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Pinal County Historical Museum reopens Oct. 1

FLORENCE — Thursday marks the first day the Pinal County Historical Museum will reopen its doors to the public. The museum will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with all safety precautions in place.

The museum’s rear entrance, located off the back parking lot on Gressinger Street, is the entrance available for public use. PCHS Museum will be open to up to ten guests in the museum’s interior at any one time. We request large groups to call ahead so the museum can accommodate.

Visitation safety precautions and expectations will be posted at the rear entry. All staff and volunteers will wear facial masks; we encourage our guests to also wear masks. If guests do not have a facial mask, disposable masks will be available. PCHS Museum installed plexiglass partitions in transactional areas; hand sanitizer stations are available. Staff will implement a regular cleaning schedule.

All season, the PCHS Museum sponsors guided walking tours of Historic Florence and the Florence Cemetery. Walking tours are limited to ten participants for a socially-distanced guided tour.

Any first Wednesday, now through March, take a walk through time with Chris Reid. Learn about the people who lived and operated businesses in historic Florence. Participants exit this tour with a new appreciation of this great town! Follow the link or call the museum for more information and tickets. https://pinalcountyhistorcialmuseum.brownpapertickets.com/

See Florence’s rich history come alive on Chris Reid’s Walking Cemetery Tour any third Saturday, now through March. Learn fascinating stories about the people who made Florence what it is today. Follow the link or call the museum for more information and tickets. https://pchscemterytour.brownpapertickets.com/

PCHS Museum will also offer virtual humanities programming throughout the 2020-2021 season. Stay tuned for more information on PCHS Museum’s exciting offerings.

Founded in 1968, the PCHS Museum is the oldest historical organization in Pinal County. The museum preserves Florence and Pinal County’s rich history through exhibitions, educational programming, and events. Additionally, the museum houses a large and diverse research collection from which exhibitions, programs, and events are created as well as opportunities for academic and community-based research. Serving 5,000 visitors annually, PCHS Museum is an economic asset to Florence.

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Florence mayoral candidates compare qualifications

Q. What are your qualifications to serve the town in an elected position? Which one of your past positions or experiences best prepares you for this job? Please include your highest level of education.

Kyle Larsen: 35 years of corporate business experience and in management positions since 1985. Managing business relationships, negotiating financing programs, prospecting for new business, collaborating with executive management team and a green belt in Six Sigma process improvement. Univ. Nebraska Omaha for 3 years. I was eligible for a bonus incentive plan for 29 years and never missed qualifying.

Tara Walter: Currently, I serve as the Mayor of Florence. In 2012, I was elected to a four-year term serving on our Town Council. In 2014, my elected peers selected me to serve as Vice-Mayor. I represent Florence at the: Arizona Legislature, Central Arizona Association of Governments, Arizona League of Cities and Towns Resolution Committee, Maricopa Association of Governments, National League of Cities and Towns, Regional Transportation Authority, and Arizona League of Cities and Towns Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee. Frequently, I communicate and collaborate with other municipal and state leaders to keep current on issues happening at all levels of government. I regularly meet with various neighborhood groups, leaders, and community activists in an effort to communicate together on a local level. I hold two Master’s Degrees in Administration and Education from Northern Arizona University, both graduating with distinction; Two Bachelor’s Degrees in Literature/Writing and Education; and an Associates in Art.

Q. What would be the highest and best use(s) of the town’s CARES Act funding?

Larsen: We should use whatever amount it takes to support the business we have in town. Expenses continue for the small businesses even though they were forced to close. At a minimum we should cover 100% of their rent/mortgage and utilities for the months closed and possibly a percentage of those expenses when they were open and only seeing limited sales. We have to help them survive.

Walter: The funding has criteria addressing: Medical Expenses, Public Health Expenses, Payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating/responding to COVID19; Expenses of actions to facilitate compliance with COVID-19; and Expenses associated with the provision of economic support in connection with the COVID-19. In an openly public process, we listened to our community and developed, “Florence Returning Grant Program”: https://www.florenceaz.gov/rsgrant/. We remain in communication and correspondence, continuing to aid recovery in Florence, while following the legal criteria of the funding program. The money comes with strict criteria that must be followed otherwise the Town is responsible to pay back any money that is not used appropriately. If this happens, the Town will fall further behind than the current state of budget shortfalls. The program that was developed accomplishes supporting businesses and protects the Town from incurring penalties.

Q. What is your view of Streetlight Improvement Districts (SLIDs)?

Larsen: The SLID makes sense in HOA’s and should just be integrated in the annual property tax bill.

Walter: A Street Light Improvement District (SLID) is a neighborhood partnership and very common practice in which property owners in a defined area agree to pay the costs to operate and maintain their immediate area’s street lights through a property tax. Arizona Revised Statute only allows $1.20 per $100 of the assessed value eligible for collection. For example, if the limited value of a property is $200,000 and the assessed value is $20,000, the most per year that can be collected for the SLID from that property is $240. I first encountered SLID’s when we purchased a home in the Anthem at Merrill Ranch. It was explained to me as a buyer in 2006 of both a new build and in 2008 when we purchased an established home. This tax is important to maintain the current look and state of our community. If they were removed, the Town would not be able to afford the yearly budget impact of paying for the lights around community. This tax is paid by Anthem Residents to have our street lights on at night. It does not fund any other projects or costs within the Town.

