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CBashore / Cody Bashore, Arizona Daily Sun 

Flagstaff's Zalma Batrez-Cardoza (16) tries to jump for a corner kick that flies past the goal during Saturday's 4A Conference championship match at Williams Field High School in Gilbert.


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FLAGSTAFF WATERSHED PROTECTION PROJECT
City: $10 million bond not enough to cover Flagstaff forest thinning

More than five years after Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million bond to thin forests around the city's watersheds, city staff say they now expect the bond money won’t cover all the work that needs to be done.

A report sent to city council Thursday states the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, or FWPP, faces a $4.5 million shortfall, meaning about 35 percent of the project won’t be completed with current bond funding. Unfunded portions will likely include part of the forest thinning planned for the Dry Lake Hills area north of Flagstaff and all of the work that was to happen on Mormon Mountain, in the Lake Mary watershed.

The shortfall also means the project meant to protect Flagstaff’s watersheds from severe fire and post-wildfire flooding will fall further behind schedule, as work was expected to begin on Mormon Mountain next year.

With that in mind, the city will begin discussions next week on the possibility of seeking additional funding to complete FWPP and provide ongoing maintenance, City Manager Josh Copley said. That could be through another bond measure that would go on the ballot in 2020, tapping general fund dollars or approving something like an additional fee on water bills, Copley said.

Since it was approved in 2012, FWPP has repeatedly been lauded as one of only a few projects in the nation to use municipal funding to support restoration work on the national forest. And even with the budget shortfall, Copley emphasized the project's successes, including thousands of acres that have already been treated via tree thinning and prescribed fire. The city continues to see FWPP as “a good story to tell,” he said.

WHERE MONEY HAS GONE

So far, the city has spent about a third, or $3.2 million, of the FWPP bond money. That has gone toward planning and implementation of prescribed burning, hand thinning and mechanical tree harvesting on about 5,000 acres, mostly across Observatory Mesa and several state and city parcels near the southeast and southwest edges of the city. Of the 11,000 acres expected to be thinned across the FWPP footprint, work has been completed on about 40 percent of them.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

A Hydro Ax mechanical feller is being used to thin a section of the forest adjacent to Elden Lookout Road as part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.

But those acres were the less expensive, low-hanging fruit that the city knew it could accomplish right away, Copley said. It has also required significant outside money, in addition to the city bond money, to accomplish the work to date. Agencies like the state and the Forest Service have put an additional $4.9 million into the project, mostly to pay for thinning and the subsequent piling or disposal of low-value woody biomass.

RISING COSTS

City staff now know the work ahead will be much more expensive, with tree thinning in the Dry Lake Hills area alone expected to cost $7.1 million. That’s $2.45 million more than the city has in remaining unreserved FWPP bond money.

It wasn’t until early 2017 that the city realized the FWPP work would balloon above the $10 million mark, the council report stated. At that point, new estimates concluded that thinning work on the steep slopes of Dry Lake Hills could be two to five times more expensive than previously anticipated. That’s due to several reasons, according to city and Forest Service staff:

  • The timber in area forests isn’t as valuable as the city originally estimated it would be, in part because wood processing industries that could boost local demand haven’t moved into northern Arizona as expected. That means the city will have to pay contractors more to thin trees because it can’t use the value of the timber to offset its costs, said Mike Elson, Flagstaff District Ranger.
  • Inflation has increased the cost of things like fuel and labor.
  • The more mechanically intense helicopter and cable logging planned for steeper slopes on Mount Elden and Dry Lake Hills is going to cost more than originally expected, in part because there are only a few contractors to choose from.
  • Plans for which sort of logging equipment should be used on what acreage have changed.

INITIAL PLAN

When the city went out to voters in 2012, it was expected that the $10 million in bond money, in addition to grant money and other funding from partner agencies, would be enough to cover necessary thinning and prescribed fire operations over a footprint of about 15,000 acres around the city of Flagstaff and Mormon Mountain, Copley said.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

A feller buncher gathers cut logs in a section of the forest off Elden Lookout Road near Flagstaff in this file photo. A major hurdle for forest restoration in northern Arizona is figuring out what to do with the biomass produced by tree thinning. 

