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Infections grow as Florence looks forward to a cautious reopening
 mcowling  / 

FLORENCE — COVID-19 continues to spread in the community, Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Town Council Monday.

He gave some numbers, which were updated by the state on Friday. 

In Pinal County the surge in new cases in Florence and Eloy continued. Both communities are home to state prisons and federal detention centers. However, of the 16 new cases reported Friday in Florence, only two were in the Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex, prison officials said.

The Department of Corrections says that 50 inmates in the Florence prison have tested positive for the virus while 17 are pending. DOC reported three new positive cases among staffers Friday, but that was from all the state prisons.

Barbers and salons were allowed to open Friday in a limited capacity. Restaurants will be allowed to reopen Monday with strict protective measures.

“But those are two excellent steps in moving forward to reinitiate our economy,” Billingsley told the council Monday.

The state still has a stay-at-home order, which is going to be reassessed on May 15. Unless someone fills an essential service, the state is still recommending employees work from home.

“But we’re very much looking forward to these next steps to try and reinvigorate the economy,” Billingsley added.

Billingsley further reported the Police Department has just changed to 12-hour shifts, an adjustment from a 10-hour cycle.

“This is something officers have wanted for the past four years and something I had worked with Chief Hughes on last year,” he said of the recently retired Dan Hughes. This results in more officers on the beats and a sergeant on every shift.

The town anticipates a reduction in overtime. Twelve-hour shifts are used a lot in law enforcement and are referred to as the “team concept,” Billingsley said.

Each sergeant on each shift is responsible for his or her team, and will have the same team on the same days until the shifts are reset. “We believe it also gives officers additional opportunities to engage in proactive policing,” Billingsley added.

Chief Bruce Walls believes it also allows him to devote more time to staff development and community policing, Billingsley told the council.

In other business:

  • The council approved a contract with Terracon Consultants Inc. for roadway construction materials testing for up to $150,000. Vice Mayor John Anderson asked for more details. Public Works Director and Town Engineer Chris Salas said the contract will assist with upcoming projects on Arizona Farms Road and Hunt Highway and other future projects.

In this way, the town receives quality assurance testing with no inherent conflict of interest, as the lab works for the town, according to Salas’ written report to the council. Almost all of Terracon’s contract will be paid out of the town’s share of Arizona gas taxes and fees, known as HURF.

  • The council approved a contract with SJ Anderson Company for $58,624 to address age and weather-related deterioration on the exterior of Town Hall. There are currently several areas of deteriorated wood fascia, sun-bleached paint on porch posts and beams and stucco cracks around the 22-year-old building, according to a town staff report.
  • Mayor Tara Walter proclaimed May as National Water Safety Month and National Historic Preservation Month in Florence. Florence Interim Community Services Director John Nixon said his department will hold the annual Water Safety Day, register children for swim lessons and open the Aquatic Center when restrictions are lifted.

Anderson expressed disappointment that current restrictions kept the town from recognizing local citizens who work for historic preservation. The council members have recently been meeting over their computers rather than in person. Walter said she hoped the council could meet in its chambers in Town Hall again in June, pending direction from the governor.

  • Florence Community Development Director Barbara Rice spoke to the council on the status of the town’s Redevelopment Plan update and General Plan update, both long-range planning projects that have been affected by COVID-19.

The last Redevelopment Plan open house was on March 12 and had approximately 30 participants, who had the opportunity to review a potential land use map and several development scenarios. Town staff expects to receive an initial draft of the plan this month, and public participation will continue once COVID-19 precautions are lifted, Rice said.

The General Plan consultant is still researching and gathering data, and the contract doesn’t anticipate formal public input until mid-summer. The only time-sensitive issue might be at the end of the project in order to meet the schedule for a public vote on the plan in the fall of 2022 as required by state law, Rice told the council.

Billingsley said the town’s new Regional Transportation Plan is near completion, but COVID-19 is delaying the town’s ability to hold a public hearing and for the public to comment. There was a public open house and presentation to the Town Council on Jan. 21.

There were also a couple of other open houses, and a technical advisory committee also held meetings.

Town staff now hope to have a public hearing in June prior to a council vote on adopting the plan.

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Study offers strategies for Pinal military bases in dealing with neighbors
 mcowling  / 

FLORENCE — Strategies for better relationships among Pinal County’s military installations and their civilian neighbors are contained in a study and related documents adopted by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors last week.

The 28-month-long Pinal County Joint Land Use Study resulted in 132 tailored strategies to mitigate issues and 37 issues with the potential for U.S. Department of Defense funding, Celeste Werner, project manager for Matrix Design Group of Phoenix, told the board April 29.

Matrix Design was under contract with Pinal County to conduct the JLUS, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment.

