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September 30, 2013

Joint City Council/Finance Committee Meeting - September 24, 2013

Back on June 18, 2013, the City Council approved the budget with the provision that it go back to the Finance Committee so they could make recommendations. The September 24, 2013, joint meeting between the Finance Committee and the City Council was the result of that vote. They met in study session style; that is, the committee and the council along with some staff arrayed around the tables. No TV cameras since no vote was to be taken.

When the moment came to approve the agenda Councilmember Betts made the point that the "Finance Commmittee" is actually a sub-committee of the City Council. That is, it's technically Mayor Parks and Councilmember Pye. They expanded it to include residents and business and property owners in the city.

Public Comments

Dot Reed suggested recruiting more volunteers as an additional way to save the city money. She mentioned the current volunteers at the Police Department, the volunteer work done by CCAC Commissioners, and the volunteers on the Economic Development Committee, the Finance Committee, the Parks Committee and so on. She said it would be ridiculous to cut the hours of already overworked staff.

Judy Bowman, President of the Hoteliers, reminded them that the hotels provide a million dollars a year in TOT to the city. The city has provided funding for marketing efforts by the Hoteliers in the last few years. This year the budget for that was cut. This will prevent them from airing a TV commercial in the Los Angeles market. She encourage them to allow the Hoteliers to continue their marketing efforts. She sees it as a no-brainer to spend money to make more money.

Finance Committee Presentation

Jan Pye, the Chair of the Committee started off by describing the formation of the Committee. They started with just Ms. Pye and Mayor Parks. They expanded it to include citizen volunteers. She turned over the task of Chair to Joe McKee to make sure that there was no appearance that either she or Mayor Parks were unfairly influencing the direction of the Committee. Eventually Mr. McKee passed the Chair on to John Gerardi, who is still serving in that position now. The Mayor and Councilmember Pye primarily acted as observers. Minutes were kept by staff. They formed a core committee of Mr. McKee, Richard Cromwell, Mr. Gerardi, Mr. Meyers, and Tim Brophy "from time to time."

Mr. Cromwell started the presentation. Members of the Committee who were present introduced themselves: John-Paul Valdez, Dave Nunn, Tim Brophy, Richard Cromwell, John Gerardi, Joe McKee, Dean Gray, Ty McCanns, Steve Shenk, and John Furbee. Marilyn Heidrick was seated in the audience and had been involved with the Finance Committee early on. Mr. Cromwell said there had been many other participants. He said our new Finance Director had been outstanding in her support of the Committee. He complimented several other city staffers for their support.

He said the Committee began in November 2012.

During meetings there were two easels, one where after achieving consensus they could write down ideas for budget reductions, the other for revenue enhancements. They used the Urban Futures report as their basis.

The Committee presented an early report to the City Council on June 18.

Mr. Cromwell read a paragraph that was NOT included in the report. It had been included in a draft, but was voted off. He personally suggested that if the City Council will continue to rely on the Finance Committee, it needs to be more formalized. Much of the Committee's energy was expended in bringing new attendees up to speed.

Then he turned the meeting over to Mr. Gerardi. During his presentation John Gerardi followed the points as listed in the agenda packet, beginning on page 3. The report was broken into three main parts:

  1. Policy recommendations
  2. Budget philosophy
  3. Cost reductions

Policy Recommendations

The city needs to have a longer term view on the use of reserve funds. The Committee recommended using no more than one-third of the reserves in this fiscal year. Doing this over the next three years might buy the city time until the economy improves and new economic activity comes to the city. This would have required a budget on July 1, 2013, that was 6% smaller than approved. Now that a quarter has gone by, the reduction required for this fiscal year is more like 7.5%. If the City Council waits until January the cuts would be about 9%.

The city should establish minimum acceptable reserves for all funds. The focus has been the General Fund, but all the funds need to be looked at to be sure they meet their minimum levels. Some of the funds are upside-down, Mr. Gerardi said.

No debt should be issued with a maturity of greater than one year for General Fund items.

Revenues should cover the costs of programs provided by the city. The city has a consultant who is currently putting together a fee study that would be part of this solution.

"Capital improvement projects, with ongoing future costs of $50,000, or more, per year must have designated revenues to cover these costs." Those revenues should include automatic adjustments so they keep pace with rising costs.

Councilmember Pye asked for an update from staff on the fee study. The final draft of the fee study is expected "this week." After staff review it will be brought to the City Council. Interim City Manager Adams said the numbers would be checked to make sure they are all verified.

John Furbee said he disagreed with the Committee about incurring debt for only one year. Interest rates will never be as low as they are now making this the perfect time to incur debt, he said. Mr. Gerardi clarified they were talking only about General Fund debt, not debt for capital projects. Mr. Adams asked if that meant the city should not borrow to cover operating expenses. Mr. Gerardi confirmed that was what the Committee was saying.

