EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of four articles in which Florence’s Town Council candidates respond by email to questions from the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune.

FLORENCE — There are three open seats in the Aug. 4 primary election. Kristen Larsen, 32, is running for her second term. She is an escrow assistant and a six-year Florence resident. The other council candidates are:

  • Gary Mittendorf, 74, a school bus driver and CDL instructor who has lived in Florence 4½ years
  • John K. Johnston II, 39, a Sheriff’s Department employee at the Pinal County jail and a local graduate who has been back since 2016
  • Johnie F. Mendoza, 54, a facilities assistant at the school district and an 11-year Florence resident
  • Arthur Neal, 43, a lifetime local resident who is retired from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and works security for Florence K-8
  • Jeff Reel, 65, a retired deputy sheriff who is self-employed and a Florence resident since 2007
  • Bill Tanner, 64, a retired communications/public affairs executive and four-year local resident
  • Former Vice Mayor Vallarie Woolridge, 65, who is running to regain her seat. She is an administrative assistant for the Coolidge school district and a 35-year Florence resident.

Q: Is the town doing the right things to protect and serve citizens in this pandemic? How can we best ensure our safety now and economic recovery later?

Johnston: I think taking the cautious route is best. I do not believe that requiring everyone wear masks is the answer. Requiring fewer people in business or attractions is the right move in my opinion. We need to encourage our citizens to support local business owners in this scary time by utilizing whatever service they offer. Don’t just go somewhere because it’s the cheapest option.

Larsen: We took precautionary measures to responsibly open after the Governor’s shut down. We ensured no arrests would be made if businesses opened early and made sure we were both responsive to the community needs and adaptive in the way we served them. Protect and serve, there has to be balance in both. So yes, I’m very proud of how things have been handled through these crazy times on the local level. I will continue to be dialed into the numbers and how our community feels and advocate for what’s best to balance both. I think partnerships, grant opportunities, being responsive to our business communities’ needs, and seeking and advocating for any funding will be keys to economic recovery.

Mendoza: The town has followed the guidelines set by the CDC and has kept our citizens safe. As we continue to follow the CDC guidelines and as we prepare to open, we need to ensure that we supply the town-run areas with the recommended PPE’s, cleaning supplies, and install plexiglass in areas where social distancing will be an issue. To ensure our safety now we need to follow the CDC, wear a mask when you cannot maintain the recommended 6ft, wash your hands for 20 seconds, and stay home if you are sick. For recovery we need to have all the equipment at the ready when it is time to open so there is no delay.

Mittendorf: Florence quickly shut down and followed the recommendations of the governor. We still need to watch what we do and protect ourselves and others wearing masks and distancing as needed. It is time to start opening up again though and kick start our economy as safely and responsively as possible. If you are not ready or have health problems, ask friends or neighbors to help with your daily needs.

Neal: I think the town has done a good job so far, abiding by and enforcing the guidelines set by the CDC and our state leaders. Continuing to have a committee and plans in place for other unexpected events is important. Using the money given to our town wisely should help with the recovery of our town.

Reel: If the town follows the guidelines set by the governor and the CDC there should be no issues the town needs to address. Awareness, social distance, washing and face mask are the biggest part of it. Unfortunately, the public will do as they want and some adhere and others ignore. Again, not much more for the town to consider,

Tanner: I didn’t look to local government to protect me during this pandemic. Like many, I exercised God-given common sense to guide me. Americans are strong and resilient, and the pandemic will be in our rearview mirror at some point. But it may take some time to recover from the economic damage caused by the government-imposed shutdown. It would be a mistake for Florence to rely on a one-time financial hand-out from the federal government to reverse the loss of revenues. Instead, a sustainable recovery will require that we elect individuals who understand what it takes to create a job, manage a payroll and read a budget. We need people on Council that will fight to enable small business creation, jobs and economic development.

Woolridge: From what I have seen and heard, the Town enforced state-mandated and CDC guidelines. Maintaining health and safety takes priority over economic gains. It’s always important to put things in proper perspective. Without a safe and healthy community, economic recovery would ultimately suffer. The Town was considerate to its tenant’s financial wellbeing by waiving required rents. They protected the community and staff by eliminating as many physical contact services and activities that could potentially spread the coronavirus.

Q: How can the town best protect itself if the state follows through on plans to close Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex?

Johnston: As far as I am aware the State is going to shuffle inmates from Florence complex to others in the area as well as to prisons throughout Arizona. Florence will still have a huge DOC presence. I understand there is a tax loss from this yard closing. The town and all of its officials should be looking for a suitable solution to this problem. I look forward to working on a solution to protect the town as well as learning the responsibilities of a council member.

Larsen: We are working with the state and DOC and will continue to advocate for those inmates and jobs to responsibly be moved to Florence prisons if possible. Ideally, if the older building is not used for prisoners, I would like to see that space be used as a tourism driver. I think there’s a host of opportunities available. We have to both advocate for the town and be flexible with our resources to turn a negative into a positive.

Mendoza: For far too long the town has relied on the prison’s tax revenue. The time is NOW! for an aggressive move for economic development and recovery. We have ample room for larger commercial areas in the town limits. We need to develop areas for industry and include adding services for a growing town. We can add to the town’s tax base by means of annexation that borders our town, as we increase the population. This can offset the $1.6 million that we will lose once the prison closes, and increase the amount the town can make by giving more money for improvements to allow more businesses in the downtown area.

Mittendorf: We need to aggressively look for new businesses, promote our town to outside state and in-state interests and use the media to let them know Florence is here and ready to look at whatever might be available for JOBS and added revenues. We can’t wait for them to come to us.

Neal: I have been through a lay off at a corrections facility. It is a horrible thing and affects so many people directly and indirectly. The Town can protect itself by advising the state that these shutdowns are not necessary and we must continue to convince them that they are wrong for our community. I’m just praying it doesn’t come to this and the state finds other ways to balance their budget.

Reel: The ADOC issue is a definite concern. Communication with the Governor is a great need. Obviously the cost of shutting down just the Central unit would put a heavy financial burden on the town. I suggest the town research data from other cities and towns across the United States when this has happened in that area and how it was dealt with. No matter what, should the prisons close we need to be prepared with a plan to fill this void and not have a just wait and see approach. First step is communications with the Governor’s office should have already began, and maybe it has.

Tanner: We need to diversify our economic base so we’re not reliant on the revenues generated by one or two large entities. That’s why economic development and job creation are so essential to a healthy future. I’m reminded of a May 23, 2019 article in this newspaper wherein our Town Manager said, he’d “love” to have help with economic development, but “the timing is not right”. Really? I guess the Council agreed. That may explain why there are dozens and dozens of for sale signs which hang from dilapidated, vacant and rundown buildings in our downtown. And I suspect that’s why we see just a few commercial businesses in Anthem.

Woolridge: Closing of the state prison facility would create a financial deficit for the Town. A real conversation needs to take place to establish a partnership that will be beneficial to both parties. A new use that would provide revenue and opportunity for the community needs to be discussed. I’m positive there are endless ideas and suggestions that could come from the community.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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