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State sues Johnson Utilities for $100M

PHOENIX — The state is suing an embattled Pinal County utility for more than $100 million for what it says have been numerous environmental mishaps and violations over the years.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office filed the civil case Wednesday in Maricopa County Superior Court against Johnson Utilities LLC, seeking penalties and injunctive relief in excess of $100 million.

The case is about bringing relief to San Tan Valley from the negative impacts to residents, businesses and economic development for years by Johnson Utilities, ADEQ said in a press release issued Thursday.

“Johnson Utilities has continuously failed to follow through in the normal collaborative process that ADEQ prefers to remedy non-compliance issues,” said ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera. “Johnson Utilities has left the department with no other choice than to pursue legal action.”

The Associated Press did not receive a response to an email send to Johnson Utilities.

Since 2017, Johnson Utilities is the most cited private utility by ADEQ. In that time frame, ADEQ also received nearly 300 complaints from community members about Johnson Utilities, accounting for 68 percent of the total complaints received by the Water Quality Division.

The civil case is based on the statutory maximum fines for 57 counts listed in the complaint, which include:

  • Sanitary sewer overflows
  • Discharges without a permit
  • Overtopping of impoundments
  • Monitoring and reporting violations
  • Water pressure violations
  • Unauthorized modifications
  • Offensive odor

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the statutory maximum fines range from $500 to $25,000 per day, per violation. ADEQ is requesting injunctive relief for ongoing violations.

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Park construction won't stop CG's Palm Island from opening
 mstaude  / 

CASA GRANDE — During the long, hot days of summer, Casa Grande’s Palm Island Family Aquatic Park is often one of the most popular spots in town, attracting hundreds of swimmers hoping to escape the heat.

Once inside, many swimmers, both adults and children, head straight for Palm Island’s 150-foot water slide, climbing the tower of stairs and taking a heart-thumping, curvy ride into the cool water.

“I would say over 100 children and adults use the slide daily, with many taking multiple trips throughout the day,” said Taylor Hubbard, a recreation program coordinator for the city. “It is definitely one of our most popular features at Palm Island Family Aquatic Park for both children and adults.”

Palm Island opens for the season at noon Saturday, and recreation officials are expecting another busy season.

More than 50 pool staff, including lifeguards, managers, cashiers and swim lesson teachers, have been hired for the season.

“We are looking forward to a fun and safe summer,” Hubbard said.

The towering green water slide is one of several features at Palm Island that aims to keep residents cool and entertained during the summer months.

The facility also has a water-based climbing wall, adjustable water cannons, stationary spray features and water basketball.

Water depths at the pool range from beach-like zero-entry areas to a 12-foot diving section.

While there is a parking lot adjacent to Palm Island, spaces will be limited throughout the summer as construction at Carr McNatt Park continues.

Those driving to the pool will be allowed to park on Brown Avenue and other nearby streets but must adhere to parking regulations and refrain from blocking residential driveways.

“When the park construction is completed we will have an additional parking lot and new ramada space for pool parties,” Hubbard said.

Palm Island is open for public swimming from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday through Labor Day, and will be open on Memorial Day.

To help area residents discover and enjoy the facility, city recreation staffers plan several summer activities, including family swim nights and dive-in movies. At 7:30 p.m. June 14 “How to Train Your Dragon: The hidden world” will be shown as the dive-in movie on a super-large inflatable screen at the facility. Attendees may watch the movie while swimming.

Casa Grande public libraries will kick off a summer reading program from 9:30 to 11 a.m. June 1 at Palm Island.

At 1 p.m. June 20, the facility will participate in the “World’s Largest Swimming Lesson,” a community-based event in which everyone is welcome to participate in a group lesson.

Admission to Palm Island during public swim hours is $1 for children ages 3 to 17. Adults age 18 and older pay $2. Children younger than 3 are admitted for free.

Admission to dive-in movies is $3 per person.

To use the water slide, swimmers must be at least 4 feet tall.