At this point in the meeting Lou Stewart arrived seeking to turn in a public speaker card. He asked if the meeting was still in public comments. The meeting had been going for about 25 minutes and Mr. Gerardi told that public comments were all done. Mr. Stewart asked if there would be public comments at the end of the meeting. Mr. Gerardi said it was not on the agenda so there would not be public comments at the end of the meeting. "There should be," Mr. Stewart commented.

Budget Philosophy

The budgets for all city funds should be structurally balanced throughout the budget process. Unbalanced budgets should not be approved. "For too long we have been balancing our budgets on one-time revenues and they're running out," Mr. Gerardi said. The city cannot rely on one-time revenue to cover on-going expenses.

The city should implement a 2-year rolling budget and a 5-year rolling forecast, both of which would be updated quarterly and presented to the City Council. A 2-year budget is adjusted monthly, dropping the past month and adding another two years in the future. The 5-year forecast would not have too much detail, but would give the city an idea how to get from here to there.

One-time revenues should be used for one-time expenditures such as specific projects. If not used, they should be placed in reserves. The city has been depending on one-time revenues to balance the budget which is not sound financial practice.

The city should complete a comparison and analysis of services provided by the city and the costs to residents comparing cities of similar size and median income to Desert Hot Springs. We should not compare ourselves to Palm Springs which is much larger and has a far bigger budget.

Cost Reductions

The Committee's recommendation is that this fiscal year's budget be reduced by 6% overall (which means a 7.5% reduction if it starts right now).

"Initiate significant, immediate changes to planned expenditures." Mr. Gerardi emphasized several times that the words "consider," "recommend" and "evaluate" were used intentionally to indicate that the Committee was not demanding that certain cuts must be made now. The Committee is only telling the City Council what they should consider and evaluate. Final decisions are, of course, left to the City Council.

The Committee said the city should consider a 10% staff furlough with corresponding 10% pay cut. That is, cut staff's hours by 10%. This could be accomplished by reducing the daily hours from 10 to 9. They also recommend reducing overtime and reviewing of staff scheduling throughout the entire city staff, including public safety. Mr. Gerardi said he knew that the city was already lean and some departments were as lean as they could get. He also acknowledged that staff was working very hard just trying to keep up with the work they have now, so reducing the number of hours will put a heavy demand on them. But the issue must be examined. Overtime in public safety is "killing us," he said.

The salary step schedule has 5 or 6 steps. The Committee recommended considering revising the schedule to a 10 to 15 step schedule, meaning an employee would take longer to reach top pay in his job.

The city should evaluate positions and renegotiate contracts. A declaration of "fiscal emergency" should be considered. Mr. Gerardi said that the Committee believed that the declaration of a fiscal emergency would accomplish a few things: the city could re-open negotiations with its unions, and there would be a lower threshold for a tax initiative.

Councilmember Pye asked Attorney Quintanilla for more information on a declaration of fiscal emergency. Mr. Quintanilla suggested that Interim City Manager Adams might have more information about that due to his experience in Vallejo. Mr. Adams said he would need to research the subject to give a proper answer. Mr. Quintanilla said a declaration of fiscal emergency would allow the city to re-open bargaining on its MOUs and it would lower the threshold on some voting requirements.

Councilmember Matas said that in the recommendation to consider a 10% furlough the Committee didn't do an analysis of the impact of such a move, but clarified that the Committee was suggesting the city should perform that analysis.

Councilmember Betts said that negotiations are underway now with the union for police officers, so there is no need to declare a fiscal emergency to re-open. This is the time to make necessary adjustments in that agreement. He would not consider a declaration of fiscal emergency just to make it easier to raise taxes. The city would also get negative press if such a declaration were made.

Mayor Parks said an analysis should be made and the city must also look at the unintended consequences of what they do. She said the city has worked very hard and long to get exceptionally qualified employees with institutional knowledge. She thinks that revising the salary steps is a good idea for incoming employees, but those who are already with the city should not be "thrown under the bus."

Mr. Betts said that cutting salary and hours is not what the city needs. What it needs is to get more work for less pay.

Dean Gray said he believed the public works director in the City of Coachella makes about $80,000. Desert Hot Springs pays $140,000.

Joe McKee said that in private industry where there are step increases in salaries, the only people who moved up were those whose performance justified it. Besides looking at the number of steps the city must look at whether it is paying for performance.

The next recommendation from the Committee was to consider assigning a fixed dollar amount to each department and then giving the responsibility to the department head to establish the department's own spending priorities.

Department consolidation - this is already happening and the Committee recommended that the Interim City Manager take a hard look at that.

The city should evaluate the personal use of city vehicles, and consider using city vehicles for local travel by department heads.

The Committee couldn't come to a consensus on travel expenses, so they made two recommendations.

  • Reduce the travel allowance for the Mayor to $300/month, and $200/month for City Council members.
  • Reduce the overall City Council budget by 6% (that is, 7.5% now).

