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Flagstaff floats tax, fee increase for Rio funding

Flagstaff voters may be asked to tax themselves in November to pay for the city’s $36 million portion of the Rio de Flag Flood Control Project.

An increase in the city’s sales tax was an option presented at the city council’s work session Tuesday evening, among other options city staff said they did not recommend, like a bond or increasing the city’s stormwater fee, which the council recently increased.

At the meeting, the council asked city staff to work on a menu of different options, including increasing the city’s stormwater fee without voter approval and asking voters to raise the sales tax to fund the other portion, as well as the option of entirely funding the project with a sales tax.

James Duval, the project manager for the flood control project, said in the case of a 100-year flood (which means the city has a 1 percent chance of such a flood in any given year), property owners within the city could be subject to about $916 million in property damage.

“Without the project, the community is constantly at risk of a major flood event,” Duval told the council.

If the project is completed, the floodplain could be eliminated and would remove the need for properties located in the existing floodplain to have flood insurance.

The city is responsible for coming up with $36 million for the project, which is expected to cost $103 million with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body for Northern Arizona University, owns the largest portion of land in the floodplain, which covers much of NAU campus. According to a presentation to the council, 12 other agencies, organizations and private entities each own more than two acres in the floodplain.

If the council decided to craft a ballot question to fund the city’s portion entirely with sales tax, the recommendation from city staff was to implement a 0.25 percent tax, which would charge 25 cents on every $100 spent on taxable goods. For the average family of four in Flagstaff, the annual impact of the tax would be $38, Management Services Director Rick Tadder told the council. The tax would fund the project over the course of seven years.

The benefits of a sales tax, Tadder said, would be that the cost burden would not only be on city residents, but also county residents and any visitors who buy taxable goods in Flagstaff.

The other idea considered by the council was increasing the stormwater fees by $5 per Equivalent Rate Unit per month. An ERU is calculated by the square footage of impervious surface on a property. One ERU is 1,500 square feet of impervious surface, which can include buildings, pavement, compacted gravel surfaces, decks, patios, rooftops, sidewalks and other surfaces that prevent or significantly impede the natural infiltration of stormwater into the soil. Residential properties can be charged for a maximum of five units, but there is no maximum for commercial properties. NAU pays city stormwater fees, Tadder said.

For an average home with three Equivalent Rate Units, the increase would cost the homeowner $15 per month and $180 per year. However, only property owners would be tasked with paying the fee, unlike the sales tax, Tadder said.

The fee increase would have to be in place for seven years to fund the project and would not need voter approval.

If the Army Corps of Engineers is unable to fund or complete the project, Duval said the city’s “Plan B” would cost $56 million.

However, if the Army Corps of Engineers continues as projected, construction could begin in 2019 or 2020, and the city would need to be ready with its portion of the funding, Duval said.

“The need persists whether the Army Corps of Engineers does the project or not,” City Manager Josh Copley told the council. “The money raised through the funding mechanism would be available for the project itself.”

Some council members mentioned NAU would stand to benefit the most from the flood control project. Councilwoman Celia Barotz said even though the city cannot impose fees or taxes on different entities differently, the city could ask NAU for a contribution.

However, at a meeting with NAU President Rita Cheng and the council, Cheng said any money allocated to NAU through the Board of Regents would be to further NAU’s educational mission, not a pass-through for Rio de Flag funding. NAU will be involved in lobbying for funding for the project through its own political connections, Cheng said.

While NAU and other public entities own much of the land in the floodplain, residential homes in the Downtown, Southside and Railroad Springs neighborhoods are also threatened by severe flooding.

Deborah Harris, the executive director of the Southside Neighborhood Association, said she has often heard residents talk about the effects of flooding and worries about floods.

“A lot of people talk on the fly about, ‘Oh if I wasn’t in the floodplain my property would be worth this much,’ or “I can’t make major improvements on my property because of the floodplain,’” Harris said.

Harris said residents she has spoken with seem skeptical that the flood control project will ever come to fruition.

“Most people are really hoping and wishing it will get fixed, but I don’t think they really, truly believe it will get fixed because we’ve been talking about it for so long.”

The council will discuss proposed ballot language and the possibilities of combining the funding between a sales tax and the stormwater fee at an upcoming meeting.

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Flagstaff attorney facing loss of state contract over Israel boycott

PHOENIX -- Flagstaff attorney Mik Jordahl says he has a legal right to boycott companies that do business with Israel.

More to the point, he argues that his decision to exercise that right should not preclude him from providing legal advice -- for a fee -- to the Coconino County Jail District.

But that contention is getting a fight from Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is telling a federal judge in new legal filings there's nothing wrong with forcing people to choose between getting paid with public dollars and boycotting a country that Arizona lawmakers have decided is entitled to special protections.

Ultimately it will be up to Judge Diane Humetewa to decide.

The fight is over a 2016 law that is designed to prevent public dollars from going to firms that support the so-called BDS movement -- boycott, divest and sanction -- that seeks to pressure Israel to change its policies regarding Palestinians and, specifically, have the Jewish state withdraw from the West Bank.

Attorney Kathleen Brody of the American Civil Liberties Union said Jordahl personally boycotts consumer goods and services provided by businesses he believes support the occupation of the West Bank. He also says he won't buy office equipment from Hewlett Packard because that company provides information technology services used by Israeli security at checkpoints throughout the West Bank.

