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Hozhoni hero

In 2016, state Sen. Sylvia Allen, third from the left, was presented the Hozhoni Foundation’s “Hozhoni Hero Award” in recognition of her advocacy in the state legislature on behalf of individuals with developmental disabilities. The Hozhoni Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit organization serving adults with developmental disabilities in Northern Arizona since 1971. 

The Flagstaff City Council will now have just one more budget item to discuss during this year’s budget process after the state legislature amended a bill that would have provided funding for local nonprofits that care for those with disabilities.

The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, would have provided money from the state general fund to providers in Flagstaff. However, the bill was amended by the state's House Appropriations Committee.

Since 2016, organizations providing these services locally have said they are struggling to stay afloat in Flagstaff as the city’s wage law takes effect and the minimum wage in the city continues to increase.

These organizations receive most of their funding from Medicare and the state. While wages of employees have increased, the state dollars haven’t.

Providers hoped to see some relief after Allen introduced a bill to provide an emergency onetime payment of $508,600. The bill passed the Arizona Senate but did so without the support of many Republican members, indicating it may have a harder time passing the house, Allen said.

And indeed, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said he was not at all confident in the bill's ability to get past the state house in its original form and thus set about amending the bill to make it more acceptable for his Republican colleagues.

Thorpe amended the bill so the state would instead offer $172,924 from the state general fund, but only with two to one matching dollars from the city.

This means for every dollar the state gives to providers, the city must spend two dollars. If the city devotes no money to these providers, neither will the state.

However, if the city provides $345,848, the state will match that with their own $172,924. This would mean $518,772 going to local providers in all. 

Throughout the session, many legislatures worried by funding these providers, the state was obscuring the effects of what legislators considered bad behavior on the part of Flagstaff voters in raising the minimum wage.

“During the debate in the house, people were very concerned that state money go to bail out a problem created by a city,” Thorpe said, adding that it does not make sense that taxpayers in other parts of Arizona see their dollars go to Flagstaff.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she believed Thorpe’s amendment struck a good balance and reminded the committee it is the state’s responsibility to take care of those with disabilities and if these organizations go under, the state will be forced to act as a provider, likely at a higher cost.

But Rep. John Kavanagh, R- Fountain Hills, did not believe the amendment went far enough in holding Flagstaff voters accountable for raising the city's minimum wage.

He said if the legislature holds back funds from Flagstaff providers, the city will be made an example of for other cities considering raising wages.

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In a statement, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans said she was disappointed but not surprised by the actions of the state legislature to only offer help with strings attached.

“I find this to be horrific. To use people with disabilities and their families and caregivers as political pawns is inexcusable. Our state representatives continue to negate their responsibilities,” Evans wrote. “The State of Arizona has historically underfunded and then systematically cut the budget and subsequent services and programs for individuals with special needs and their families and caregivers.”

During the session, city’s state lobbyist Todd Madeksza also told legislators that state funding for these providers was drastically cut during the Great Recession and those funding levels have never been restored.

The city council is currently going through the city’s budget process for the next year and Evans said the council would certainly discuss providing the dollars to be matched by the state.

Since it was passed by the House Appropriations Committee, the bill still needs to go through the state’s budget process and may not see state money at all.

Monica Attridge, CEO of the Hozhoni Foundation which provides care for about 105 individuals with disabilities, said she certainly hopes the bill makes it though and is funded.

“I would assume that the [Flagstaff] council and mayor would elect to provide money,” Attridge said, if the state offers matching funds.

At the same time, Attridge said she fully understands reasons state legislators are unhappy about the situation and may be reluctant to provide money.

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Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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