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Florence candidates state qualifications, opinions on COVID relief, streetlights

Q. What are your qualifications to serve the town in an elected position? Which one of your past positions or experiences best prepares you for this job? Please include your highest level of education.

Johnie F. Mendoza: Per the Florence website, it states; you must be a qualified elector, you must be 18 years of age or older, you must speak, read and write the English language, and you must be a resident of Florence town limits for at least one year proceeding the election. As far as my qualifications; I’ve been around the world with the U.S Army, I was responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment and a large number of personnel. I worked 20 years as a correctional officer, keeping the public, other staff and inmates safe. My wife and I were foster parents for 13 years advocating and being a voice for these children unable to speak for themselves.

Arthur “Snake” Neal: I think a position like Town Council qualifications are on the job training. I can get in there and learn the position. Listen and make the best decisions for Florence. I have some college and 20 years with Pinal County Sheriff Department that helped me a lot with decision making, communication, working with people, and getting things done.

Bill Tanner: I’m qualified to serve on the Town Council based on 30 years of hand’s on leadership in the Navy, law enforcement and the private sector. I am a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a former appointee to the Planning Commission (Alternate) and a past appointee of Governor Ducey to the Arizona Mining, Minerals and Natural Resources Education Museum Board. I am currently a member of the American Legion and Florence Toastmasters. I have served in executive leadership positions as VP, International Association of Drilling Contractors, VP, Public Relations, United Parcel Service and Sr. Manager, Communications, at Shell. I have worked in law enforcement for the Los Angeles Police Department and as a Special Agent for the Naval Investigative Service. I received my BA from Cal State University, Northridge.

Vallarie Woolridge: I previously served 14 years on the Florence Town Council. I served on the budget committee, in addition to various other liaison positions. I attended the University of Kansas. I have worked as an administrative assistant for over 35 years. It is my opinion that the desire and willingness to serve your community in this capacity serves as having adequate qualifications. As long as you have a desire to read, listen, learn and respect knowledge and opinions that may be different than yours, then you meet the qualifications.

Q. What would be the highest and best use(s) of the town’s CARES Act funding?

Mendoza: There are so many possibilities, I’m not sure of any restrictions attached to this money by the state or the federal government. The best use is to insure the businesses that are in need due to loss of revenue and cover the cost of PPE’s per the state mandate get this money. We as a town cannot afford to lose anymore businesses. Fortunately the town council has approved the Returning Stronger grants for our local businesses. I hope the town has notified all businesses about these grants. Remember you have until October 31st to apply. Grant applications are available on the town website at www.FlorenceAZ.gov/RSgrants

Neal: Ensuring that all town residents remain safe and are educated on prevention, testing and treatment. The town should also provide preventative measures (hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, etc.) in public areas. Most of the money should be spent helping local businesses recover from the financial hardships caused by Covid-19.

Tanner: Procure professional auditing management services that will assist in ensuring that CARES Act funds are disbursed in accordance with applicable law.

  • Reimburse the Florence Unified School District for expenditures directly related to the coronavirus pandemic and that benefited the community, i.e., meals provided to the community.
  • Reimburse the Florence Fire and Police Departments and other first responders, for expenditures directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Support contract tracing for those identified as “at-risk” and who are residents of Florence.
  • Expand local broadband access by identifying and prioritizing areas where access to broadband has impeded the delivery of remote learning.
  • Allocate funds to the Florence Chamber of Commerce for small business support and recovery.

Woolridge: They have created a plan to share the funding with businesses and non-profits. I feel as though this a good use of the funds. You always have the desire to give or do more, but this is a good starting point.

Q. What is your view of Streetlight Improvement Districts (SLIDs)?

Mendoza: The process begins when a majority of the property owners make a request to the town for streetlights. The cost associated with installation and on-going energy costs of the streetlights, this assessment is collected by the county in the form of a tax, based upon the assessed value of the property in the district. The town pays for installation and energy costs for the first year, the property owners pay back the up front cost over a period of years then the property owners are annually assessed for the electricity rates and sales tax. If the property owners agree to this then let’s do it. This makes for safer streets and neighborhood.

Neal: All tax-paying town residents should benefit from the highway uses revenue funds, that pays for some of the street lights. Streets lights provide safety and security for residents and the Town of Florence should provide that for all Town Areas. No resident in town limits should have to pay additional fees or taxes for a basic service that should be provided to them by the town.

