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City to buy parcel on Lockett, Fanning for affordable housing

The Flagstaff City Council took the first step to buying two acres of vacant land near Siler Homes to create affordable housing at its meeting Tuesday night.

The parcel, located at Lockett Road and Fanning Drive, will cost the city $550,000 plus closing costs and an additional $5,500 to $7,500 in fees, according to city documentation about the purchase.

It is zoned high density residential, and could accommodate between 21 and 46 units, city Real Estate Manager Charity Lee told the council.

The property has been used for storing materials related to road construction on Lockett Road and Fanning Drive, but has zoning and topography that would be agreeable to building residential units in the “near term,” City Manager Josh Copley said.

Former city councilman Rick Lopez advised that councilmembers and the city seek public input from those living in the area before moving ahead with the purchase, to potentially avoid the problems the city had with a three-acre parcel on Schultz Pass and Fort Valley roads. That parcel was purchased in 2005 with the intention of developing it for affordable housing, but sat vacant until 2017. When the council tried to move forward to develop it, they were met with extensive public opposition and eventually did not develop the parcel.

“Council a few years ago purchased a property thinking it was a great thing,” Lopez said. “It turned into a nightmare that you all had to go through.”

Lopez suggested the city hold a neighborhood meeting between the first and second reading of the purchase ordinance. The first reading was approved Tuesday, the second is scheduled for February 20.

Lee and other city officials said the city would be able to host a public meeting about the purchase and the intent to use it for affordable housing, but said the meeting might take place after the second reading of the ordinance, because there would not be enough time to do the usual amount of public outreach.

“The major issue with Schultz Pass is it sat there,” Mayor Coral Evans said. “If we purchase the property for affordable housing, we need to put affordable housing there as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, Evans suggested the city put a sign on the parcel telling passersby that the parcel will be a future site of affordable housing. The meeting, she said, should be geared toward informing residents the parcel will be used for housing purposes and seeing what residents’ concerns are, not asking for input on what neighbors would like to see on the site.

Management Services Director Rick Tadder told the council the purchase of the land uses up the last available funds the housing division has for land acquisition. Then housing department brought the parcel to the budget team’s attention in November and wanted to act quickly so they would not lose the opportunity to buy the property, Tadder said.

Senate panel asks voters to reconsider their approval of $12 minimum wage

PHOENIX -- Calling the voter-approved measure morally wrong, a Republican-controlled Senate panel voted Monday to ask voters to reconsider the 2016 measure that is set to hike the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

SCR 1016 would not entirely rescind what was approved by a margin of 58-42 percent. And wages would not go back to the $8.05 an hour they were two years ago.

But it would repeal future scheduled increases, freezing the minimum employers must pay at the current $10.50 an hour.

What it also would do -- if voters really do have second thoughts -- is eliminate another provision of the 2016 law, which says that full-time employees are entitled to at least three days of paid sick leave.

Monday's 5-3 party-line vote by the Committee on Commerce and Public Safety sends the measure to the full Senate. If it is approved there and by the House, also controlled by Republicans, the question would go to voters in November.

Michelle Sims, a professor of economics at Arizona Western College testified that research she is doing for her doctoral dissertation found a vast majority of rural businesses have had to increase their prices or cut employee hours as a result of the 2016 measure.

Other rural business owners told lawmakers of their own problems and inability to simply pass on higher costs to customers.

"People will only pay so much for trail mix and peanuts,'' said Donna George of Yuma.

And Olivia Long, a 2017 Payson High School graduate, said the local family owned coffee shop where she worked part-time while going to school had to increase prices when the minimum wage got bumped to $10 an hour in January 2017. The result, she said, is customers are now going to Starbucks.

Tomas Robles, co-director of Living United for Change in Arizona, the organization that spearheaded the initiative, had his own take on those stories.

"These are lies,'' he argued. Robles cited figures that show unemployment in Arizona is at the lowest rate in a decade and that employment in the traditionally low-paying leisure and hospitality sector not only has risen since the measure was approved but has outpaced the national average.

But Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, the sponsor of SCR 1016, said the issue goes beyond the effect on small businesses.

"Your business is your private property,'' she told colleagues.

"No one has the right to tell a business what they have to pay to an individual,'' Allen continued. "They don't know the particulars of that business. They don't know the liability that they carry.''

That theme was echoed by Diana Links who said she owns a catering firm.

"My family took a risk, not the voters of Arizona,'' she said. Link said her company, which provides lunches for charter schools, has been unable to make up the difference in the higher labor costs by raising its prices.

"The minimum wage increase has been a disaster for my business,'' she said.

And Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said the entire concept of having voters set a higher minimum wage is questionable.

"I believe I have a moral responsibility to be generous with my own money,'' he said. "But I believe it's completely immoral to be generous with other people's money.''

Supporters, however, saw the issue in terms of the broader good.

David Wells, research director of the Grand Canyon Institute, acknowledged that taking wages from $8.05 an hour to $12 will result in the loss of about 13,000 jobs. But Wells said his study shows that about 800,000 Arizonans will see more in their paychecks.

And then there is the question of whether voters really made a mistake.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, told colleagues that the margin of victory for the measure is actually large. He was not swayed by arguments that a minimum wage hike is an improper taking of money from one group in order to give it to another.

"We do that all the time,'' Bowie said, pointing to not only the tax cuts given to corporations but even the decision by the Ducey administration to slash the number of auditors whose job it is to ensure that these firms at least pay what they owe.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, went along with his GOP colleagues and voted to put the issue on the November ballot. But Worsley said he has no illusion that somehow the outcome will be different, even with extensive rural opposition.

"I suspect it will pass again,'' he said, pointing out that the vast majority of voters live in the state's urban areas.

Environmental group 'NextGen America' pushes against Trump and for renewable energy in Arizona

PHOENIX -- A national group led by a billionaire hoping to impeach Donald Trump is helping to fund an effort to force Arizona utilities to get half their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

And unlike a plan by Andy Tobin, what constitutes "renewable'' does not include nuclear.

Bill Scheel, a campaign consultant helping set up the petition drive, said Monday there is a coalition of civic and health organizations who do not believe the current renewable energy standard goals set by the Arizona Corporation Commission are sufficient. They require investor-owned utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from what the regulators consider to be renewable -- meaning pretty much anything but coal and natural gas.

Scheel said the coalition wants a more aggressive approach -- and a focus on health versus energy savings.

"Arizona has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country, hundreds of thousands of asthma sufferers, many of them children,'' he said.

"The biggest cause of this asthma epidemic is air pollution,'' Scheel continued. "We've got to get cleaner air to make a dent in that number of asthma sufferers.''

Barbara Burkholder who handles legislative matters for the Arizona Asthma Coalition, acknowledged that vehicles also are a prime source of pollutants that can affect people. She said that is why her group is backing legislation to enact California-style emission limits on vehicles.

Burkholder said the effects of burning fossil fuels is not limited to those downwind.

She said these power plants pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which raises temperatures. And Burkholder said higher ambient temperatures increase the conversion of other pollutants into ground-level ozone, which is a major irritant and cause of asthma and other breathing problems.

But Scheel said organizers of the initiative do not believe it is appropriate to include nuclear power plants in what is considered renewable, even if they do not have smokestack emissions. Here, too, he said, that is because the focus is on health.

"One of the things we know is that the mining of uranium around the Grand Canyon and on the Navajo Reservation, in fact, has contributed to high rates of cancer in some of those communities,'' Scheel said. "Nuclear is not clean and has health impacts right here in Arizona.''

Getting the 225,953 valid signatures by July 5 to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot won't come cheap. Scheel said it will take "millions of dollars'' not just to qualify for the ballot but then to convince Arizonans to support the measure in November.

That's where NextGen America comes in, a political advocacy group set up by billionaire Tom Steyer.

"Climate issues are something that have always been really, really important to Tom,'' said NextGen spokeswoman Aleigh Cavalier. More to the point, she said that Steyer has concluded that President Trump is not interested in environmental issues.