“It was an estimate based upon as good of knowledge as we had at the time with the idea we certainly didn’t want to go to the community and over-ask,” Copley said. 

The city always expected to come back to residents with a request for more money to support longer term FWPP maintenance, including follow-up prescribed burns to reduce and prevent fuels buildup, additional thinning and monitoring of things like runoff, said Paul Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer with the city of Flagstaff.

Though it now faces a funding shortfall, the city defended its decision to spend the first FWPP dollars doing tree thinning on Observatory Mesa and areas southeast and southwest of the city, even though they don’t pose nearly the same flood risk as areas in the Dry Lake Hills north of Flagstaff.

Those areas were state and city land that didn’t need to go through a federal environmental review, so work could start almost immediately. That was important to show voters progress was being made soon after the bond’s approval, Summerfelt said. Observatory Mesa is also a “critical flank” to the city when it comes to general wildfire danger, he said.

WHAT’S NEXT

On top of the $3.2 million it has already spent, the city has budgeted $1.8 million over the next two years to fund its own operations related to FWPP, Summerfelt said. It expects to use another $4.65 million to pay contractors for selective logging, including cable and possibly helicopter logging, in the Dry Lake Hills between 2019 and 2021.

That leaves about $350,000 in bond money that the city has reserved in case it needs to pay for thinning on 642 acres near the base of Dry Lake Hills and Mount Elden. That work was supposed to be completed by a logging contractor in December.

But Terry Hatmaker, the only bidder, defaulted on the Forest Service contract after failing to realize how much time and money it would take to build a mill that could process wood from the timber sale, he said. The Forest Service is now obligated to reoffer the timber sale, which asks loggers to pay for the value of the wood in the area instead of getting paid to cut it. If no one steps up this time around, the city plans to take on the contract and pay someone to do the thinning, Summerfelt said.


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SETTLING IN
Flagstaff superintendent settling into new job

After seven months on the job, Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca said Flagstaff is feeling more and more like home.

“We traveled back to Iowa for the holidays with family, but when we came back to Flagstaff, it truly felt like we had come home,” he said.

His wife, a teacher, has a job with the district, his daughter is attending Northern Arizona University and his son has found a local job, Penca said.

“I love that I’ve had the opportunities we have here and the opportunities to work with the community,” Penca said. “I’m in awe of the support that we get as a district from the community. This community gets it. They know we’re preparing not only our children for the future but our future leaders. You can walk into any classroom, at any school, on any day and find an artist or scientist or someone else from the community who is willing to share their talent with our students.”

Penca spent 20 years in an Iowa school district less than half the size of FUSD, working his way from a teacher up the administrative ladder eventually to interim superintendent. He was not chosen by the board for the permanent job, despite positive reviews from teachers, staff and parents.

Penca said staff, faculty and the FUSD Governing Board have all helped in his transition to his new position. He plans to continue his regular visits to all of the schools in the district and his discussions with principals, staff, teachers and parents about the district’s needs.

“There’s going to be challenges,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve been surprised by any yet, but things have happened that have kept me on my toes.”

He said the district is keeping an eye on funding and new bills in the Arizona Legislature this session. Including a bill from Senator Sylvia Allen which would change the letter grade structure that the state uses to grade schools and districts. The proposed change would include a dashboard where parents could drill down into the specific items that schools are graded on and see where a school is excelling or might need improvement.

Penca said he wouldn’t mind such a dashboard. A simple letter grade doesn’t give him enough information on how a school or district is doing, he said. A dashboard with details would make it easier for parents, teachers, principals and administration to determine areas of improvement and note growth in a school from the previous year.

The district is also watching Gov. Doug Ducey’s office to see if the new state budget will include his promised additional funding for education.

“I believe there is a movement in Arizona that we can do better and should do better at funding schools and our students,” Penca said.

However, it will be a long time before the state will return education funding to the levels it was before the recession. District will need community support during that time, he said.

The district is in the process of evaluating its funding needs and researching the idea of a possible bond or override issue for November’s ballot. The governing board has not made a decision yet on the matter.

Penca said the district is also working on tightening its policies, values and mission statement. Each school has its own specialty, Penca said, and he wants to keep those distinct cultures intact at each school. But he also wants to make sure that students at one school are getting the same core education as students at another school.

