It was only a coincidence that a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers was in Flagstaff to update citizens on Rio de Flag flood control plans just as Hurricane Harvey was getting ready to flood Houston.
The Army Corps link, however, was about the only thing the two cities have in common. As others have reported, Houston is a city literally out of control – there is no zoning, and limits on building in a floodplain are routinely flouted. Concrete that covers the once-spongelike Texas coastal prairie means floodwaters have nowhere to go but into neighborhoods when reservoirs overflow. And there are no post-disaster building codes to require owners of damaged property to build any differently the second time around. Laissez-faire development has undermined any ability to plan for effective flood control, much less fund it locally.
In Flagstaff, the long-delayed Rio de Flag project has gone from a concrete culvert by the Corps to a citizen-designed buried tunnel beneath a wider, natural streambed. As we report today in our front-page story, the idea is that if a severe flood overwhelms the tunnel, there will be room in the wider channel above to absorb some of the runoff before it reaches Southside and NAU, which are in a floodplain.
The tradeoff with a wider, natural channel is that some homes will need to be removed. But the city has already designated funds for that task and the Corps is ready to pick up the lion’s share of the remaining costs of the $106 million project – the city will wind up paying about $30 million in all. The major unanswered question is when, after Harvey, will there be funds in the Corps’ budget for Flagstaff?
What is clear, however, is that once again Flagstaff has shown that instead of just attacking a federal program and its bureaucrats as unresponsive, it has produced an innovative, yet practical alternative. Whether it is traffic congestion on snowplay holidays, state school underfunding of STEM, downtown parking, a new Veterans Home, plastic bag waste, high-tech startups or watershed protection, the response has been to cool the partisan rhetoric, roll up the sleeves, and work on a solution.
Cities are not called the “laboratories of democracy” for nothing, in part because the ethos is that the collective intelligence of civic and business leaders, elected officials and grassroots citizen groups is better than any single individual or political party. That is particularly true in Flagstaff, a college town, where the university is by definition a collective enterprise far greater than any of its individual faculty, departments or colleges. (More below on how it might improve on that mission.)
The state and national political scene, however, is nearly a mirror opposite, with ideologues underwriting self-serving campaigns that are often single-issue (“No new taxes”) or mired in populist resentment that is untethered to practical prescriptions for constructive change. The Republicans in Congress and the Trump White House have learned this lesson the hard way since the 2016 election as a series of campaign attacks on Obama-era health care insurance, immigration policies, trade agreements, consumer protection have proved resistant to governing by sound bite. Now they want to pass tax reform and a new infrastructure program while the president wants to hold the operation of the entire U.S. government hostage to funding a border wall that he said last year the Mexicans would pay for. Business leaders are deserting the president in droves for his failure to unequivocally condemn the white nationalists at Charlottesville, but it’s not clear how well either Republicans or Democrats understand and can respond to the still-strong support for the president among his primary election backers.
That calcification at the national level of ideology-driven polarization might not be a concern at the local level, except that Flagstaff and other Arizona cities are confronted with much the same partisan intransigence at the state level. The governor talks about creating a world-class education system but then raids the state land trust for stop-gap school funding instead of backing new taxes. Now, as Capitol Media Services reports today, the chairman of his own blue ribbon commission on state school finance says all the fine-tuning of funding formulas in the world won’t accomplish much without at least a penny increase in the state sales tax dedicated to education, enough to raise $1 billion. And even then, because Arizona is nearly dead last in state funding, it won’t do much to significantly raise salaries and stop the hemorrhaging of first- and second-year teachers.
Further, the Republicans at the Capitol are channeling their primary voters’ resentments over urban elites into a home rule pre-emption drive that doesn’t do much to incubate new jobs, improve schools or build much of anything except new prisons and Phoenix-area freeways. The state already bars cities from including affordable housing in new development and essentially freezes all zoning in time – no matter how much it is out of alignment with new growth and traffic patterns. Now it has lifted all local restrictions on short-term, Airbnb-style rentals, a particular problem in Flagstaff with its already high prices and housing inventory shortage. Speculators and owners of vacation homes might like this new perk, but how does it help house the local workforce affordably?
UNIVERSITIES IN SQUEEZE
State universities, including NAU, are caught in a squeeze as state leaders call for more graduates without funding the growth – or the impact on host communities. Our sense, at least with NAU, is that it can fulfill its mission of openness to debate, commitment to critical inquiry and respect for argument by supporting diversity and inclusion on campus, then spreading the fruits of that mission by partnering with community groups and civic institutions to develop relevant policies and programs. Sustainable neighborhood and municipal growth is just one possible focus, and, at least in Flagstaff, it probably can’t be put off much longer. As we’ve seen at the national level, populist resentment can lead to policy chaos, and that’s not a future we want for our Mountain Town.