As 2017 comes to a close in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, we celebrate our Daily Sun Citizens and Organization of the Year. Amid the near-constant drumbeat of polarized politics coming out of Washington, it is comforting to know that everyday citizens are going the extra mile to work collaboratively toward a better community. With the Friends of the Northern Arizona Forests, Lora Trujillo and Barry Brennan, Flagstaff can enter 2018 assured that its volunteer network is stronger than ever. (And the honorees were chosen by nearly two dozen former winners representing an even broader and deeper base of community activists.)
And with 2018 being a mid-cycle election year, Flagstaff will need that spirit of bipartisan problem-solving more than ever. The year 2017 has seen a continuation of the scorched-earth political tactics inside the Beltway that make little allowance for compromise across party lines. But with municipal politics here intentionally nonpartisan, there is a chance Flagstaff can still focus on the common good, not partisan or personal gain.
Here are some challenges Flagstaff is likely to face in 2018:
Minimum wage in play: The big question that Flagstaff voters will wrestle with is how big an increase can a relatively small, low-wage labor market absorb without costing lots of jobs. A measure on the November ballot wants to reset the voter-approved $15 minimum wage in 2021 to $12 – the same as the state. It will already be $11 on Jan. 1, and ideally a higher wage should be tied to changes in the cost of living, especially when many two-bedroom apartments are renting for at least $1,200 a month. It’s still not too late for a second measure to make the ballot that includes such an index or perhaps splits the difference.
Housing costs still unaffordable: Prices for single-family detached homes have rebounded to near the pre-recession median of $400,000, and new apartments for NAU students aren’t likely to affect the already high-priced rental markets for workforce families. The Flagstaff council is looking to get a federal grant for up to 60 affordable units, but the city is losing nearly as many if the Arrowhead Village trailer park evictions go through. There’s a group wanting to raise $82 million for parks and recreation projects out of a sales tax hike. What if they partnered with housing advocates to raise an equal amount to incentivize developers to provide low-cost housing as well as parks and rec facilities in every project?
Congestion and neighborhood character: This has been a problem focused mainly on the Milton and Butler corridors in Southside as NAU’s Mountain Campus enrollment has exploded. But now that high-occupancy “activity centers” will be expanded to areas like Juniper Point at Lone Tree Road, Ponderosa Parkway and Route 66, Little America and Fourth Street and Butler Avenue, city planners need to propose affordable ways to expand road and transit capacity in those centers before the projects are built. Snowplay gridlock only occurs on about 12 to 14 days a year; adding 500 student commuters to six intersections already near capacity at peak hours will be a year-round headache without congestion solutions.
Public schools, private agendas: Flagstaff’s mainstream public schools and its charters are heading down two divergent socio-demographic tracks that don’t serve the common good. With the Republican majority in the Legislature encouraging more unaccountable privatization that abets more segregation, not less, Flagstaff will need special leadership if its schools are to be more reflective of the community as a whole. If it lets the haves pull away from the have-nots because of an unlevel playing field, the odds of FUSD getting continued majority support for its crucial 15 percent override become longer still.
Medicaid and FMC: This may sound like a specialized problem, but the ability of the region’s biggest health care provider to be compensated for the services it provides to the working poor determines the fiscal health of the entire rural health care system. If state leaders won’t step up when Obamacare and its matching Medicaid funds are threatened, then it might be time for the Flagstaff region to form its own hospital taxing district to allow us to control our medical care destinies.
Sustainable public lands management: More than the shrinking of monuments, Trump’s promise to shrink federal agency budgets has the potential to be far more disruptive to Flagstaff-area lands. The 4FRI thinning project is already years behind schedule, but the city of Flagstaff and the Nature Conservancy have already pitched in millions for targeted projects. As the climate changes in the Southwest, communities like Flagstaff may need to consider setting up permanent revolving funds they can tap during high wildfire seasons before severe flooding begins.
Politics and a can-do culture: If politics is the art of the possible, then candidates during an election year owe voters not only the specifics of their policies but who they plan to work with to implement them. That means electing leaders who show tolerance, open-mindedness and a respect for the truth. We at the Daily Sun will be holding candidates accountable to those standards in the upcoming year. We’re counting on voters to do the same.