The next recommendation from the Committee was to evaluate the possibility of contracting out ALL city services, including public safety.

Evaluate the cost and benefit of bringing Code Enforcement staff in house. The Mayor pointed out that an analysis of that had just been done and that it turned out the contract was cheaper because "PERS is just going to eat us up alive." Mr. Betts said he thinks there may be a way to have city staff do code enforcement "for about $450,000." The new contract for code enforcement is about $750,000. He would like to see more analysis of this.

Mr. Gerardi reminded them that with any budget item the City Council must look at it over three years. What will it cost over three years and where is the revenue coming from to pay for it. If there are there cost-of-living increases in the contract, then the revenue must be expected to rise along with it.

Evaluate the RFP process for effectiveness.

Utility usage should be evaluated in all departments. Evaluate the value of more solar power on city facilities.

Revenue Enhancements

The city should poll residents to find out what city services they are willing to pay for to keep or which services they are willing to give up.

The city should consider expanding the Utility Users Tax to also cover trash pickup and sewer charges.

The city could consider a sales tax increase and a parcel tax.

The community should be educated by the city as to city services and their costs.

Fiscal Emergency

Attorney Quintanilla had been doing research on declaring a "fiscal emergency" while the discussion continued and here he interrupted to explain what he had found.

Several cities in California had declared fiscal emergencies. He named Milpitas, Adelanto, Atwater, Mammoth Lakes, San Bernardino, La Mirada, Fairfield, and Culver City. One requirement to declare a fiscal emergency is a unanimous vote of the City Council. There must be a determination that the current revenues plus the cost savings implemented by the city are not adequate to avoid severe cuts in city services. Several cities did it so they could put a general tax measure on the ballot without having to wait for the next city election. Prop 218 restricts general tax measures (requiring a simple majority vote) to being on the same ballot as city council members. If a fiscal emergency is declared, then this rule is waived and the city can call for a vote on the general tax measure before the next city election. Some cities declare a fiscal emergency as a precursor to filing bankruptcy because it allows the city re-open negotiations with their labor unions. Before filing bankruptcy, a city is required to negotiate with its creditors, which includes its unions.

Dean Gray said it was unfortunate that they were discussing tax increases. He said many people have asked the city council to cut spending but "we've seen no moves made by the City Council to cut spending." "Without spending cuts we are facing tax increases," he said. "We've seen no effort made by the city council to cut expenses."

Back To Revenue Enhancements

Tim Brophy brought up the inequity in the public safety parcel tax. Vacant industrial land is taxed at a much lower rate than developed residential land, for instance. An increase in the tax on vacant land, he said, would not necessarily affect "Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner," but would mean out of town real estate investors would put more skin into the game.

He went on to say that some costs are spiraling out of control. He pointed out the police dispatch contract with Cathedral City. The Committee discussed establishing a "911 fee" that would help the city bring dispatch back to Desert Hot Springs. This would bring both cost savings and improved quality. He said that taxes designated for public safety (which requires a two-thirds vote for approval) have historically passed, while general revenue tax increases usually fail badly even though they require only a simple majority.

John-Paul Valdez pointed out the distinction between short-term debt to cover regular on-going city expenses and long-term for capital projects. The city should not borrow money to cover on-going expenses. On the other hand, we are in a worldwide period of low interest rates so we should be trying to grab as much as we can to make structural improvements in the city. He also thinks it's too early to be considering a declaration of fiscal emergency, but he would guess that in about 18 months the discussion of that would be relevant.

Joe McKee said he had found that our city's spending rate is significantly higher than other cities. Here are the figures he gave me after the meeting ended:

Fund Budget
GF Budget
per capita
Yucca Valley:21,009$ 9,183,000$437

He said you have to take into consideration that that the cities of Coachella and Atwater include water agencies, so some of their personnel costs are paid from their water agency budgets, making their general fund expenditures smaller. DHS used to do the same thing when we had a Redevelopment Agency. The City Manager's salary, for example, was split between the RDA and the General Fund.

Mr. McKee said he thinks some income should be looked at. He specifically named the 911 fee and the parcel tax. But he said we are already taxing DHS residents at a higher rate.

Mr. Gerardi continued, saying the Committee recommended that taxes be indexed so that they keep up with rising costs.

The process used to collect business license fees should be evaluated.

The existing inspection program to bring properties up to code should be enforced.

A "renter fee" or "door tax" should be evaluated for rental properties.

Mr. Gerardi said this year's budget includes about $900,000 in anticipated revenue that the Finance Committee considers to be "pretty suspect." If that money doesn't come in, then the deficit rises from $2 million to $2.9 million. The budget also relies heavily on code enforcement fines, but they're not coming in as projected.

Mr. Brophy said that there are some things that can be done far more easily than others.

