While COVID-19 no longer dominates headlines or City Council meetings, one of its lingering aftereffects was still a major factor in the past year: A wave of both new residents and visitors appears to have crested in 2022, leaving behind a city that benefited from their presence and is better prepared to face more familiar issues for its taxpayers.
As we looked back on 2021 one year ago, we proclaimed Palm Springs a “Zoom Town,” having attracted an influx of residents able to work from home who chose to escape larger cities for a more tranquil life in the desert. This year, city officials said last week, many of those new full-timers have retreated back to the cities. And as the pandemic eased, tourists who had few options for travel outside Southern California began to explore other destinations.
“You’re starting to see those people moving back to LA or San Diego and places like that,” said Deputy City Manager Flinn Fagg. “At least in my circle of friends we’ve seen that happen. Also, I think, in some ways, because things have opened up more people are going to other vacation destinations. I think our business community has been transitioning to something that’s a slightly different model than what we’ve seen in the previous year.”
“Transition” was the word used by multiple city officials, including Fagg, Interim City Manager Teresa Gallavan, and Mayor Grace Garner, when asked to provide one word that would sum-up what the town went through in 2022.
There was certainly a transition at City Hall, as Justin Clifton announced in July he was leaving after 18 months in the city manager role. Fire Chief Kevin Nalder resigned in August, and City Clerk Anthony Mejia left for Palm Desert in February. Their departures were a continuation of a trend of high-profile vacancies that occurred in 2021.
Gallavan could not point to any single reason for the volume of departures in key positions and said hiring for their replacements, which is ongoing in the case of Clifton and Nalder, is being done in “a challenging market.”
Fagg, who was promoted from his role as director of planning services, creating an opening that was later filled, said that while department leaders may be shifting, much of the city staff has been in place for years. Better yet, Fagg, Gallavan and Garner said, funds were budgeted by the City Council for several new employees — critical to providing better customer service at City Hall — as well as more firefighters and police officers. The city currently budgets for 575 fulltime employees and has toughly 75 open positions.
Garner pointed to negotiations with the firefighters’ union as a particular success story during 2022.
“The union made sure we knew what they needed were more firefighters,” she explained. “We removed a single administrative position and got multiple firefighters for the same cost.”
Adding firefighters is crucial, she added, if the city wants to achieve a Class 1 rating, which some insurance companies use when calculating property insurance rates. It also helps the department respond quicker to medical emergencies — by far the highest volume of calls.
Many of the aid calls firefighters respond to are for members of the unhoused community. Most readers polled by The Post said the ongoing homelessness crisis, as well as the related issue of housing affordability, continue to be the issues that most concerned them in Palm Springs during 2022.
On that front, city leaders can point to some success. While there is still no permanent overnight shelter for unhoused residents, city officials worked to clean up Baristo Park and also strengthened ties with Martha’s Village & Kitchen, which last year began operating a drop-in homeless services center at the former Boxing Club off El Cielo Road.
In January, the city awarded the organization a contract to manage a planned campus in the northern part of the city. The “navigation center,” which should open its doors by next summer, will provide not only temporary housing but multiple services aimed at lifting people off the streets and into homes and employment.
“The navigation center will help get us pointed in the direction we need to go,” said Fagg. “We’re also going to have a staff position focused on the issue — a homeless services coordinator — and we’d like to do an inclusionary housing study.”
Inclusionary housing — the practice of requiring developers to set aside some new housing units for lower-income residents — is crucial in the long-term. So is the effort made in 2022 to begin building the first new affordable housing in the city in more than a decade. In the short-term, residents and city leaders credited The Palm Springs Police Department for its efforts at clearing out encampments in the city in 2022 — an effort that goes beyond simply trying to remove unhoused residents from view.
“We have a very responsive team” Garner said of those participating in the effort dubbed Operation Clean Streets. “Officers go out and meet with members of the unhoused community and connect them to resources.”
Residents who responded to a survey we conducted appear to understand the connection between affordable housing and homelessness.
“Palm Springs is not alone in this but we have got to aggressively address the issue,” wrote George Covino, a Deepwell resident. “Maybe as the new homeless center takes shape and more affordable housing comes on line, we will start to see some changes.”
Changes to the nation’s economy could be coming. Many experts begin to worry about a possible recession. But with rising tax revenues made possible by an influx of visitors in 2022, and an expected continuation of high occupancy rates in area hotels and vacation rentals, the city’s budget looks ready to roll with the punches.
“For the next two quarters we’ve already set the budget,” Gallavan said when asked about the city budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. “We should be in good shape, and in February we’ll do a mid-year forecast.”
One of the most debated parts of the city budget — revenue collected from stays in short-term vacation rentals (STVRs) often found on Airbnb and other apps — saw progress in 2022. City staff completed an overdue update on the rules that govern them, aiming not to cap the number of permits but rather to discourage corporate ownership of properties being rented.
To do that, the City Council adopted updates to the ordinance last month that decreases the number of times each property can be rented annually and also created a “junior permit” that allows a handful of rentals each year. Both moves are deigned to help those who buy properties in the city better afford them as second homes and potentially their permanent home.
THIS WEEK: OUR YEAR IN REVIEW SERIES
TODAY: Palm Springs in 2022: A city in transition
THURSDAY: Palm Springs in 2023: A renewed focus on locals
FRIDAY: Meet our 2022 Palm Springs Person of the Year