Palm Island Family Aquatic Park is located at 1115 N. Brown Ave. in Carr McNatt Park.

For more information, call the Recreation Division at 520-421-8677.

State budget approval stalls as GOP deal falters

PHOENIX — Efforts to finally approve an $11.8 billion spending plan stalled Thursday as House and Senate leaders struggled to line up the votes.

Senate President Karen Fann sent members of her chamber home until Friday after informing them that there was no deal on the table for a vote and she could not corral the necessary 16 Republican votes. Fann also suggested that an agreement is not close, saying there could be an unusual Saturday session.

And if that doesn’t produce a deal, Fann said there could be a session on Memorial Day.

Across the courtyard, the House marshaled the votes for one piece of the budget — setting aside $2.5 million for an organization that would provide referral services for pregnant women and new mothers. But that came over the objection of Democrats who pointed out the cash would be reserved for groups that would counsel women against having an abortion.

The preliminary approval came after the Republican-controlled chamber rejected a proposal by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, to instead give the cash to existing volunteer groups that staff the state’s 2-1-1 referral service. She said that would enable the organization to operate on a 24/7 basis statewide — and would provide a broader menu of services.

That suggestion was panned by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who is pushing for the funding aimed at convincing women not to terminate their pregnancies.

She said there is evidence that more women would choose to keep their babies if they could receive assistance.

But Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, said there’s a better way to prevent abortions: prevent pregnancies first.

“We should offer cheap or free contraception, the “morning after” pill and medically accurate sex education in the schools,” she told colleagues.

And Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, said the legislation is crafted in a way to give the money to “crisis pregnancy centers” that are often run by churches and faith-based groups that have as their mission to deter women from terminating a pregnancy. She said the record from other states shows these organizations use “deceptive and manipulative practices.”

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, agreed to scale back the program, providing the dollars for just one year instead of three. He also wants a year-end report about what services actually were offered for the state dollars.

On the overall budget, several key issues remain to be resolved.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Phoenix, said the tax cut package — offsets to higher taxes due to changes in federal tax law — is not properly balanced. He said the plan, which focuses much of the savings on those near the bottom of the income scale, could still leave some Arizonans with higher tax bills than now.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, wants additional dollars for some programs, including providing more doctors for rural areas. Carter and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, also are holding out their votes for the budget until the Legislature votes on a plan they find acceptable to provide victims of child sex abuse more time to sue their assailants.

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Hamilton set to retire, again
 Haas  / 

CASA GRANDE — As the saying goes, the second time is a charm.

For Tim Hamilton, this is his second try at retirement after first retiring as principal at Vista Grande High School following the 2014-15 school year, only to return a year later to become director of Desert Winds Learning Center.

“This is the second time, but this time is for real,” he said.

For Hamilton it will be the conclusion of a 32-year career in education that saw him as a principal at elementary, middle and high schools, with the last 12 years being in the Casa Grande Union High School District after coming from Coolidge.

“It was dirt when I started (at Vista Grande). Literally dirt. It took us two years to build it,” Hamilton said. “We started with freshmen and sophomores and added a class until we had our first graduating class. We were over 1,800 (students) when I left.”

When Hamilton retired the first time, he spent his time playing golf and traveling until former Superintendent Shannon Goodsell summoned him back to duty to help out with Desert Winds.

“When I got here I didn’t really see it in such bad shape as he was telling me,” Hamilton said. “We tweaked a few things and we had a lot of success.”

The year prior to Hamilton’s arrival at the school, it had 53 graduates. The next year, the school graduated 87, and those numbers have continued to grow — going to 104 in 2017, 123 in 2018 and this year the school graduated 128. After summer school, Hamilton expects that number to be about 132.

“Our school goal is aways to have more than we had last year,” he said. “We made our school goal and we still have summer school to go.”

The school, located at the district office building at 1362 N. Casa Grande Ave., serves students who have fallen behind in credits and gives them a chance to catch up through a combination of online and instructional classes.

