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CG man now chief judge of Arizona Court of Appeals Division 2
 jheadley  / 

CASA GRANDE — Judge Garye L. Vásquez of Casa Grande has been selected by his colleagues to be chief judge of Division Two of the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Vásquez was born in Casa Grande and grew up in Eloy. After attending Central Arizona College, he went on to study at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law.

He was an attorney in Casa Grande for 21 years with the law firm Cooper, Vásquez & Rueter, during which time he served on numerous county and community boards and commissions.

Vásquez has served on the Arizona Court of Appeals since 2006.

Division Two of the Arizona Court of Appeals reviews legal challenges to trial court judgments entered in the Superior Courts of Pima, Pinal, Cochise, Gila, Santa Cruz, Graham and Greenlee counties.

Each year, the court resolves over 800 appeals and issues over 600 written decisions.

Vásquez will succeed Judge Peter J. Eckerstrom, who completed his five-year term as the court’s administrative head on July 1.

“It is a huge step up and it is one that I am looking forward to,” Vásquez said. “My time as chief is kind of unique. My predecessor Pete Eckerstrom, when he was first chosen by his colleagues to be chief, had taken ill. For about nine months at the beginning of his tenure I served as acting chief.”

In 2018, during Vásquez’s tenure as vice chief judge, he was instrumental in establishing and implementing the court’s highly successful “Babies on the Bench” program, which permitted three employees who had babies in early 2018 to spend workdays with their babies at the court. Two of those employees were Vásquez’s law clerks.

As chief, Vásquez plans to continue to expand the court’s community outreach program, which he formally created and oversaw while he was vice chief judge.

The program provides educational and outreach opportunities for high school students, Superior Court judges and members of the bar in the seven counties over which Division Two presides.

Vásquez believes that “although members of the communities we serve as a court must come to us, it is essential for the court to go to those communities in order to foster a positive relationship between the two, enhance the public’s understanding of the judicial system and facilitate the public’s access to the courts.”

As chief of the court, Vásquez’s new duties are mostly administrative.

“The chief doesn’t carry any more weight on decisions or on how cases are decided than any other judge here on the court,” he said. “The chief is primarily the CEO, so to speak. We are responsible for personnel, budgetary issues, dealing with other courts and with the Legislature.”

He also recognizes the importance of providing court staff with the tools, training and education necessary to do their jobs well, supporting opportunities for in-house training and continuing education.

Vásquez is a committed proponent of Division Two’s nationally recognized electronic filing and case management systems, rendering the court truly “paperless.” He is committed to continuing the tradition of maintaining professional excellence while resolving cases in a timely manner, exceeding the time standards for the resolution of appellate cases set by the Supreme Court of Arizona.

Vásquez will serve as chief of the court for the next five years.

“Once is enough and then it is time to pass the baton,” he said.

In the Division One Court of Appeals, the chief is appointed for only two years. The chief of the Arizona Supreme Court is also selected for a five-year term.

Vásquez primarily lives in Casa Grande but also has a part-time residence in Tucson, where the court holds session. Under Arizona law, Vásquez is required to maintain residence in the county he was living in when appointed to the court, which is Pinal County.

He said his second residence is just a place to stay during the week when the court is in session.

“I have found the major distinction between a practicing attorney and being a judge is that judges are somewhat isolated from the public they serve,” said Vásquez. “Attorneys meet with clients all the time. Attorneys have court appearances and phone calls. It is constant interaction with the public. Judges serving on a court — it is just different. We are isolated. The public comes to us to have their cases decided and to have their issues resolved.”

He said judges have to make a direct effort to get out into the community.

“I really think that is important,” he said.

Judge Christopher Staring has been selected to act as vice chief judge of the court.

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Monsoon season has finally begun in Pinal
 mvasquez  / 

CASA GRANDE — It took longer than usual, but the monsoon season has finally arrived.

The wet season that typically starts in early July and extends through September had a delayed start this year, which is mostly due to the slow migration of high pressure.

According to Robert Pawlak, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Tucson, the Four Corners high pressure system that usually migrates from Mexico in June or July took a few extra weeks to arrive.

“It basically got into position earlier this week,” Pawlak told PinalCentral. “When the high pressure does hit the Four Corners area, it starts pulling in moisture from the east, which you’ll basically get from the Gulf of Mexico or even the Great Plains.”

The Four Corners system produces the severe weather usually seen across the state, such as the thunderstorms in Tucson and the haboobs in Phoenix.