“I want to create a balance between the identity of the schools and the equality of instruction between the schools,” he said.

He wants to open the lines of communication between schools so that there is more sharing of ideas and tips between teachers, principals and the administration. He doesn’t see major changes in the future because of this but small everyday improvements that come from everyday discussions.

He also wants to have all of the district’s schools accredited by AdvancED,  a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that reviews educational institutions. According to its website, AdvancED reviews and accredits more than 34,000 education institutions with more than 4 million educators serving more than 20 million students in the U.S. and 70 other nations. The organization focuses on continuous improvement in schools rather than just meeting the state minimums.

Penca hopes that the accreditation and the continuous improvement process touted by AdvancEd will help identify areas of success and improvement in each school and bring in more feedback from the community, teachers, staff and administration.

He also hopes to bring the ACES trauma training for educators. The program trains teachers on how to help students who have dealt with disruptive situations in their lives.

On the recent report on the condition of the district’s school buildings, Penca said he was pleased to find out how well the schools have been maintained over the years. The possible replacement of Kinsey Elementary School on Lonetree Road will need more thought, though, he said. If the district replaces the school, it may have to move it to a new location. There is the possibility that the road may be widened, which would take away some of the buildable area on the site, which backs up to property owned by NAU. A location that would better serve the community, especially the growth on the west side of Flagstaff, might be something the district would consider.

Penca is also working with a parenting advising committee on possible improvements to district schools. He’s also currently working his way through meeting each of the schools’ parent-teacher organizations. He plans to hold a town hall meeting at the end of February with the public, parents, students and teachers.

He’s received a number of requests from parents for a gifted student education program. The schools do have such programs, but Penca hopes to do more advertising of the programs in the future.


Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Felled trees lay in the forest waiting to be processed in an area thinned as part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.


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Neighbors: Flagstaff man shot by police was elderly, having delusions

The Plaza Vieja man who was shot by Flagstaff police officers Friday night was showing signs of dementia or other memory problems and had recently been having delusions, according to the man’s neighbors. He was elderly and in failing health.

The man, identified by police as John Hamilton, 78, was shot by police officers around 9 p.m. as he was standing near his truck, steps away from his apartment on the 700 block of West Coconino Avenue. Police said he was waving and pointing a gun, and after failing to comply for several minutes with orders by police to drop the weapon, officers Daniel Beckwith and Travis Rowden opened fire.

After CPR failed to revive him, Hamilton was pronounced dead on scene.

Before he was shot, Hamilton was holding a small pistol, though his hand was not on the trigger, said Eric Garrison, who lives in the apartment next door and watched the incident from his window. The man also was flipping off police officers, Garrison said.

A female police officer repeatedly told Hamilton to drop whatever he had in his hand before police fired shots, said Richard Hall, another resident of the apartment complex, who said he heard the altercation from inside his apartment. Residents described hearing between four and six shots.

Erik Rothrock, who lives across from the suspect, said Hamilton had been having delusions about his truck keys, sometimes believing Rothrock had taken his keys.

Rothrock described the car key fixation as “lunacy” and an “obsessive compulsion about something.”

On Saturday morning, Rothrock pointed out bullet holes in the side mirror of Hamilton’s blue pickup truck and in the car parked beside it. Keys that were lying on the vehicle’s front seat were those to the pickup, Rothrock said.

Rothrock said he and the apartment’s property manager had been paying visits to Hamilton and had been thinking about asking for him to receive a government welfare checkup.

Hamilton was “amazingly frail” and could barely walk, Rothrock said. He said that as far as he knew, Hamilton’s only family member lived in Kingman.

Alexis Green, another resident of the apartment complex, said she had given Hamilton a ride to the property manager’s office last week after he had locked himself out of his apartment. Green said she could tell he had “Alzheimer's or something.”

Police responded to the apartment complex on West Coconino Avenue just before 9 p.m. Friday after a woman contacted the police department and said she had been confronted by a man with a firearm. Residents interviewed Saturday morning didn’t know who the woman could have been.

No officers or other bystanders were injured in the incident. Beckwith and Rowden have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation, which is standard protocol in these kinds of incidents. It is actively being investigated by the Northern Arizona Officer Involved Shoot Team.