Mr. Gray said some properties have accumulated considerable code enforcement fines in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. He asked if the city is getting those fines, or are they being negotiated down to nothing. The answer was that nobody is being written off. Code enforcement is not supposed to be a profit center. Mr. Gray said property owners go into a meeting with the attorney hired to handle code enforcement and negotiate their fines down to nothing. Mr. Betts explained that there's a hearing process in which people state their case and sometimes fines are reduced. There may be instances where the city thought a property was in violation, but it wasn't. His impression is that it's being handled properly and no one is getting anything just written off.

Chief Singer explained that the fine schedule is adhered to. Accumulated fines can be liened on the property, but before that happens the fines are sometimes reduced because the fines are greater than the value of the property. To do otherwise would constitute a "taking" of the property. She said the goal of code enforcement is compliance. Sometimes the accumulated fines can be more than the cost of improving the property. In those cases the fines may be reduced or waived.

Interim City Manager Adams said it appeared the city collected $1.1 million in code enforcement fines in the previous fiscal year. This year the budget anticipates receiving $1.4 million.

Mr. Matas said he thought that in the year after the economy crashed the city received something more than $2 million in code enforcement fines. Chief Singer said it was a little less than $2 million. As people have complied, the income from code enforcement fines has gone down.

Mr. Matas went on to say that the earlier comment that the City Council had not looked at any cost savings was unfair. Just recently Chief Singer has brought forward items that have saved the city hundreds of thousands.

He said that when the voters approved the public safety taxes with a nearly 70% vote they were told those taxes would sunset. They were promised at the first vote 10 years earlier that they would sunset as well. He asked how many taxes they could put on the people with a promise that they would sunset sometime after all the current city council members are out of office.

Mayor Parks said she would like to have study session of just the City Council where Mr. Adams could bring forward an analysis to discuss.

Mr. Cromwell said the anticipated $900,000 of anticipated revenue is based on anticipated development. He said it's not good enough for that money to come in on June 30, 2014. The city has to deal with cash flow. If the city runs out of cash, they can't make payroll.

Mr. Betts asked Mr. Adams if there is stuff on the budget that never came before the City Council. Mr. Adams said there is probably a little bit of substitution going on, but not a large amount. Since he and the finance director are new, they still need to analyze that.

Mr. Betts said he suspects our deficit will be closer to $4 million than $2 million and the city should be looking at 10% cuts. He said it's up to Mr. Adams to get reliable numbers for the City Council. Mr. Betts doesn't believe the council has been given reliable numbers yet. He went on to say that he would not buy into any kind of tax increase.

Mr. Gray asked Mr. Adams if knew when he would be able to say where we are at financially. Mr. Adams answered that the numbers are always floating. He said that the figures for the first quarter could be available in the third or fourth week of October.

Mr. Gray asked about the Sentinel power plant getting an additional $850,000 in interest that they didn't know what to do with. He asked if the city is making an effort to request more money from the power plant or are we leaving it up to the power plant.

[Mr. Gray has jumbled his facts. He's talking about the air quality mitigation fund which has been completely out of the hands of Sentinel for quite some time. AQQMD has the money and they have earned interest on it because they have been so slow distributing the grants. AQMD had earlier said that any interest accrued will be distributed under the same terms as the original amount - that is, it will come to the Coachella Valley and be distributed according to proximity, environmental justice and "other."]

Attorney's Review On Revenue

Mr. Quintanilla provided this overview of sources of revenue for cities as provided under California law.

User fees can be charged for city services or facilities.

Rent can be charged for the use of facilities.

Cost recovery is limited by law to recovering costs. There can be no profit. This applies to things like processing fees for applications. The fees must be supported by a nexus study. If a profit is made from fees then they are considered taxes.

Inspection fees can be collected, but are limited to recovering costs.

Photocopying costs can be charged for public records requests, but the city cannot charge for the staff time involved.

Special taxes can be collected for designated purposes, like the parcel tax for public safety. These require two-thirds approval by the voters.

General taxes can be collected and these require only a simple majority, but they can go on the ballot when city council members are on the ballot (with the exception of declared fiscal emergencies as noted above).

Assessment districts can be established to maintain infrastructure, landscaping and roads that serve that district. These are easy to set up when the only property owner within a proposed district is the developer who gets the one and only vote. These are known as Mello-Roos districts, but there are a number of different types. Assessment districts are subject to protest votes. If a majority of property owners do NOT object to an assessment, then it goes through.

Development Impact Fees are imposed on developers to mitigate the impact of their development. The funds can only go for infrastructure projects. They don't go into the General Fund. A nexus study is required to support the amount of each DIF.

Mitigation fees can be collected through the environmental review process.

Development agreements can be entered into by cities. Only a few states permit this. This allows the city to collect fees and impose mitigation measures on a developer that would not otherwise be permitted. It's a negotiated agreement. In return the developer gets a guarantee that permits will be issued and the rules will not be changed for 20 years.

