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City official: 28 new projects with 9,000 jobs could be coming to CG

CASA GRANDE — At least 28 development projects, worth about $2 billion and 9,000 jobs, have been proposed for Casa Grande since July of 2019, a city official says.

Casa Grande Economic Development Director Richard Wilkie gave an update Thursday to the Pinal Alliance for Economic Growth on the new industry interested in moving into the city or investigating that.

Some of those projects, such as Lucid Motors and Nacero, are under or preparing for construction and others are still proposals that may or may not come to fruition, he said. Lucid Motors plans to have its initial plant finished and start manufacturing vehicles before the end of the year, he said. The city is working on an agreement to sell effluent water to Nacero, a company that would make gasoline from natural gas. The company is also working on getting a grant to build a bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near its building site on the west side.

The list also includes three new hotels, five industrial projects, three commercial projects, five restaurant projects and two businesses that are planning to expand. Wilkie didn’t give specifics on what all of the projects were. He did say that the new Clean Freak Car Wash and a Best Western Hotel, which are both currently under construction, are part of the list.

Wilkie also said during the organization’s virtual annual meeting the number of permits for new homes continues to grow in the city and may have even exceeded the number of home permits that Maricopa issued last month. The city is also working with developers on bringing in more multifamily projects to increase the city’s supply of apartments and other multifamily units.

Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland reported that the city has collected input from residents on what the city should use the money it received from the CARES Act toward. Some possible uses include funding for local food banks and assistance to help residents and businesses with their utility bills, rent, child care costs or internet bills.

The city has also partnered with the Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce on a “Buy Local” contest, he said. Residents who buy a $15 Casa Grande T-shirt and then post a picture of themselves standing near one of Casa Grande’s monument signs or local attractions can be entered to win prizes from local businesses.

The alliance also got an update on the progress of the AARP Experience Corps Foundation’s third grade literacy project for the Casa Grande area.

The literacy project is designed to partner volunteers over the age of 50 with third grade students who are struggling to learn how to read, said Tonya Wiley-Robinson from AARP’s Experience Corps Foundation. AARP, the city of Casa Grande, Achieve Pinal and the Casa Grande Elementary School District partnered to bring the program to the city.

This would be the first time AARP has brought the program to a rural area, she said. It is set to launch, as a virtual program, at the start of the school year this fall. It will also be the first time that AARP has tried to run the program virtually, Wiley-Robinson said. The hope is to eventually expand the program to schools throughout Pinal County.

The program will first be available to students in three Casa Grande elementary schools: Cottonwood, Evergreen and Saguaro, said Jerry Stabley from Achieve Pinal, which is part of the Pinal Alliance. The program will serve 100 to 150 students in its first year.

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Homeless assistance is major item in new county budget

FLORENCE — Pinal County will fund several nonprofit agencies for a total of $660,000 to relieve homelessness in the new fiscal year as part of a tentative annual budget the Board of Supervisors approved Wednesday.

The county is due to receive an extra federal Community Development Block Grant of nearly $1.1 million to address needs related to COVID-19. Just over half of this grant will go toward temporary housing and other assistance to help the homeless, and the rest will be divided into smaller amounts to other agencies eligible for COVID-19 funding.

The board also voted to reopen its application window for two more weeks to allow other nonprofits to apply for COVID-19 funding.

The new county budget of $570,355,462 is an increase of more than $58 million from the current year, due to future capital projects and potential grants, Pinal County Budget Director Angie Woods told the board.

Maintaining reserve

The new budget anticipates overspending revenues by almost $2.6 million, which leaves the county about $27.5 million in fund balances. This is 14% of expenditures, a little short of the county’s goal of a 15% reserve. But Woods said April revenues were better than expected, and if this continues, the county could still reach 15%. Because of uncertainty amid the pandemic, local excise tax and state-shared revenues are predicted to be flat in the new budget.

The budget includes 2.5% raises for county employees beginning in the second quarter at a cost of $1.3 million. Increases for sworn officers and detention step plans account for an additional $800,000. The county is covering a $900,000 increase in medical benefits so there will be no additional cost to employees.

The board will not formally adopt a new primary property tax rate until August, but the budget assumes a rate of $3.75 per $100 of assessed value. This continues the board’s strategic goal of reducing the primary property tax rate by four cents per year. The board will hold a public hearing and consider adopting a final budget on July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

COVID-19 funding

The Pinal County Coalition to End Homelessness recommended a total of $660,000 in funding for various agencies. The largest of these is $374,000 to the Pinal County Housing Department to offer rental assistance, and $121,000 to various food banks.

Smaller grants were made to Horizon Health and Wellness, Community Action Human Resources Agency, Community Bridges and National Community Health Partners for temporary housing assistance. CAHRA also received a $30,000 grant to provide utility assistance beyond electricity.

The board also made $422,000 in other awards from the county’s special CDBG grant, including $68,000 for Against Abuse; $56,000 for the Pinal-Gila Council for Senior Citizens; $40,000 for the Hayden Senior Citizens Center; $30,000 for the United Way’s volunteer tax assistance program; $30,000 for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Casa Grande Valley; and $24,000 for the Superstition Community Food Bank.

