,” he said. It’s not entirely clear how those guidelines will be enforced, but the intent is clear: the funding is not to be used to plug budgetary holes. While city leaders “try to get clarity” from the federal government, said Faulconer, San Diego is projecting a $300 million deficit.

Though Democrats in Washington, D.C., are clamoring for more federal assistance to state and local governments, Republicans remain divided. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky likened providing additional aid to a “bail out” for state and local governments and their underfunded pension systems. McConnell has since softened his rhetoric.

Another possible benefactor for desperate cities: the voters.

The California constitution generally requires cities, counties and school districts to receive voter approval to raise taxes or borrow. And while the state electorate has historically been inclined to back most revenue-raisers, it may be feeling less generous this year.

In the March 3 primary, only 40 percent of local fiscal measures—bonds and taxes—were approved by voters, according to an analysis by Michael Coleman, who maintains the California Local Government Finance Almanac. That’s compared to a 77 percent passage rate in 2018, and 81 percent in 2016.

There were many more measures on the ballot this year overall—including a record-breaking $15 billion school construction bond—which may have given voters sticker shock. A recent change in state law governing how ballot measures are described could have also turned some voters off. The coronavirus pandemic was only beginning to register as a national concern on primary Election Day, but that, too, could have diminished the public’s appetite for new costs.

Whatever the reasons, said Coleman, it does not bode well for cities hoping to patch up their budgets via the ballot box this November.

“I think we’re going to continue to have this malaise about what’s going on in the economy, about job security, about how the world is changing. That’s the sort of psyche that causes people to wonder if this is the right time for a tax increase,” he said.

Many in local government—and the campaign staff they hire—are hoping that local budget cuts will have the opposite effect.

In a conference call this week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed championed a statewide ballot measure by framing it as a conflict between necessary government services during a pandemic and commercial property owners.

“Any local official will have a tough time explaining to their constituents why in the midst of this crisis they didn’t support closing corporate tax loopholes,” she said.

Sometimes known as the “split roll” initiative, the measure would change the way that many commercial properties are assessed, resulting in much higher property taxes on some businesses and much higher tax revenue for cities, counties and school districts.

Industry groups and low tax advocates argue—and will likely continue to argue until November—that now is precisely the wrong time to raise taxes on businesses.

Jared Boigon of TBWB Strategies, a consulting firm that helps to pass local bond and tax measures in California, said he’s optimistic that “most voters don’t want to see their community services be completely gutted.” Despite the economic climate, if a local government is thinking of going to voters for money this November, “they shouldn’t just automatically rule it out,” he said.

Not many have yet, said Curtis Below, a partner at the Oakland polling outfit FM3 Research.

“There have been a few more clients who said they want to sit out the cycle, but the vast majority still want to explore this year,” he said. “A lot of our clients are going full steam ahead.”

But both Dunbar of Yountville and Faulconer of San Diego are skeptical that the funds that could be raised at the ballot box would be even remotely enough to fit the pandemic’s fiscal bill.

“We’re not going to be able to tax our way out of this recession,” said Faulconer.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to play the exciting game that is most definitely NOT sweeping the nation: Six Degrees of Separation: Whackadoo Conspiracy Theory Edition!

However, Kevin Bacon was not available, so we will be seeing how many degrees of separation you—YES YOU!!!—are from the newest conspiracy star in all the pandemic-stricken land!

We’ll start off with Judy Mikovits, Ph.D. She’s the star of that new documentary you’ve likely seen some of your friends posting on social media, even though they really should know better. In an effort to be fair and open-minded, I actually tracked it down and watched it today. My Impression: The documentary is 1) well-crafted and slick, 2) undeniably interesting and 3) completely packed with easily refutable and deeply-harmful-if-believed nonsense! I’ll never get that almost-half-hour of my life back! Is it time for a cocktail yet?

First degree of separation: Judy Mikovits, before she became a celebrity on the anti-vaccination circuit, worked at the Whittemore Peterson Institute, a nonprofit based in Reno, Nev., that does research into myalgic encephalomyelitis (aka chronic fatigue syndrome) and other neuroimmune diseases. I won’t go into all the details of Mikovits’ work there, other than to say that 1) one of the studies she published while there wound up being so shoddy that the digest which published it had to later retract it, and 2) she was arrested and accused of stealing materials from the lab after she was fired by the institute. What fun! Anyhow, one the founders of the Whittemore Peterson Institute is Harvey Whittemore, a Reno attorney who was once one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state of Nevada. (Then he was convicted of three felonies and sent to prison for a couple of years for violating campaign-contribution laws. Oops!)

Second degree of separation: Harvey Whittemore has five kids, one of whom is DJ Whittemore, a perfectly nice guy who is a collegiate baseball coach. He graduated from Earl Wooster High School in 1993.

Third degree of separation: Jimmy Boegle, the editor and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent, and the humble scribe of this Daily Digest, is also a member of the Earl Wooster High School class of 1993. What a small and sometimes horrifying world!

Fourth degree of separation: YOU are reading this Daily Digest, written by Jimmy Boegle.

Congratulations! You are a mere four degrees of separation from Judy Mikovits! I am so very sorry about that!

Today’s links:

• The big state news of the day: Gov. Newsom offered more information on which businesses can begin to reopen as early tomorrow. He was actually rather light on the specifics, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• The other big state news: As expected, the state is facing a massive budget deficit—far bigger than anything the state faced during the great recession. That means some deep cuts are coming.

• The big national news: The Trump administration has decided not to follow the reopening guidelines created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because, you know who needs science and knowledge and experts and stuff?

• The other big national news: The Justice Department is dropping the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. This line, from The New York Times, earns the Understatement of the Day Award: “The decision for the government to throw out a case after a defendant had already pleaded guilty was … highly unusual.

• I, per usual, took part in the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast today. Hear what the knowledgeable Dr. Laura Rush has to say about the coronavirus in the Coachella Valley.

One of the president’s personal valets has tested positive for the virus. The president says he has tested negative, however, and will continue to get tested daily.

More than 12,000 Catholic churches (out of 17,000) in the U.S. received federal Paycheck Protection Plan loans that were supposedly meant for small businesses. Wait, what?!

• Also from the “Wait, what?!” files: Frontier Airlines is making people pay extra to be socially distanced.

• The California Restaurant Association has sent to Gov. Newsom a proposed plan on how to reopen the state’s restaurants. Get more details, via The Associated Press, here.

A group of hair salons is getting ready to sue Gov. Newsom over the fact that they have not been allowed to reopen yet. (Search for hair salon after clicking the link.)

• Finally, some good news: While nothing is sure yet, there’s increasing evidence that almost all people who recover from COVID-19 indeed have antibodies—and that MIGHT mean they have at least temporary immunity.

• Oh, and there’s increasing evidence blood thinners may help some people who get critically sick from COVID-19.

• The Wheels Are Coming Off, Chapter 96: Some Southern California churches are starting to have in-person services, the law (and possible spread of the virus) be damned.

Coronavirus survivors will be disqualified from joining the military. Yes, really.

The DMV is opening 25 offices—including the one in Palm Desert—for in-person service tomorrow. However, you’ll need an appointment.

• Could lasers soon be used to test for COVID-19—and other diseases, too? The Conversation breaks down how that is a possibility.

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Wear your mask. Don’t spread easily disproven conspiracy theories. Buy our amazing Coloring Book. Chip in a few bucks, if you can afford to do so, to help us continue doing what we’re doing. Back tomorrow!

Published in Daily Digest