Quimby fees can be collected for park improvements. These can only be used for improvements, not operations or salaries.

A public art fee can be collected, and Desert Hot Springs does this.

Franchise revenue is collected. DHS has a franchise agreement with Desert Valley Disposal, for example.

Fines can be collected. As a charter city our fines are not regulated by the state. The U.S. Constitution prevents us from imposing exorbitant fines. 100% of fines collected administratively are kept by the city. But criminal fines imposed through the courts are shared with the courts. State law allows code enforcement to impose liens to recover fines and costs of enforcement. Desert Hot Springs records those fines as special assessments and then they show up on the property tax bill.

The city can receive grants, but often those are restricted to improvements, not ongoing expenses.

Some cities are conducting tax and business license audits.

Instead of business license fees a city can impose a city business license tax, which would be based on the amount of revenue brought in by a business. A business license tax has to be approved by the voters, while a fee can be imposed by the City Council.

Final Comments

Marilyn Heidrick pointed out that we haven't even started paying on the principal of the bankruptcy bond. We've been paying interest. In 2023 we will start paying on the principal.

Councilmember Sanchez said the Committee needs to continue in some form. He said his first year he was out of town and didn't vote on the budget. This year he voted no. [Five days later at Vista Montaña he said he had voted against the budget twice.]

Mr. McKee praised Mr. Cromwell for doing so much work for the city even though he lives outside the city limits.

Ms. Pye asked when the final audit for FY 2012-13 would be available. The answer is that the auditors will be here at the end of October. The report will come at the end of December or early January. Mr. Adams said the books will be closed by the middle of October and then the city will know how the year went.

Filed under Desert Hot Springs | permalink | September 30, 2013 at 10:47 PM | Comments (0)

Not A Burning Man Video!

GoPro on a DJI Phantom drone in places that have more water and more green plants than anywhere within hundreds of miles of the Black Rock Desert.

Filed under Photography | permalink | September 30, 2013 at 01:20 PM | Comments (0)

Fact Checking The Vista Montaña Candidate Forum

John-Paul Valdez Makes An Accusation Of Racial Bias

Even though John-Paul Valdez is running for Mayor and Scott Matas is running for a City Council seat, Mr. Valdez thought it appropriate to attack Mr. Matas saying "And I think Mr. Matas was the only one to vote against Hispanic children playing on open public fields." Here's the 8-second recording:

The statement by itself is so ridiculous, I don't imagine anyone beyond a few nutcases give it any credence, but any accusation of racism is serious enough to warrant some checking. My guess is that Mr. Valdez is getting his nonsense from the local wholesaler of nonsense, Dean Gray. And here it is on the Desert Vortex: Councilman Scott Matas Opposes Hispanic Soccer League. If you asked anyone to go down to Mission Springs Park and point to the "Hispanic soccer league" players and then to point to those who are NOT "Hispanic soccer league" players, the only proper response would be a dumbfounded look. None of the soccer leagues have any sort of racial or ethnic restrictions or selection process. They're all mostly Hispanic kids because most of our kids are Hispanic. To suggest we have an "Hispanic soccer league" is on par with saying we've got "Hispanic bike riding" happening or "Hispanic walking."

If you read Dean Gray's article you'll see that it's Mr. Gray who inserts the word "Hispanic" in about every third sentence.

At the April 2, 2013, City Council meeting there were three organizations discussed: AYSO, DHS Youth Soccer (part of Cal South) and Junior All-American Football. You will not hear the word "Hispanic" anywhere in the entire discussion. Nor do you hear any discussion of the racial or ethnic backgrounds of any of the adults or kids involved in any of the organizations. The City Attorney would not have permitted any such racially-tinged discussion to continue because it would have potentially exposed the city to litigation. This is not to mention the uproar that would have inevitably erupted from the audience if anyone at the dais relied on a racial or ethnic bias to make a decision. The issues were equipment storage, lighting and scheduling. You can listen to the entire 22-minute discussion here.

Scott Matas states his reasons for voting against the agreement beginning at 20:30:

I can't support this item with the joint use of the storage facility because being a volunteer for the Little League for 15 years I just know it will not work. There's no way it will work. I believe that we need to mandate the leagues to put some sort of storage structures out there that would be in compliance with city code as Little League has done with their equipment. Because what it's going to open it up to is one organization's going to get mad at the other organization because something's broke, something's missing. It's just not going to work. And the lighting schedule, I still think Junior All-American's going to be left in the dark. The city's not going to be able to afford more lights for many years to come, until grant funding's found. So those are the two reasons I can't support this.

I want to point out that since then the city has begun to do exactly what Mr. Matas suggested: putting in separate storage containers for each soccer league.

Conclusion: Mr. Valdez's assertion is the worst form of BS.

