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State gradually shutting down Florence prison

FLORENCE — The state is following through on Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to close Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex, with almost half of inmates there transferred out, the Town Council was told Monday.

“We’ve seen a consistent lowering of the numbers at that particular historic complex, and now the North Unit is completely empty,” Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the council. North Unit once held 1,000 inmates within Florence Complex, which held a total of almost 3,600.

Florence officials were stunned by Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement of the closure in his state of the state address in January. Near the end of September, Florence Complex was down to 2,510 inmates and the number continues to decline, Billingsley told the council in his written report. The complex includes historic prison buildings, along with South Unit and East Unit.

The actual savings the state will see from closing the prison are debatable, a statehouse committee was told earlier this year. The closure itself is expected to save the state $60 million per year. But annual costs to house the inmates in private prisons and county jails could be $110 million, leaving the state with a net loss of $50 million a year. However, keeping the aged and neglected Florence Complex in use would cost untold millions in repairs and upgrades.

The loss of jobs and population are expected to be major setbacks for Florence. The loss could mean a $1.3 million direct hit to town services, or about 13% of the town’s total state-shared revenues. The ripple effect could total as much as $2.5 million annually. The town’s sewer utility could lose $650,000 per year, and the remaining ratepayers could be on the hook, the town has said.

The state Department of Corrections had not responded to PinalCentral’s request for comment by late Monday afternoon.

The town continues to work for some new use for the old prison property that will blunt the negative impact on the community, Ben Bitter, the town’s intergovernmental and communications manager, commented by email Tuesday.

“The town continues to advocate for the continued use of the facility wherever possible,” Bitter said. “Should the state choose to ultimately close down the facility, we will continue to push for an adaptive reuse plan that can maximize the economic impact of the facility on the region.

“Talks are ongoing between the town and the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry to ensure that any negative impacts of the closure are mitigated to the maximum extent possible,” Bitter continued. “Nonetheless, the closure of the North Unit was a disappointment to the town, and we hope to meet with the Department in the coming days to determine their short-term and long-term plans for this unique unit.”

Councilwoman Kristen Larsen asked Monday if the town is finally receiving accurate information about Covid-19 infections in local prisons.

Billingsley said the town continues to receive incomplete data, and data that doesn’t jibe with other reports.

“I’m not sure there’s a whole lot the town can do to put pressure on anyone to provide more accurate data,” he said. Billingsley said Bitter is compiling and reporting the data as best he can, and in terms of statewide cases, “it appears that we’re much better off than we were a few weeks ago, and we’re kind-of holding steady in terms of the number of cases as it relates to the number of tests.”

911 system

In other business Monday, Vice Mayor John Anderson said he was troubled by the 911 system going down recently.

Bitter commented afterward that 911 went down for about 45 minutes on Sept. 28. The outage was not just a local problem but affected multiple states, he said.

If Florence’s 911 system fails, its emergency calls are routed through Pinal County. Because the county’s 911 function was out as well, Florence overrode the system to take emergency calls on its non-emergency number.

“From the customer viewpoint, we hope the experience was seamless as these backup redundancies were utilized,” Bitter said.

Billingsley also noted that the town and Pinal County now have the ability to receive text messages to 911, for those who may be unable to place a 911 call. However, Billingsley said texts don’t reveal the caller’s location, so it’s important to include the exact location and nature of the emergency in the text.

He continued that text-to-911 users should avoid “text jargon,” abbreviations, photos and videos, and they should not text 911 while driving.

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FUSD reports 70% return for regular classes

FLORENCE — Superintendent Chris Knutsen visited seven of Florence Unified School District’s 12 campuses Monday. There was no particular problem or urgent issue.

“Honestly, I just wanted to see kids on campuses. … Kids were real happy to be back in school,” Knutsen told PinalCentral.

Monday was the first day of regular classes in seven months for the nearly 10,000 students in FUSD.

“It went great,” Knutsen said of their first day back. “It was awesome driving into work this morning and seeing all the Florence buses on the road.”

About 70% of FUSD students have returned to regular classes. Some who had previously opted to continue online study decided at the last minute to come back in person. Knutsen thought it would be more, “but I understand, some people just aren’t ready to get back in person.”

Students who came back Monday saw the kind of protective equipment they’ve been seeing in other public places — hand-washing stations, plexiglass shields and everyone wearing masks.

“I think all things considered, today went really well,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie said. “…For the most part, no major issues. Kids were in seats, they were following all of our mitigation measures without really any problem. Teachers showed up ready to work and connect with kids.”

“I think it’s great that we have our kids back in school,” Knutsen said. “The majority of people wanted to get back in school, and at the same time we’re able to help those kids online that want to stay online. We’re just excited to be back.”

Candidates comment on mayor's time commitment

Q. How important is it for the mayor and council members to do their own research? Is it better to go by town staff’s research so everyone is “on the same page?” How much time do you expect to devote per week, on average, to your duties as mayor or council member?

Kyle Larsen: I would like the Town Staff to research and present details well in advance of discussion, so the mayor/council can do their own diligence on significant projects. Having differing views is healthy, versus being “on the same page” all the time. In some instances, the staff would present solutions that would inform council on less significant issues. I dislike majoring on minor issues. Handle the majors and the minors take care of themselves in most cases.

I have no experience that would help me guesstimate the amount of time I will have to devote to the Mayor position. I will just simply devote the time it takes, regardless of the number of hours. I am currently retired, so I have the time to dedicate.