Pawlak mentioned that moisture can also come in from the Pacific Ocean and even the rain forests of Mexico.

“You’ll see in the monsoon season, it’ll actually bounce around from one moisture source to another,” Pawlak said. “One week you’ll get it from the southwest and the other week you might get it from the east. It just depends on where that high pressure system is sitting.”

Mark O’Malley with the NWS in Phoenix stated that Pinal County has had less than an inch of rain.

“We haven’t seen much,” O’Malley said. “There’s been some spotty activity. Some people have got nothing and others have got about a quarter inch of rain.”

Although the monsoon season saw a delayed start this year, the state is still within seasonal norms and Pawlak does not expect the season to go beyond its usual time frame of late September.

“When we get into September the sun angle, the sky is actually lower, and it won’t be able to sustain that high pressure,” Pawlak said. “When that happens the high pressure system will retreat back into Mexico.”

However, until September comes, both Pawlak and O’Malley agreed that the scattered showers and dust will continue.

“It’s always like this during the summer, where it’s very hit and miss,” O’Malley said. “For the next couple of months you’ll see thunderstorms, you can get dust, extreme heat is a problem during the monsoon season. Whether it gets into Pinal County or stays south or east of there is very difficult to say, but all those are threats we want people to take serious for the next couple of months.”

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Area leaders discuss how to increase level of education in Pinal
 Haas  / 

SIGNAL PEAK — Officials from around Pinal County and Arizona gathered Tuesday to discuss their vision for the area’s educational future, and they’re aiming high.

Achieve60AZ has set a goal of 60% of adults in Arizona having some sort of postsecondary education by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal for the organization that is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, community-based alliance of over 75 organizations and more than 40 municipalities that have made 60% by 2030 their own goal.

“If we have this level of learning, we have a thriving economy,” said Rachael Yanof, executive director of Achieve60AZ. “We have people that have a choice, we have families that have stability.”

The group released its first ever state of attainment report on Tuesday during a breakfast at Central Arizona College’s Signal Peak Campus. It was attended by education and city leaders including Pinal County School Superintendent Jill Broussard and Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey addressed those in attendance via a video message.

“Arizona has a diverse, highly educated, skilled workforce participating in a thriving economy,” Broussard told those in attendance. “In K-12, we are in the business of student success and that student success leads to Arizona’s success and Pinal’s success.”

According to the report, the number of Arizonans ages 25-64 having completed either a two-year or a four-year degree or certificate is 45%, while Broussard said that number in Pinal County is 25%.

Among the report’s findings, the current state of education in Arizona shows 78% of residents having graduated from high school, with the goal of increasing that number to 90% by 2030. And 53% have been enrolled in postsecondary education with the goal of increasing that number to 70%.

Other findings include:

  • 24% of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in quality early learning settings with a goal of 45%.
  • 44% of third grade students scored proficient or highly proficient on the AzMERIT English language arts assessment with the goal of increasing it to 72%.
  • 41% of eighth graders prepared to be successful in math with the goal of getting that number to 69%.

“What we hope people will understand is that Achieve60AZ is this culmination … that everything along the way matters,” Yanof said. “It matters that kids have quality early education. It matters that kiddos can read in third grade and are proficient in algebra in eighth grade. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have really smart adults without thinking of how they become really smart adults.”

The report also found the state ranks 49th in median elementary school teacher pay. It said the state’s ranking is adjusted for cost of living. The goal of the report is to have that ranking reach the national median by 2022.

Teacher pay is something that has been at the forefront in the last two legislative sessions. Last year, sparked by the #RedforED movements in other states, Arizona teachers walked off the job demanding pay raises and more education funding. In the end, the Legislature passed and Gov. Ducey signed a 20% pay increase by 2020. The pay increase included a 10% increase for the 2018-19 school year, a 5% increase for the 2019-20 year and another 5% increase for the 2020-21 school year.

Yanof said Achieve60AZ has no affiliation with the #RedforEd movement, but credited the movement for shedding light on the state’s education system.

“What it has done is the governor has invested in significant funds for a teachers academy and significant amount of more money for teacher pay,” she said. “It does help from a team member perspective for more people to become teachers and more people to go back to school.”

In his video message, Ducey said the state has made more investments in career and technical education and has significantly expanded the Arizona teachers academy, which is a partnership between the state’s three public universities that allows individuals to go back to school, and the state will pay for all tuition and fees in exchange for teaching in an Arizona public school.

