Palm Springs, Calif. - In November of 2011, Palm Springs voters approved Measure J, a one percent sales tax increase.
Many remember the city-sponsored ballot initiative as a way to revive downtown, but the money that has come in from Measure J has been used in many other areas as well. In one case, the city has allocated millions of Measure J dollars to try to purchase land to stop it from being privately developed.
At the downtown Desert Fashion Plaza, the last remaining merchants have moved out, and most of the long-dormant building has been demolished.
Ground is scheduled to be broken on the new development, January 16th. Construction is planned throughout next year.
"We're still shooting for right around January 1st, 2015 to have some of the first retail open," said Palm Springs Mayor, Steve Pougnet. "The parking will be done by then. The street improvements will be done."
A one percent sales tax increase is funding $42.9 million dollars of downtown development. $11 million goes to parking and roads, including the creation of what's being called New Main Street, connecting Palm Canyon to the art museum.
$31.9 million dollars goes to developer John Wessman to build a hotel and retail center.
"They sold it (Measure J) to give a lot of jobs in the community and build up downtown, which was a wreck at that time," said Palm Springs resident, Rob Motta.
Downtown may have been the selling point to convince voters to raise their sales tax to nine percent, but it is only a starting point for the allocation of millions of dollars that will come in to the city's general fund over the next 23 years from Measure J.
"I think the primary misconception is that all the Measure J money is going to the downtown development, and the project the city is doing with Mr. Wessman to redevelop our downtown. That's not at all true," said Measure J Commission Chairman, Robert Moon.
Moon leads a nine-member volunteer commission that makes recommendations to city council on how to spend Measure J money. Palm Springs has taken in more than $11 million dollars in Measure J funds this year.
"The amount of money that we're actually putting into things like streets, and roads, and parks and improvements to the city is actually three times the amount of money that's going, so far, to the downtown development project," Moon said.
Individual Palm Springs citizens have made more than 200 suggestions to the commission on how they'd like to see Measure J money spent.
"There were 27 on bicycle paths," Moon said. "As a result we recommended over a million dollars towards bicycle paths and sidewalk striping."
Moon says all votes on Measure J spending have been unanimous from the commission and the city council.
We asked Mr. Moon if the commission has denied any requests for Measure J funds from city council.
"No. We don't really have the authority to deny anything," Moon said. "We have no authority to spend money. What we do is we make recommendations to the city council. But fortunately, so far, the city council has agreed with and endorsed all of our recommendations."
Three million dollars of Measure J money has been budgeted for land acquisition. The city is pursuing, with other groups, purchasing land in the Chino Cone. It's an undeveloped area that is behind the Palm Springs Visitor Center and below the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
"We are pursuing purchasing land in the Chino Cone for a public purpose that hasn't happened yet," Pougnet said. "I can't talk too much about it because it's an item that's in real property negotiations. But that has been set aside as a potential purchase of land as a partner with some other organizations."
We asked Mayor Pougnet if purchasing undeveloped land falls within the scope of Measure J.
"I do," Pougnet said. "Some people have questions whether it does or not, but it's going to be a public park for the public good. It's infrastructure, and I certainly think it meets the criteria."
The city is budgeting $3.2 million dollars a year to pay off the bond taken out for the project with Wessman downtown, leaving millions more dollars each year in additional revenue for the city.
How is Measure J money separated from the needs of city general funds?
"It's a separate item in the budget. We made it very clear," Pougnet said. "We said it would not go for salaries and/or pensions. If you go to the budget, there is actually a line item in there that says Measure J money. We also have an auditor just for that and reports to city council and myself."
After recommending $15.4 million dollars in spending to the council, oversight committee chairman Moon says the Measure J fund still has $2.6 million dollars in reserves.
More information about Measure J can be found here: http://psmeasurej.com/.