Tanner: SLIDs are a common practice wherein property owners in a defined area agree to pay the costs to operate and maintain their immediate area’s streetlights through a property tax. State law allows for the assessment costs, including on-going maintenance, associated with such districts. I support SLIDs, primarily because they afford a substantial measure of safety and security to our community and because streetlights are paid for by those who actually benefit. I also favor the installation of newly designed LED technology to reduce the energy consumption of street lighting and reduce costs to the taxpayer.

Woolridge: Streetlight Improvement Districts is a necessary tool to offset the cost of new development. It is never popular when residents are saddled with additional obligations. It is critical that residents are informed up front about any additional monetary costs. New development costs have to be borne by those who will benefit from it.

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County leadership needed on fire protection, Florence chief says

FLORENCE — Unincorporated areas, especially the ones south of town, are growing. But If there’s a big fire, there’s no telling who — if anyone — will show up to fight it.

It’s a problem that goes back 40 years but is now becoming critical, Florence Fire Chief David Strayer said. “We’re pressured constantly to respond out there. We’re having to say no a lot more.” He said the time has come for Pinal County to provide some leadership on the issue.

Maricopa and Pima counties went through this years ago as their populations grew quickly, so the problem isn’t unique, Strayer said. “At some point, it has to be addressed. … We get calls on a weekly basis to try to get us to leave our area for uncovered areas, and it’s just getting worse as the area grows.”

In the summer of 2019, the Florence Fire Department was slammed on the evening news two nights in a row for not responding to a house that burned down 12 miles out of town. The TV station never contacted the Florence Fire Department for its side.

“We can’t lose home after home out there, and forever just blame the closest fire department,” Strayer said. “Especially when we have no legal basis to respond. … I’m urging (Pinal County) to please start addressing this issue, because it’s heartbreaking.”

Since last year’s fire, a couple of area residents have been working to form a fire district or a volunteer fire department, including buying a used firetruck, Pinal County Emergency Manager Chuck Kmet said.

Deputy Pinal County Manager Himanshu Patel said in a prepared statement for PinalCentral:

“Public Safety is the number one priority for Pinal County, and county leadership has concerns for all parts of the county which lack fire protection. Fire protection services in Arizona are not mandated, such as law enforcement: fire protection service in the state is deregulated and subject to individual property owner responsibility.

“Like all counties in Arizona, Pinal County lacks the legal authority to mandate fire protection for residential use. The only viable tools that the state has authorized to establish a formal fire department are annexation, incorporation, or the formation of fire districts.

“In addition to the above options is a volunteer-based or a subscription-based fire department. However, effective fire protection is very much reliant on a public water system, and many of the wildcat subdivisions in unincorporated Pinal County do not have a public water system and are limited to on-site individual water wells.

“We appreciate Chief Strayer’s concerns, and we believe a viable short-term solution would be to educate property owners on the pros and cons of annexing into the town of Florence,” Patel’s statement concluded.

Strayer said that at one time, the private Rural Metro Fire Department responded to fires south of town. Florence firefighters would typically arrive first and turn the scene over to Rural Metro. “It wasn’t the best system, but it kind-of worked.” But more recently Rural Metro says this isn’t its area.

“So what happens is we get stuck,” Strayer said. If Florence firefighters are fighting a county fire, “who’s going to cover Florence?”

Rural Metro spokesman Shawn Gilleland said that department serves its members, and many years ago stopped soliciting members south of Florence. The department told residents there has to be a membership base. If only 5% of residents want to subscribe, that’s not enough to support a station.

Without a nearby station, the Cactus Forest area and beyond is a considerable distance away for Rural Metro to offer a timely response, Gilleland said. Rural Metro still responds in a mutual aid arrangement with Florence and helped fight a fire just outside the town limits as recently as Sept. 17. But there’s no such agreement with Pinal County, Strayer said.

“We have agreements with everybody else — all the municipalities and communities. We have legal authority to respond to Coolidge, Gila River, Queen Creek and all those places. But we don’t have a similar agreement with the county because there’s no reciprocity. The county doesn’t have a fire department, so it can’t be mutual aid,” Strayer said.

“… The challenge for us is we want to help, and we do help the best we can, based on the resources we have.” If there’s an accident on the highway with victims that need to be extricated, “if we’re available, we’re going to go on that. We’re going to help every time we believe there’s life in jeopardy.”

Another problem is these calls are sometimes hard on equipment that was intended for city streets, Strayer said. County calls may be on dirt roads, washes and other difficult terrain. A few months ago, a Florence truck became buried up to its axles when it responded to an all-terrain vehicle rollover with injuries. With special towing equipment responding on a weekend, it cost $4,500 to free the truck.

Strayer said Florence has a state contract to respond to wildfires, but that’s a completely different type of fire and uses a different vehicle that doesn’t readily convert to house fires. “You can’t do much for a structure fire with a brush truck.” There is a type of fire engine, called a “Type 3” or “urban interface engine,” designed for rural roads.

“The county has to do something — that’s the bottom line,” Strayer said. “It’s putting a strain on us. We want to help, but we have no legal authority to respond down there. It’s just a quandary that needs to be addressed.”