Joe McKee And His $181,000 Number

Joe McKee said this:

What do people think the average salary in our city for our salaried workers is? Including salary and retirement pay? Anyone want to guess? It's $181,000. $181,000. And that's documented in a consultant report called the "Urban Futures report."
The 24-second recording:

You can get the Urban Futures report here and read through its 40 pages, but I'll save you a little work by telling you the misstatement is based on the following text which you can find on page 17 of the PDF (the document's page number is 14):

The nature of the problem facing DHS can be found in the fact that while expenditures have been reduced and many positions have been eliminated, personnel costs per employee have continued to increase. Specifically the General Fund budget indicates that the City budgeted approximately $5,610,000 for personnel expenses in FY 2005/06 to support 99 positions (23 safety and 76 non-safety), approximately $56,557 per FTE. By FY 2011/12 the City had reduced budgeted personnel expenses of $10,160,000 to support 56 positions (34 safety and 22 non-safety), but per position costs increased to $181,428. This fact does not mean that employees are seeing general increases in wages but rather that overhead costs such as PERS rates are increasing and that layoffs tend to impact positions with less tenure and, therefore, lower rates of pay.

Take the grand total of all budgeted personnel expenses ($10,160,000) and divide by the number of staff (56) and you'll get $181,428. "Personnel costs" are more than just "salary and retirement pay." They include other benefits for workers - the biggest being health insurance - plus taxes. Personnel costs include not just PERS payments for current workers, but any PERS expenses we have for past workers. Also add in Worker's Comp, training expenses (if any - the report says they're at zero now), costs for arbitration, and the expenses to support an HR office.

So, $181,000 is a correct figure, but Mr. McKee's description of it fell a bit short. How you want to look at the figure depends on what you want to use it for. Here are some options:

  1. Personnel is (are?) expensive! No doubt about that.
  2. How much would it cost us to add one employee, or how much would we save by laying off one employee? That figure is going to be less than $181,000 because the total personnel expense of $10,160,000 includes some expenses that are fixed, no matter how big or small our staff is.
  3. "Look at how much more city staff makes than you do!" This is probably how some people interpreted it. But $181,000 isn't the average salary nor even the average salary plus benefits. The figure of $181,000 is the average salary plus benefits plus all the other overhead of having a staff. The cashier at Stater Bros. can't compare his paycheck with the $181,000 figure in any meaningful way. Even if the cashier were aware of the full cost of his benefits, he couldn't make an accurate comparison.
  4. Our overall personnel costs are higher/lower/about the same as similar cities. Anybody got those numbers? That would be interesting to see, even though we may be comparing grapefruits and lemons.

Conclusion: Eh. Mr. McKee's statement probably falls within the expected range of campaign rhetoric distortion. It's all fun until somebody pokes out an eye.

Scott Matas And The 47% Crime Drop

Back to the 47% drop in crime. Scott Matas said "I helped revamp our Police Department and crime is down 47% overall since 2007." Seven seconds:

When he emphasized the word "overall" I realized I had not done the obvious with my earlier graphs: adding the numbers for violent crime and property crime together. So here are the numbers taken from the FBI's Uniform Crime Report:

 PopulationTotal CrimeTotal Crime per
10,000 population

These numbers are guaranteed not to be accurate by the very nature of the FBI's UCR. Our police report statistics to the FBI, but the FBI adds in crime for the entire zip code. If we could have the numbers for just the crimes within city limits they would be lower. They would still show (I believe) a drop from 2007 to the present, but I can't make a guess how much of a drop it would be. Nevertheless, people like graphs, so here graphs:

Overall Crime
Numbers of crimes.

Overall Crime Rate
Crimes per 10,000 population.

And the percentages? Here you go:

2007-2011- 9.9%-18.0%

The drops from either 2005 or 2006 to 2012 are about 47%.

Conclusion: The 47% figure can be supported. It would be better if people stopped trying to make points based on figures everyone knows are unreliable. Better we should just get the figures from our own Police Department and look at those. But as I have said to a few people, it's nice to live in a city where the argument is about how much the crime rate dropped and which crime rates dropped.

Filed under Desert Hot Springs | permalink | September 30, 2013 at 12:58 PM | Comments (5)

The Desert Hot Springs City Agendas Have Moved

If you've been frustrated trying to download a meeting agenda from the city's website in the last few days, here's the solution. The link for the agendas has been changed to

The old address ( no longer works.

Filed under Desert Hot Springs | permalink | September 30, 2013 at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

September 29, 2013

Fire Dancers

After the burning of the Temple Of Whollyness I tried to video a few fire dancers using the 120 fps setting on my GoPro. In editing I slowed it to half speed. The camera isn't good enough to handle that lighting situation, but here are the results.

Filed under Burning Man,Photography | permalink | September 29, 2013 at 11:53 PM | Comments (0)

Vandenberg Launches Spacex Vehicle

Team Vandenberg launched its first-ever SpaceX launch from Space Launch Complex-4 here Sunday at 9 a.m.

Col. Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander, is the launch decision authority.

