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24 Jan 2018

Coffee With the Mayor: Palm Desert's Sabby Jonathan Discusses Public Safety, City Services and Transparency

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Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan. Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan.

Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan recently invited the public to enjoy complimentary coffee and conversation—something he plans on doing every month.

During his January coffee meeting, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort, the new mayor (the position rotates among City Council members on a yearly basis) was battling the flu. However, Jonathan, who works as a certified public accountant, was kind enough to agree to answer questions on anything—ranging from the city budget to new hotels to past city-employee wrongdoing—via email.

Regarding your quest for transparency—why the coffee chats?

Coffee chats are a great way for the community to engage with its elected officials. They provide an informal forum where concerns of residents can be heard and questions can be answered. The chats take place monthly, throughout the year, with the exception of July and August.

Is Measure T—an increase of the city’s hotel tax from 9 to 11 percent, passed by voters in 2016—working? How much money is it bringing in yearly, and is the city safer now because of it?

The change generates approximately $2 million in additional general-fund revenue a year, supporting police and fire services as well as other municipal programs and services that help keep Palm Desert safe and ensure a high quality of life that is enjoyed by our residents and visitors.

What is the city’s budget structure? How many special funds are there, and what are total revenues and expenditures?

The city financial records have many “governmental funds,” including the above noted general fund. The city has over 50 special revenue, capital, enterprise, special assessments and internal service funds. Most other funds are restricted or assigned for specific purposes and include traffic safety, transportation improvements, fire facilities, housing, development impact fees, recycling, public art, recreational facilities, capital improvement projects, landscape and lighting districts, etc.

For the fiscal year 2017-18, the overall expenditures anticipated for all funds are $118,624,985. Revenues are same as expenditures! Our complete budget is available online.

As a CPA, would you recommend changing anything in the current structure of the city budget?

Overall, our current budget process works very well. It is based on the city’s goals for the upcoming year, and it is “bottoms up,” meaning the process starts with the individual departments, which then take ownership of their respective budgets. We are looking at adding a five-year forecast to the budget process. … It would enable us to look ahead for the next five years, ensure there are no surprises, and give us an opportunity to take action if needed.

The city previously froze some motorcycle-cop positions. Do you plan to put them back on the streets soon?

We continue to work closely with our public-safety professionals to measure whether there have been any impacts from the frozen positions. To date, we have not seen any diminishment in the city’s ability to provide exceptional public-safety services. If this changes, we will act quickly.

The city of Palm Desert does not have its own independent police force, but instead contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. What is the total annual dollar amount for the sheriff’s contract, and what is the current crime rate?

For fiscal year 2017-18, the city budgeted approximately $21.9 million for police services. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data for 2016 illustrates the city has a higher incidence of property crime than violent crime. This fact is likely attributable to the higher concentration of retail establishments within the city, as larceny-theft constitutes the highest number of property crimes. Examples of larceny-theft include shoplifting, bicycle thefts and pocket-picking.

Comparing the UCR data with the past crime rate reports, was there an increase in violent crimes and property crimes?

(There were) … significant decreases in every crime category, with the exception of motor vehicle theft. Overall, violent crimes were down from 117 in 2015 to 77 in 2016, and property crimes were down from 2,302 in 2015 to 2,146 in 2016.

Is the city improving, considering the new (hotel tax) income? Are the anticipated new hotels being finished on time?

Our transient occupancy tax revenue is supporting public safety and other municipal services and programs that enhance Palm Desert’s wonderful quality of life. The city is working closely with the developers of Hotel Paseo to facilitate its opening as soon as possible. … The Fairfield Inn on Cook Street finished on time and opened last summer. The SpringHill Suites (formerly the Fairfield Inn on Highway 111, which was destroyed by fire several years ago) is being reconstructed and should open later this year.

What is the city manager’s salary and benefits? The previous one (John Wohlmuth) got $300,000 (in severance and accrued vacation/sick pay) to leave amid a scandal involving nude pics.

The current city manager is paid $220,000 with a three-month severance package, but without health care or a car allowance, and with a maximum accrual of 320 hours combined sick leave and vacation. For comparison sake, the previous city manager’s salary was $248,911 annually (when he left), with six months’ severance, plus $500 per month for an automobile allowance, and the same health care and leave benefits as other executive employees (which excludes the 320 hour cap that the current city manager has). He had a combined total of 1,028 hours of sick leave and vacation time at his departure.

How do you keep the city fiscally sound? How is the city handling salaries and pensions?

The city of Palm Desert, throughout its history, has been a prudent steward of the public’s money. This is reflected in the fact that for decades, Palm Desert has adopted a balanced budget in each year, and maintains a healthy reserve balance. Looking back, we have been forward-thinking in addressing challenges related to staffing, whether it be during a development boom or a recession. During the recession, Palm Desert reduced its staff by over 30 percent, and we were proactive in making changes to pension and other benefits for new employees well before the statewide efforts to enact pension reform. … We continue to evaluate the labor market and look for the most effective ways to ensure that we have the best employees available to provide services to our residents.

Do you support the city’s system to rotate mayoral positions annually?

I am a strong proponent of rotating the mayor’s position, especially in small cities like ours. It avoids a lot of the “drama” that we see in cities with elected mayors, and it gives each councilmember an opportunity to engage at a deeper level, which I believe makes for more knowledgeable councilmembers, and a more effective council.

For information on upcoming coffee conversations, call 760-346-0611, or visit www.cityofpalmdesert.org.

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