The problem, Brody said, is Jordahl is being asked, as a condition of getting an $18,000-a-year legal services contract with Coconino County, to sign a certification that his firm is not -- and will not be -- involved in any boycotts of Israel. Rather than sign, Jordahl has sued to have the law overturned, contending it violates his First Amendment rights.

Last year, Jordahl "signed the certification under protest," said Brian Hauss, an attorney from the ACLU also working on Jordahl's case. Since then, Jordahl has come to realize how much he has been affected by the anti-boycott certification and has refused to sign it this year, Hauss said. 

Hauss and the ACLU are also representing a client in Kansas over laws against issuing government contracts to those engaged in boycotting Israel. 

"The state can't impose a political litmus test on contractors," Hauss said. "This is viewpoint discrimination, the government is using it's financial leverage to violate the First Amendment."

Brnovich argues those claims have no basis.

"The act does not prevent the plaintiff from saying anything," the legal papers contend.

He said Jordahl and others can "criticize Israel to their hearts' content," call for changes in U.S. policy, advocate for others to boycott Israel and "make abundantly clear that all businesses they do with Israelis is under the most vociferous protest."

What the law does, Brnovich said, is regulate commercial conduct, something subject to lesser constitutional protections, and only on those seeking contracts with state and local governments.

"The state thus only denies a subsidy to those engaged in particular commercial conduct with which the state disagrees," the attorney general argues.

Anyway, Brnovich said, there's nothing inherently wrong in Arizona enacting a law that says those who get public dollars should not be engaged in discrimination based on national origin.

Only thing, however, is that this law is not that broad. The only boycotts that will trigger the loss of state contracts are those of Israel; firms getting state dollars remain free to boycott other countries and the companies that do business with them.

Brnovich, however, told Capitol Media Services he doesn't see a constitutional problem with that.

"No nation has been under attack more than Israel has and has had less help from any other country in the world as Israel has had," he continued. "I think the message the Legislature wanted to send was we're going to stand with Israel."

And the attorney general made it quite clear that, as far as he sees it, there's no need for the Arizona law to treat all sides equally.

"This is particularly true as the effect -- and often goal -- of BDS boycotts is to strengthen the hand of the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Israel," Brnovich said, an organization he said is "far less democratic" than Israel. And he argued that the Palestinian Authority is a coalition government between the Palestine Liberation Organization which Brnovich says pays cash stipends to the families of terrorists, and Hamas which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organization.

"The state has compelling interests in avoiding commerce in the state and state funds being used to support such activities," Brnovich said.

No date has been set for a hearing.

The 2016 law was pushed through by David Gowan, who was House speaker at the time and waging what ultimately turned out to be an unsuccessful congressional bid.

Gowan said he wanted to use the economic strength of the state to undermine the BDS movement and its goal of getting people to boycott companies that do business with Israel to pressure that country to change its policies. Among the companies targeted, Gowan said, were Boeing and Caterpillar, firms that both have a presence in Arizona.

He called the movement "anti-Semitic," saying his legislation shows Arizona is supportive of Israel, "its strongest ally in the Middle East."

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NAU, city liaison hopes to connect students, residents

Would a student ambassador help bridge rifts between longtime residents and students living off campus in neighborhoods?

That is the goal of the new Neighborhood Liaison, Valeria Chase, whose signature program will be the student ambassadors program. Ambassadors in the program would work with longtime residents to host neighborhood activities and build connections between those who live in neighborhoods.

So far, Chase has spent her first few weeks on the job meeting with various stakeholders, including neighborhood associations, the citizen’s liaison committee with the police department and plans to meet with block watch groups.

Chase, who worked in NAU’s student affairs department for about 15 years before becoming the neighborhood liaison, got both her bachelor's and master’s degrees at NAU and is raising her family in Flagstaff. She has lived in Flagstaff for about 20 years, and prior to living in the city served eight years in the United States Army.

“I like to build relationships and connect people,” Chase said of why the position interested her.

Now, Chase is working to schedule off-site office hours where people can drop in and share concerns or ask questions about students living in neighborhoods.

“It’s important to listen to what the citizens have to say, to validate their concerns,” she said. “Some things are out of the university’s control, but we can connect them with people who can help them. I will not leave them without answers.”

Most concerns that she has heard so far stem from worries about loud parties, noise complaints and other disturbances in neighborhoods.

“Sometimes off-campus students get a bad rap,” she said.

Another program Chase has proposed is a party registration, where hosts could notify the police department in advance of the party. If police get a call about a noise complaint for a registered party, the dispatcher could contact the host to tell him or her to turn it down. If the host complies, police do not get sent to the party and the host avoids a citation that could come with a noise complaint.

The registration system would help free up police resources for other issues, including parties at places that tend to get out of hand.

Speaking specifically about an apartment on Franklin Avenue where a party was held before the fight that led to the fatal shooting of Colin Brough and injuries to three other NAU students, which had been visited by police multiple times for party complaints in the months before the shooting, Chase said ongoing problems will be dealt with first through meetings.

“If we had a recurring thing, like the Franklin house, the university does have the ability to call them in and talk with them,” she said.

She plans to have an “educational approach” to her meetings with students about conduct.

“I’m always open to starting a relationship on a good note,” she said, adding that if a resident came to her with concerns, she would try to talk to both sides fairly and work toward a positive outcome.

Chase fills the position that has been open since May, when Karissa Morgan, the former liaison left for another job.

“We are so happy to have the position filled,” city spokeswoman Jessica Drum said. “Both the city and NAU see the need for it and see the role it can play and the service it can provide.”