"I am truly honored to work with such an amazing team here at Vandenberg," said Balts. "With safety at the forefront during all launch operations, we highlighted our mission three times in one week, culminating in today's historic launch with SpaceX. What I have seen in the past few months as Wing Commander is a true testament to the professionalism and dedication the men and women of Vandenberg have toward our mission."

30th Space Wing's 1st Air and Space Test Squadron was the lead for all launch site certification activities at Vandenberg for SpaceX as an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle New Entrant. Under the authority of the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Squadron evaluated SpaceX's flight and ground systems, processes and procedures for this inaugural space launch campaign for the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket.

This 8-minute video of the launch is fairly raw-ish and includes segments where the link between rocket and ground was lost.

Filed under California,Science | permalink | September 29, 2013 at 01:35 PM | Comments (0)

Northwest Passage Achieved

The first bulk carrier has successfully navigated the Northwest Passage, that is, a sailing route north of Canada that used to be too icebound for large ships. The ship is sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Finland with a load of coal. By avoiding the Panama Canal the ship was able to reduce the distance of the trip by about 1,000 nautical miles and increase its load by 25%. IOW, coal just got cheaper in Finland.

A well-designed map would have been helpful, but the Toronto Globe & Mail failed to provide one, so Ron spent about 30 seconds coming up with this artistic impression:
Possible Route For Nordic Orion

Filed under Science | permalink | September 29, 2013 at 01:22 PM | Comments (0)

Burning Man Earns The Sarandon Stamp Of Approval

While having a talk with Gyalwang Drukpa the other day, Susan Sarandon said she is a huge fan of Burning Man.

Susan Sarandon

"People made art for no benefit — it was made just for the interaction of it all," Sarandon said. "People came and built huge statues and temples and all kinds of things. After a week, they take it down and it's just gone . . . it was interesting because it was nice to see art that was created without any commerce."

There isn't enough information here to know if she is trying to get Mr. Drukpa to come to Burning Man, or if he's already a Burner and she's just trying to wangle an invitation to join his camp next year.

Filed under Burning Man | permalink | September 29, 2013 at 11:43 AM | Comments (0)


Of the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes? No, something even better. These people are Linda Kidd and Jim Lopez who are City Council members in Needles, California.
Needles City Council Members (1886)

They said that their City Council used to be troubled by internecine conflicts, one faction going against the other, with little benefit to the city. But now things are entirely different, the City Council works cooperatively, disagreements are dealt with respectfully and civilly, and after a vote they all move on together. They said they want Needles to move forward now, and that they thought Rick Daniels was their man for that.

Impressed by such a transformation I had to ask how it was accomplished. Did they hire a psychologist? Was it a criminal investigation? Switchblades and brass knuckles at the skate park?

No! No, they said. They said some good people ran for election and were elected, displacing the malcontents. That sounds like democracy. Just crazy talk!

The party at Fleming's was well attended by Coachella Valley luminaries and was nominally chaired by former Mayor of Palm Springs Will Kleindienst, who I had never met before. Dean Gray was outside with Lou Stewart and Pamela Berry, making us all feel at home. I posed and smiled for his photo and am waiting almost breathlessly for him to abuse it somewhere.

Filed under Cities/Urbanism,Coachella Valley,Desert Hot Springs | permalink | September 29, 2013 at 11:28 AM | Comments (4)

September 28, 2013

Black Rock Desert Cleanup Nearing Completion

MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) is anything left behind on the playa that wouldn't naturally be found on a pristine desert playa. That can include ordinary litter, but also bicycles, structures, motor vehicles, oil stains, and even the tiniest of playa-colored slivers of wood. The DPW has been out there scouring the playa, cleaning it, and recording the results since we lesser Burners left the scene. Here is their map thus far (they still have the walk-in camping area to inspect):
Burning Man MOOP Map 2013 Day 6
Green is good, yellow not so good, red very bad, and if you see a black dot in a red circle that means something like a leaking nuclear weapon was left behind.

Our camp area (4:15 and J, in case you forgot) is all green with a red strip that starts about 50 feet away from the road. We can't say for sure if that was us or the British Columbians next door.

Lined up to clean the playa
How they do it.
They line up and walk across the desert like Monty Pythoners.

This is MOOP
that was spotted by somebody with good eyes who had to get down on their dusty knees to remove.

Filed under Burning Man | permalink | September 28, 2013 at 04:28 PM | Comments (0)

Burndamentalism in the news

A news article about the small but growing Burndamentalist movement that aims to return Burning Man to its roots - on Baker Beach in San Francisco. The Baker Beach event would last only one weekend.

A week of dietary preparation, called Harveydan, would be implemented and continue throughout the duration of the event. Nutritional intake would be restricted to bacon and Tecaté.