So Cavalier said he and NextGen have decided it can have the most impact on a state level, especially in places like Arizona, a state that allows voters to set policy at the ballot box. And she said Steyer and NextGen are prepared to do "whatever it takes'' to qualify the measure for the November ballot and convince voters to go along.

Environmental issues aside, Steyer has not hidden his distaste for the president.

He spent $10 million on a television commercial to kick off a campaign to impeach Trump and another $10 million during the tax reform debate to both oppose the Republican plan and renew the call to oust the president. And just last month Steyer announced that he intends to put another $20 million into the dump Trump campaign.

But Cavalier said she does not believe that Steyer's involvement will undermine the Arizona initiative.

"We know that combating climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy is overwhelmingly popular,'' she said.

"This measure has bipartisan support,'' Cavalier continued. "We are simply taking up a fight that's important to Arizona.''

The initiative comes as Tobin, a state utility regulator, has trotted out his own plan to require the utilities subject to commission oversight, to reach an 80 percent renewable standard by 2050.

Tobin's plan is far more comprehensive than simply a goal. It also includes requirements for everything from increased conservation efforts to energy storage to allow the electrons generated by wind and solar to be used when the wind isn't blowing and the sun is not shining.

As to his inclusion of nuclear in that mix, Tobin said the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix was built with consumer dollars. He questioned the advisability of simply abandoning the three-unit plant.

Commission staffers estimate that 26 percent of the power produced in Arizona comes from nuclear.

Anyway, Tobin said it's an open question of whether Palo Verde will even be operating by 2050 or will have been decommissioned.

Tobin said his proposal also has health benefits. For example, he wants to include the burning of "biomass'' to generate power in the list of renewables. Tobin said that makes environmental sense, as clearing the forest of overgrowth will reduce the fuel for fires that cause massive smoke pollution.

The initiative already is getting opposition from Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry who lashed out at "a campaign waged by an out-of-state political activist who won't have to live with the consequences.'' Hamer also said he favors having the commission set policy, at least in part because it can be amended if necessary; voter-approved measures can only be changed by taking the question back to the ballot.

"Why would we want to lock ourselves into one policy prescription when new technologies and scientific findings might emerge on the horizon?'' he asked.

Joe Salkowski, spokesman for Tucson Electric Power and UniSource Energy Services said the companies cannot comment on the initiative until they see the details. But he said they support the general goals of what Tobin is pushing, saying they promote reliability, efficiency and economic development.

But Salkowski, who said the companies are already moving to more renewables and energy storage, said it has not yet taken a formal position on the Tobin plan.

900-acre wildfire continues to burn at Camp Navajo

Smoke filled the horizon west of Flagstaff on Sunday as a 900-acre wildfire burned at Camp Navajo. The fire started Tuesday and burned through ponderosa pine, spruce, juniper and grasslands. Strong wind gusts on Saturday prevented firefighters from containing the blaze and also pushed the flames toward thick-forested areas east of Volunteer Canyon.

A press release issued Sunday afternoon stated that first responders were preparing to backburn the western and eastern flanks of the fire to mitigate further spreading. Crews from the Department of Forestry and Fire Management joined the Camp Navajo Incident Command Team to help contain and manage the fire.

National guard aircraft continued water drops to suppress the flames.

“The fire is burning in an area that is unsafe for firefighters to actively conduct fire suppression operations, therefore, a containment strategy was chosen. Due to the inability to actively suppress this fire in its current location we anticipate smoke in the region for an extended period,” a news release from the Arizona Emergency Information Network stated.

The fire did not pose a risk to facilities or operations at Camp Navajo and was well-contained within boundaries set by the incident command team. The blaze burned slowly in Volunteer Canyon and more rapidly in the open grasslands, according to the release.

Signage has been set up on Interstate 40 to warn drivers about the potential for smoke to pose a safety hazard.

The fire was accidentally caused by an explosive ordnance disposal team, said Brady Smith, spokesman with the Coconino National Forest, which is in contact with the incident command team.