Tara Walter: It’s important for one to conduct their own research. I ask questions, look into details, share different perspectives and reach out to community members and businesses that may be affected by a decision. The amount of time devoted each week ranges due to commitments, meetings, and outreach. There are no set hours except for scheduled meetings. I spend as much time is needed to solve an issue whether it is during the day, at night or on the weekend. With the Town Manager form of government day to day operations are handled. Setting the vision and working through reform and issues does not carry a set schedule or minimum amount of hours. As business owners and citizens also work, much of the time is spent after hours responding to needs, and clarifying issues. Currently, as mayor, I serve on the Following Boards and Commissions: Arizona Legislature, CAG, RTA, League of Cities and Towns: Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee, MAG, League of Cities and Towns: Resolution Committee, National League of Cities and Towns.

Q. What is your view of the Grinder Sports proposal? Will it benefit Florence beyond sales tax revenue, and maybe being a nice place to visit occasionally? How should the town respond if the developer requests fee waivers, rebates or other financial incentives?

Larsen: So much is unknown about the Grinder proposal. I would need incredibly detailed estimates on revenue and expenses. The new announcement of Legacy Cares Inc., which is proposing the same type of park by the airport in Mesa presents significant headwinds. It is highly unlikely that two parks of this magnitude could generate the support necessary to survive. The Legacy plan is also privately funded and several steps ahead of Grinder.

Walter: The Town of Florence has been catching the eye of those who want to work with us on compatible economic development. The Town of Florence is open for business. Grinder Sports will allow us to maintain our safe community, while bringing activities, amenities, jobs, and opportunities to our area. The complex is 350 acres with fields, stadiums, courts, and other facilities, such as; housing, college campus, charter school campus, and family entertainment center with miniature golf, bowling, paintball, Movie Theater, hotels, restaurants, retail and office space. Recently, Florence Planning and Zoning Commission held two public hearings and passed a favorable motion to proceed to the Town Council. On October 5th, we will hold a public hearing and take action on the General Plan amendment. Every step in the process brings additional information. We are working openly, synergistically, and transparently in an effort to bring a project that will be of major significance.

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Florence officials optimistic as EPCOR agrees to buy Johnson Utilities

SAN TAN VALLEY — EPCOR Water, the company appointed to run Johnson Utilities two years ago, announced it has reached an agreement to buy it.

The town of Florence, which seriously considered buying JU itself in past years, hasn’t taken a position for or against EPCOR’s pending purchase.

But Vice Mayor John Anderson, who is also a JU customer, said Tuesday, “It can only get better. I’m excited about it. I think EPCOR will do a good job for us. They’ve got a pretty good reputation and they seem to be serious about what they’re doing.”

Anderson said EPCOR stays in regular contact with Town Manager Brent Billingsley about various situations. “There’s still a lot of work that they’ve got to do and they’ve got a big job in front of them.”

He said service has been somewhat better with EPCOR in charge. JU used to bring truckloads of sewage from its Section 11 plant in Magic Ranch to be treated in Anthem, and Anthem residents smelled it. There are still odors, but “compared to what we had before, I would say we’ve seen a marked improvement.”

Benjamin Bitter, the town’s intergovernmental and communications manager, commented by email: “We are anxious to review filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission, and will remain involved in those proceedings for as long as necessary to ensure all our residents are receiving the safe and adequate provision of water and wastewater services from the utility, regardless of the operator.”

Florence residents who live in Anthem are served by Johnson Utilities water and sewer. In all, Johnson Utilities serves approximately 29,450 water and 40,160 wastewater customers in Florence, Queen Creek and San Tan Valley.

Johnson Utilities General Manager Gary Drummond had no comment Tuesday. The sale is pending regulatory approval and completion of the financial transaction. The sales price was not disclosed. The Arizona Corporation Commission must also approve the sale.

The ACC appointed EPCOR to step in and run JU in response to customer complaints, and JU had opposed the move ever since, in filings before the ACC and in court. JU argued to the ACC earlier this year that EPCOR had been a “poor and negligent” manager with obvious conflicts of interest, including pressuring JU’s owners to sell the company.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors wrote to the ACC last month asking for short-term fixes to keep the Section 11 and Pecan wastewater plants running so homes may continue to be built in San Tan Valley.

The smelly Section 11 plant in Magic Ranch near Florence has been especially troublesome and has essentially stopped construction for two years in southern San Tan Valley. EPCOR has proposed replacing it completely with a new plant in Copper Basin.

JU officials have argued that this will take too long — perhaps five years — and said it would be faster and more cost efficient to replace it with a new enclosed plant.

Since becoming JU’s interim manager 25 months ago, “We’ve enhanced service for these customers, but there is more work to be done and we are committed to helping the community chart a course for the future,” Joe Gysel, president of EPCOR USA, said in a news release. “Bringing this service area and these customers into EPCOR will start a new chapter focused on safety, reliability and service for these communities.”

EPCOR Water Arizona Inc. is a subsidiary of EPCOR USA Inc., with headquarters in Phoenix. EPCOR’s subsidiaries build, own and operate water and wastewater and natural gas facilities and infrastructure in the Southwestern United States. EPCOR is among the largest private water utilities in the Southwest and the largest in Arizona, providing water, wastewater, wholesale water and natural gas services to approximately 670,000 people across 39 communities and 17 counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

It is part of EPCOR Utilities Inc., which builds, owns and operates electrical, natural gas and water transmission and distribution networks; water and wastewater treatment facilities; sanitary and stormwater systems; and infrastructure in Canada and the United States. EPCOR, headquartered in Edmonton, is an “Alberta Top 75” employer.