They also propose to rid Burning Man of the Temple:

"Burning Man is Bacchanalian, a pagan ritual about running around with your hair on fire and yelling at the top of your lungs and engaging in pure fun" said Jones. "There's no room for a Temple that we burn in quiet reflection. If we wanted to act sad and depressed in a temple, we’d convert to Judaism."

Filed under Burning Man | permalink | September 28, 2013 at 02:33 PM | Comments (0)

"Breaking Bad" Deaths by GIF

45 death scenes from the TV show as GIFs. For example, Hank vs. Tuco Salamanca:
Tuco's death

Filed under Television | permalink | September 28, 2013 at 07:47 AM | Comments (0)


CORE is the Circle of Regional Effigies which, this year, consisted of 24 creations arranged in 4 circles around the Man. On Thursday night during Burning Man all the CORE art is burned simultaneously. This is my video that I shot while wandering among the crowds there. You'll see a couple of GoPro cameras and a couple of UAVs which I tried to focus on mostly without success.

Here's a timelapse video of the Core Burn shot from a high angle which gives an idea of the whole layout.

Filed under Burning Man,Photography | permalink | September 28, 2013 at 07:14 AM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2013

Mr. Pink Gym

Excerpts from the Mr. Pink Gym contest at Comfort & Joy at Burning Man. Watch to the end to see the surprising winner! The contestants were scored on virility and fabulosity. Some shirtcocking happens, but if you just blink your brain won't melt too much.

Filed under Burning Man | permalink | September 26, 2013 at 10:34 PM | Comments (0)

Temple Of Whollyness Altar Post-Burn

After temple Burn
Photo by Raquel Baranow.

Filed under Burning Man | permalink | September 26, 2013 at 01:04 PM | Comments (0)

September 25, 2013

Ed's Got His Burning Man Photos All Done

Ed is one of the great leaders of our Burner Buddies camp and you can see all of his photos from this year's Burning Man by clicking here. They're on Flickr, so some may be restricted due to nudity, semi-nudity or overwhelming eroticism. To see those you have to be registered at Flickr (it's free), logged in at Flickr, and have your Flickr SafeSearch settings turned OFF. I'll let you figure out how to do all that. You will be amply rewarded, as there are photos of moi.

Here's one of the G-rated photos: my truck as I sit on pavement waiting to get off pavement and into Black Rock City.
20130825 Burning Man (121)

Filed under Burning Man,Photography | permalink | September 25, 2013 at 08:10 PM | Comments (0)

Upgraded Kindle Fire

It's the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch. You can get it for as low as $229. That's the 16GB, Wifi-only version "with special offers" (that is, advertising). Killing the special offers raises the price by only $15. Doubling the RAM to 32GB costs you only $40. Doubling it again to 64GB costs you only another $40, sort of! Adding 4G connectivity will cost you an extra $100. If you want the 64GB model you've got to buy the 4G as well, so you might view that increase from 32GB to 64GB as costing $140.

It's got a 1920 x 1200, 7-inch, 323 PPI display. They promise 11 hours of battery life, but if you're just reading, battery life is supposed to be 17 hours.

It's got a new version of the Fire OS (version 3.0) that they call "Mojito." The most interesting part of that OS is what they call the "Mayday button." Pressing this does not, as I had fantasized, bring you hours of videos of grand parades in Moscow and Havana, but instead just connects you to an Amazon service rep tech adviser who will walk you through whatever challenges you are having with your Kindle Fire HDX. You get a video image of your adviser, but they say the adviser won't be able to see you. The tech adviser can do things on your Kindle for you, if you want.

The 7-inch Fire HDX will ship in mid-October and an 8.9-inch version will come out in early November. The display on that one will be 2560 x 1600 with 339 PPI.

Filed under Technology | permalink | September 25, 2013 at 05:18 PM | Comments (0)

LAUSD Students Excel On iPads

One week. That's how long it took students to hack the security installed by LAUSD which had been designed to prevent the students from going on the web. The "hack" was simply to delete their profile information! Wow, who'd they pay for that kind of security? I gather from the article that the only network the iPads were intended to connect to was the one at school, which would have been scrubbed and filtered.

The excitement of receiving the device quickly wore off for senior Kimberly Ramirez when she realized it was for schoolwork only.

"You can't do nothing with them," she said. "You just carry them around."

I think the techs in charge of this project should get Fs. The students who figured out the "hack," lame as it was, should get As and be drafted into an AP tech course where they will create security software for iPads that their slower student brethren can't hack.

Filed under Technology | permalink | September 25, 2013 at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

Burning Man Sky

The Skies Of Burning Man (2535)
I think I was adjusting my GoPro.

Filed under Burning Man,Photography | permalink | September 25, 2013 at 02:31 AM | Comments (0)

See How Nice It Can Be

Decorated men's trough urinal potty at Burning Man.
Photo by Phil Stripling. The lady is Louise who does the decorating.

Filed under Burning Man,Photography | permalink | September 25, 2013 at 02:26 AM | Comments (0)