“With Achieve 60 Arizona in mind, I’m grateful of the many collaborative efforts that Arizona has seen in the last four years,” Ducey said. “We want to prepare Arizonians for the jobs of tomorrow and we know a quality education is the key to future success.”

The role of education is expected to play a pivotal role in the near future.

McFarland told the group that it’s incredibly important for the workforce to be educated. He said that by either 2025 or 2030, 75% of every job is going to require some sort of post-high school certificate.

He pointed to Lucid Motors and Nikola Motor Company coming to the area and the 4,000 jobs both companies are expected to bring as a major reason for education.

“How do we fill them? Who is going to fill them and who will be ready?” McFarland asked. “You ask why it’s important for government to be involved in education? I point to these two (companies) and there’s probably another 8,000 jobs that are on top of that. If we look at everything that comes with this, we have another project that is 2,500 jobs for just the construction of the project.

“So where do we get those jobs? Do they need certificates? I would say yes.”

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Casa Grande addresses pension liability as debt falls
 Haas  / 

CASA GRANDE — The Casa Grande City Council approved a primary tax rate increase of seven cents per $100 net assessed valuation to help pay down the city’s unfunded portion of public safety retirement, although declining debt means taxpayers will pay less.

The new primary rate of about $1.06 will make a small dent in the pension deficit, projected at $48.4 million over a period of years.

The secondary rate, which repays bonds, falls to 27.5 cents — making the combined city total for property owners with a home valued at $100,000 to be $133.58 — which is a decrease of $25 from last year’s rate.

The primary tax rate represents 7% of the overall property tax bill for a Pinal County taxpayer — 38% goes to school districts, 26% for the county, 16% for Central Arizona College and 13% for other entities.

The projected $534,707 generated by the primary rate increase will go to paying down the pension debt.

“We are statutorily required to participate in that fund,” Matt Herman told fellow council members two weeks ago during the truth and taxation hearing, while clearing up some misinformation about the public pension fund and who manages it.

“We do not manage it as a city,” Herman said. “This is the same organization that mortgages their own buildings to pay their bills. That’s who is running our public safety retirement system. It is not the city. We are obligated and required by law to participate in this fund that is managed by the state of Arizona.”

The council was given two options on Monday. Option 1 asked the council to raise the rate to its maximum levy, which would have been a $1.12 rate or a 22% revenue increase — generating $782,016 to pay the pension fund. That option failed despite a 4-3 majority vote, with council members Lisa Fitzgibbons, Dick Powell and Herman dissenting. Because it was a vote to raise the tax the maximum allowable amount, state law required unanimous consent.

Instead, the council moved on to vote for the 15% increase, which passed with unanimous consent. Councilwoman Mary Kortsen said prior to voting for it that she was disappointed that the council was not doing more when that was possible.

Either option would have required 50-plus years to pay down the $48 million, barring future changes in the situation.

Mayor Craig McFarland said before opening the matter up for discussion among council members that if the city were to raise the rate to the maximum and generate the $782,000, it would take the city 62 years to pay it off. With the 15 percent increase and generating the $534,000, it’s expected to take 91 years.

“This is a nationwide problem and not a Casa Grande problem,” Herman said. “The only reason why I would support a tax increase is if we put that extra money toward that pension system. We are saddled with that debt. We are obligated to pay that debt. We are obligated to our employees. It’s not their fault. It’s not our fault. It’s just the pension system that we are obligated to pay.”

According to city Finance Director Celina Morris, the last time the city raised the tax was 2000. During the discussion among the council, member Bob Huddleston asked if there was a “glass ceiling” that kept the rate at about $1, at which time Powell said it was a matter of pride to keep it at that level.

“I respect past councils for trying to keep a lid on the primary rate, but my personal view is that limit is a glass ceiling,” Huddleston said. “It sounds good and looks good, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. I think it’s inevitable either this council or next council is going to have to break that ceiling. I think that this is a good opportunity to do it.”

Compared to surrounding cities, Casa Grande has maintained the lowest primary tax rate since 2009. Meanwhile, Maricopa has had a tax rate around $6, while Coolidge’s rate has been just under $2 and Eloy and Florence have hovered just above $1.

“It’s something that we have to tackle and it’s something that we have been kicking the can down the road,” Fitzgibbons said. “It’s something that we have to address and it’s not going away.”