There were also several smaller awards, such as $10,000 each to the Future Forward Foundation and the Florence American Legion post.

The board also funded several other nonprofit requests unrelated to the pandemic, including $44,500 to the Winkelman Natural Resources Conservation District and $35,000 to the Maricopa Senior Center. In all these grants totaled $300,963.

The budget also included $252,166 in membership dues to several different organizations including the Arizona Association of Counties, Central Arizona Governments, Maricopa Association of Governments, County Supervisors Association of Arizona and others.

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House ethics probe finds 'romantic' relationship between Cook, lobbyist

PHOENIX — A report released Friday by the House Ethics Committee accuses Rep. David Cook of having an undisclosed relationship with a lobbyist, one that the investigators said is romantic.

The 34-page document prepared for the panel by outside lawyers hired to investigate the two-term Republican from Globe also says that Cook called Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb about plans to seize property in which the lobbyist — AnnaMarie Knorr, who is also Governing Board president for Maricopa Unified School District — had an interest and that Lamb subsequently called off the sale.

And it says that there is evidence of Cook’s “use of alcohol while conducting official business including a meeting at the governor’s office.”

Release of the report sets in motion a process for the committee to decide whether any of what the outside investigators found merits charges.

Cook was not allowed to speak during Friday’s meeting, either before or after the closed-door session in which committee members reviewed the findings. But they did agree to allow him to prepare a formal response which is due next Friday.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the panel, said if the committee decides to pursue formal charges against Cook he will be given an opportunity to testify. But Allen said Cook will not be able to present witnesses of his own or cross-examine any of the people whose statements to the investigators form the basis of the report.

The charges and the process drew a stinging response from attorney Dennis Wilenchik, who represents Cook.

“The report is riddled with opinions that were foregone, and conclusion that are totally bereft of the reality I witnessed,” he said in a letter to committee members. “I consider the report to be little more than an unobjective hit piece and would look forward to airing the facts, and the real issues and evidence, in a light conducive to fair discussion.”

Carmen Chenal Horne, another of Cook’s lawyers, went a step farther.

Rep. David Cook Ethics Report

She told Capitol Media Services that the information in the report is false and that the investigators knew that to be the case. Horne said that makes the investigators liable for defamation as well as the committee members whose unanimous vote Friday made the report public.

At the center of all of this is Cook’s relationship with Knorr, who had been a lobbyist for the Western Growers Association. She was fired after publication of some letters between the pair showing some sort of relationship.

The allegation is that relationship was romantic even as she was lobbying Cook on issues of interest to her employer.

“Rep. Cook never disclosed the nature of his relationship with Ms. Knorr to the House, and to this day, he has denied the same to his colleagues, his constituents, and the investigators for the House Ethics Committee,” the report says.

Wrapped up with all that is the charge that Cook contacted Lamb about the tax problems on the property in which Knorr had an interest. There was an allegation that Cook promised a campaign contribution to the sheriff if he backed off.

The investigators said it is “undisputed” that Lamb called off the scheduled seizure.

Both the issue of the relationship and the question of the land sale were raised in complaints to the Ethics Committee. But the investigators on their own reached several other conclusions.

“Rep. Cook’s own words in his letters to Ms. Knorr also reference his use of alcohol as a potential weakness,” the report states.

And then the investigators said Cook did not cooperate with the investigation and refused to comply with a subpoena issued by the committee.

Wilenchik said if Cook did anything inappropriate — and he is not saying his client did — he said these issues are “more appropriately decided by voters in a political campaign, versus those in a formal, legislative proceeding.” He said none of issues raised deal with ethics, which is the sole charge of the committee.

“Rep. Cook has done nothing that will ever be proven to have effected (sic) his sacred role as the people’s representative,” Wilenchik wrote.

“There is no collusion, there is no bribery, there is no abuse of power,” he continued. “There is only acts of kindness, compassion and assistance to an old friend that is no one else’s business, that has been twisted and warped by an ex-husband and a father who has an agenda.”

Those last comments go to the fact that some of the charges come from Knorr’s former spouse as well as Bas Aja, an agricultural lobbyist himself and Knorr’s father, whose relationship with his daughter had deteriorated.

Wilenchik also said the charge of an improper relationship with the lobbyist also suffers from a legal deficiency.

He pointed out that House rules require complaints against any lawmaker be made under oath based on the “personal knowledge” of the individual filing the charge. He said there is no such evidence here, saying there was a “complicated relationship involved here, which was NOT an ‘affair’ sexual or otherwise that will ever be proven.”

Horne said the problems of the report are even more basic. She said once the investigators could not prove there was a romantic relationship they decided to go down the path of saying he should have disclosed any relationship to the House.

“If there is a process by which legislators are supposed to reveal personal relationships ‘to the House’ we are not aware of them,” Horne said.

“Even if there were, being friends with a lobbyist is not improper,” she continued. “Not even dear friends.”

As to alcohol, Cook pleaded guilty last year to a charge of drunk driving and was sentenced to one day in jail. But Horne said anything beyond that is irrelevant.

“While Mr. Cook has struggled with alcohol in years past, it is one thing for someone to go out and have one drink turn into three or four,” she said. “But at no time was he a ‘day drinker’ or someone who drank at work.”