While COVID-19 and its impact on the city continued as the most dominant story of 2021, elected officials and others said they hope to focus on other critical matters in 2022. That may be easier said than done.
The pandemic is not going to disappear overnight. And as it has played out for nearly two years, one thing is clear: Palm Springs is more popular than ever, and not just with tourists. The growing pains associated with that popularity create a unique set of issues on top of the existing problems of homelessness, crime, and affordable housing.
“The tourist economy is progressing rapidly out of the pandemic,” City Manager Justin Clifton said earlier this month. “But the city is ramping up slower than it’s evolving.”
Case in point: Some crucial city departments are understaffed — partially the result of budget cuts and layoffs made in anticipation of a revenue shortfall that never materialized and the subsequent struggle to fill openings. Even if the city suddenly became fully staffed, Clifton said it would take time to ramp up new employees and upgrade systems to better serve citizens and others trying to do business here. Time is also required to learn precisely where to gain efficiencies.
“We need time to get back to basics and evaluate our base level of services,” he said. “How long does it take to clean a street? How long does it take to process an application?”
The routine business of issuing building permits, collecting tax revenue, monitoring compliance with city codes, and authoring staff reports — let alone being thrust into dealing with the pandemic — left few resources available in 2021 to plan for the future, said Clifton, pointing out that city staff even had to adjust to a new person in the city manager role for the first time in decades.
In 2022, Clifton said his priority will be seeking a balance between the immediate needs of citizens living in Palm Springs today and long-term solutions to current and future issues.
“It’s a matter of, do we take bold actions and risks versus being risk-averse?” he said. “You have to pick where you find a balance between those things.”
Want homelessness solved? Clifton said that requires time to put policies in place that give authorities more flexibility to remove individuals choosing to live on the streets — such as a sit/lie law — and partner on building facilities where those experiencing homelessness and addiction can seek shelter and case management. The city is currently pursuing the purchase of a property that can become such a facility.
Is affordable housing important to you? Putting systems in place to provide for that takes time as well.
“We need to look at our strategies,” Clifton said. “Our zoning is 30 years old. It will take two years just to thoughtfully re-do it. Then there are all the little details. It takes four years just to complete an affordable housing project.”
Clifton said he understands that citizens have immediate needs and demand quick answers and solutions. However, the hard truth is that without taking time now to put some basic systems in place and do long-range planning, issues that became even more serious as the city transitioned to a “Zoom Town” will only get worse.
“You’re better off telling people what’s true than what they want to hear,” he said. “… We’re trying to build some things that currently don’t exist at all. …We need to look forward and try not to fixate on street lights being out.”
While street lights themselves may not be the most crucial infrastructure, Mayor Lisa Middleton said the topic of infrastructure is among the most important she plans to address as she assumes the leadership role for 2022.
She echoed Clifton’s call to improve and expand city facilities — from staff offices to fire stations — and went a step further to include rail service for the entire Coachella Valley and bridges to replace roadways that are frequently closed during floods or high winds.
“There’s $66 billion in the federal infrastructure bill for rail projects, and that’s an effort we need to be really aggressive on,” Middleton said. “Another is bridges. We all know how frequently Indian Canyon and Gene Autry are closed because of blowing sand. When those roads close, access to the freeway is more difficult, and access to Desert Regional Medical Center increases by three to five times the time it would normally take to get there from the freeway. Now I think we have an opportunity to build a bridge that would span one or both of those dry washes.”
Middleton said her highest priorities remain continued vigilance in the battle against COVID-19 and addressing the ongoing homelessness crisis in the city.
The city has done well to curb the amount of COVID-19 in the community, she said, but the virus will likely be a permanent part of our lives. Dealing with its ongoing presence, she said, will take new strategies.
“The most reliable medical direction that I feel I’m getting is that this virus is going to continue to mutate for probably multiple years, which is what viruses do,” Middleton said. “The kinds of measures that we put into place initially to address the pandemic I believe did help save lives. But much of that is not sustainable when you’re talking about public health activities that are going to have to take place over years as opposed to weeks and months.”
As for homelessness, by far the single most significant issue on city residents’ minds, she again echoed Clifton in calling for the city to push to open the proposed services center as soon as possible.
“Getting it open within the year is going to be a challenge, and I think it’s one we need to take on,” Middleton said of the facility proposed for the northern part of the city. “When that opens, we are in a position to take far more assertive actions regarding people who are sleeping and lying in public places.”
While the city may take additional actions to make living on the streets of Palm Springs a less comfortable option, Middleton said, that’s only part of what’s needed to help individuals suffering on those streets.
“All of us want to help those individuals who are struggling financially and need help to get back on their feet,” she said. “For the most part, we have done pretty good to help those individuals. Dealing with people who have addiction and mental health issues, there are programs for them, and we struggle to get people to participate.”
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