Hamilton said of the 128 students who graduated this week, 76 came from Casa Grande Union while 52 came from Vista Grande.

“Some people in the community have this perception that Desert Winds, ‘Oh those kids are bad kids.’ These kids are not bad,” Hamilton said. “These are good kids and they just got behind in credits for whatever reason.”

Next year Desert Winds students will be attending school at their home schools, either Vista Grande or Casa Grande Union, with the current staff being split evenly between the two schools.

It’s a decision that Superintendent Steve Bebee said will benefit the students.

“They will now be able to be a part of all of the other high school activities, events and elective classes that exist for all students in our district,” Bebee said in an email. “This decision was made because it is what is best for our students.”

The decision to move the school coincides with a long list of other signs that pointed to Hamilton that the time was just right to retire.

He said his wife recently graduated from Northern Arizona University with her second master’s degree in educational leadership and is currently looking for jobs in the Valley. He added that he didn’t think it was fair for her to make the trek up and down Interstate 10 while he sits at home, so they decided to sell their house and move.

“We put our house on the market and we sold it at full price in three days. That was a sign,” Hamilton said. “We had already made this decision before Dr. Bebee decided to move the program back to Union and Vista, and then it came about and I think all of this is falling into place.”

In his 32 years in education, Hamilton said the biggest challenges he noticed were unfunded state mandates.

“It’s great to say you need to do this but we are not going to give you any more money to do it, but you have to do it,” he said. “We have kind of taken away the art of teaching for the teachers with all these mandates. Why don’t we just let them teach?”

Some of the mandates he noticed over the years include the change of having four years of math instead of three years, four years of English instead of two and three years of science instead of two.

The other thing he noticed is the emphasis on high-stakes testing such as the AzMERIT and before that the AIMS tests.

“Schools are much more than a test on one day,” Hamilton said. “Maybe a kid is having a bad day that day, maybe something tragic happened in their life, but your whole school is based on one day of testing. There is so much more to it that goes on.”

Hamilton added that the state has gotten better at funding education.

“They finally realized that not so much money in prisons and more money in schools might pay off,” he said.

Hamilton also said the district is doing a good job of realizing that not everyone is going to go to college.

“For a long time there has been a push that everyone has to go to college. Well, not everyone does go to college,” he said. “We are focusing not only on that but we are focusing on getting kids ready for trade schools and getting them ready for the workforce.”

Asked about some of the challenges he sees facing education in the next five to 10 years, Hamilton had to pause and think.

He eventually said that education is constantly changing and educators think they’re going in one direction, then suddenly the Legislature changes that or maybe a different superintendent comes in and changes the direction.

“I would say consistency and fairness for all schools — whether you are in Phoenix or a suburb or you are in rural Arizona,” Hamilton said. “Everyone should be playing on the same level. Let’s give all the kids the same opportunities and not limit it because of where you are.”

As for his future, Hamilton said part of it is going to include golf, both playing and working. He said a couple of golf courses are near his new home that are looking for part-time rangers and that every Tuesday and Thursday he has a foursome lined up at Dave White Golf Course, including retired educators.

As for his winter nights? Hamilton said those nights will be spent at Talking Stick Arena, where he will be working as a guest ambassador at Phoenix Suns games.

“Basically it’s a Walmart greeter for the Suns,” Hamilton said. “They got a new coach so hopefully, but then again they got a new coach last year. Hopefully they will do well.”

While Hamilton rides off into the sunset and a life of leisure, he admits there are things that he’s going to miss. Some of those include being part of two organizations locally, the Kiwanis Club and being a director of Support our Schools, an organization that conducts fundraising and donations for schools in Pinal County.

He also said he’s going to miss the staff that has worked for him over the years. Hamilton recalled how when he started at Vista Grande, he had 37 teachers and 36 of them had worked for him somewhere else.

But what he’s going to miss the most is the kids.

“I care about the kids and sometimes I care about them too much and give them too many chances,” Hamilton said. “I’ll miss the kids.”