The study covers four Arizona Army National Guard sites — Rittenhouse Training Site and Florence Military Reservation in the northwest part of the county, and the Picacho Peak Stagefield and the Silverbell Army Heliport in the southwest part of the county. The ultimate goal of the JLUS is a balance — residents can enjoy their properties, communities can pursue economic development and the military can train, according to the study, which can be seen at pinaljlus.com.

Participating in the study with Pinal County were the Arizona State Land Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Military Affairs Commission, Arizona Army National Guard, the communities of Eloy, Florence, Marana and Queen Creek and other local and regional stakeholders.

In other business:

  • Pinal County Manager Louis Andersen introduced Cathy Whelan, the county’s new public defense director since April 20. Whelan was deputy public defender in Maricopa County, where she has 17 years’ experience. “We’re fortunate to have her,” Andersen said.

Denise Keller, Pinal County library director for many years, will retire this year and county staff are looking to recruit an internal candidate to replace her, Andersen said. The job should be posted soon, Andersen, he added.

  • County staff are reviewing an appraisal received for the old Pinal General Hospital building on Central Avenue in Florence, which includes offices for the public defender and medical examiner. County staff hope to relocate the medical examiner with the Sheriff’s Office, which may require remodeling, but “we think that will be a good synergy,” Andersen said.
  • County staff are also coordinating recovery efforts with emergency management and other economic development managers across the county, and working on hiring a data analyst for a clearer picture of what’s happening with the county’s workforce and the costs of COVID-19, Andersen said. He said the county has a new number for business assistance, 800-409-5153.
  • Andersen said Pinal County continues to receive economic development proposals, and site selectors continue to reach out to Pinal County. “We’ve had 15 in the past couple of weeks and several look very promising. We’re very blessed to be in this county.”
  • In call to the public, Board Clerk Natasha Kennedy read a comment from Ruben Leos, candidate for supervisor in District 1, in which he claimed the incumbent supervisor, Democrat Pete Rios, does not live in the district. Leos said Rios should actually be running in District 5 against incumbent Todd House, R-Apache Junction.

Rios responded that this is a challenge his opponents have been making against him since 1980, but his legal residence is always found to be in Dudleyville. Rios further said that “people that live in glass houses ought not throw stones,” and it is Leos who doesn’t live in the district. Rios said Leos should be running in District 3 against incumbent Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande.

  • The board also proclaimed May 1-7 as Peace Officers Memorial Week and Thursday as Peace Officers Memorial Day in Pinal County.

Matt Thomas, chief deputy at the Sheriff’s Office, told the board that instead of a public memorial service as in prior years this year’s service will be posted on social media.

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Juvenile Court and PCSO work to reduce arrests for youths of color

FLORENCE — In 2017 Pinal County Juvenile Court Services decided it was time to look at racial and ethnic disparities to learn if there were more youths from one particular race or ethnic background being arrested than others, a press release from Juvenile Court Services said.

The agency conducted an analysis by looking throughout the system from arrest to disposition.

What it discovered was that the greatest disparity was with the point of arrest for African American youths. Further analysis revealed which cities and neighborhoods had the highest arrest rates for African American youths, the press release said.

The information was shared with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, leading both agencies to realize that action needed to be taken.

Juvenile Court Services and the Sheriff’s Office hosted a collaborative meeting with community partners recently to discuss what was contributing to disproportionately high arrest rates for youths of color.

The frank discussion looked at how they could work together to create solutions.

In attendance at the meeting were more than 40 participants including representation from the courts, local behavioral health agencies, the Board of Supervisors, chambers of commerce, local businesses, homeowners associations, County Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and local school districts.

The group reviewed crime maps and statistics, discussed identified disparities and potential contributing factors, and ultimately decided that to create sustainable change, relationships between community members of color and law enforcement needed to be strengthened.

The group created a planning committee for Community Outreach Events, a collected effort to put on community events in neighborhoods with high arrest rates for youths of color. Their goal was to provide opportunities for youths and families to build and strengthen relationships with local law enforcement.

The CORE Planning Committee, under the leadership of Juvenile Court and the Sheriff’s Office, put on four events in four different neighborhoods in 2019.

More than 1,000 community members attended community events, which included children’s activities and police officer autograph cards. More community members showed up than the planning committee could have hoped for.

“The partnerships we have established over the past three to four years, my staff have done an excellent job at recruiting and engaging our youth system partners, nonprofit, county leadership and communities,” said Juvenile Court Director Denise Smith. “When we develop these partnerships, there is an expectation that we deliver improved and innovative solutions and that, I believe, we have accomplished.”

But she said work is ongoing and there are plans to stay connected and continue to improve the juvenile justice system.

“CORE events give us the opportunity to interact with teens and children, to make that crucial positive first impression. If we can form good relationships with our young people now, we have a better chance of not seeing them pass through the juvenile court system,” said Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

The CORE Planning Committee is identifying which neighborhoods to go to next to continue their mission to eradicate racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice and expects to see greater reductions in arrest rates for youths of color as they continue to strengthen relationships between community members and law enforcement.