FLORENCE — This summer, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors asked the top contenders for the county manager’s job to respond to a hypothetical scenario.

Under the scenario, the supervisors were taking heat for being unprepared for rapid population growth and the attendant problems of more vulnerable and high-risk populations, the lack of a skilled workforce and inadequate infrastructure.

Louis M. Andersen, then the county’s public works director, responded that criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but “an opportunity for us to improve, grow and enhance our services.”

He continued that such a discussion isn’t merely theoretical. The county has seen a 146% population increase in the last 18 years, along with $1.2 billion in transportation needs, and a need for more fiber optic services and water.

The county had an estimated 150 homeless people last year, but some believe the true number could be as high as 1,000. More than 30% of people with less than a high school diploma are considered impoverished. One in 4 children don’t know where next meal is coming from, Andersen said.

Now that he’s been in the manager’s job for a few weeks, Andersen told PinalCentral in an interview that he continues to welcome citizen feedback, even when it’s difficult to hear.

“I think criticism is welcome, because we can always look to see how we can do things better.” One of his current priorities is a citizen satisfaction survey, and he’s asking for input from each of the Supervisors to make sure the county asks the right questions.

As county manager, Anderson provides basic guidance and leadership to county departments that need it. But it’s mainly serving the Board of Supervisors and making sure their strategic priorities are being put into action, he said.

On the front burner

Also on Andersen’s mind in recent days has been the county’s assured water supply and groundwater in the Pinal Active Management Area (AMA). The county’s past official strategy for “planned depletion” of the aquifer was not a good plan, he said. “But we’ve got a lot of things going in the right direction. We just need to continue to look for solutions with our partners, and no task is too big for this group; we’ve got a great group of elected officials and staff, so I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

Anderson said he wants to work for stronger relationships with the tribal communities.

“We have a pretty decent relationship with the Tohono O’odham tribe and the Ak-Chin. But with the San Carlos (Apache Tribe) and Gila River (Indian Community), those are going to be really important for our future as well, particularly around water and water supply for the Pinal AMA,” he said.

There’s also an analysis of the county’s wages, or a “compensation review.” “We have the sheriff’s step program, and according to Sheriff Lamb, that’s going to help. Now we have to get a full review of our compensation across the county. We have to get that right, to make sure we keep and retain the great employees we have,” Andersen said.

He said he also wants better coordination of the county’s communications, with the various social media pages, newsletters, public information officers and others “trying to get that more consistent messaging. … I’m kind of about centralization and efficiencies, and trying to get people talking.” It’s a task he faces without longtime Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz, who resigned this month for other opportunities.

New buildings

The supervisors this summer approved $63 million in bond financing for new county buildings in Florence, San Tan Valley and Maricopa. Andersen said he’s looking forward to how they’ll improve county services, plus how they’ll eventually save money the county now pays in rent.

“The buildings in the San Tan Valley area are a great need. We have over $250,000 in rent we’re paying out annually for the Supervisor’s office, for the sheriff’s substation, for public works. … (Supervisor) Tony Smith in Maricopa also rents an office, so we’ll be able to eliminate the rental there.”

The county will also be able to vacate or demolish old buildings that have exceeded their useful life, and “are costing us too much to maintain and operate.” These include the public defender offices on Central Avenue in Florence, and Community Development’s “Building F” in the downtown county office complex.

“The most expensive building we operate is Building F; it’s an acre under roof. It was a jail at one time. There is a tunnel between building F and the courthouse, where they used to bring the incarcerated for trial.”

The county’s downtown Florence neighbors will also be pleased, he said.

“In the historic downtown, we’ll have a courtyard enclosing 11th street and Florence Street (for) a good pedestrian-friendly, citizen-friendly environment. So we’re really looking forward to how that materializes.” Water line upgrades, funded with the help of a Community Development Block Grant, along with new fire hydrants, will enhance fire protection for the entire complex. Neighbors should notice improved water service as well, “so this is going to be great for the city,” Andersen said.

After being in charge of Pinal County Public Works for so long, Andersen is comfortable that department is in good hands:

“Scott (Bender) and I worked together the last six years; he’s currently interim public works director. He was my deputy director for the past six years. We’re going to do an internal recruitment, so if others would like to apply (to be director) they can do so. Scott’s doing a heckuva job keeping things going and keeping things pretty consistent, which is important for staff.”

Andersen said he enjoys the beauty and diversity of Pinal County — the Boulders east of Florence, and Big Wash when it’s running and the wildflowers are in blooms. There’s also the San Pedro River on the east side, and Hidden Valley and West Pinal Park on the west. It’s a diverse citizenry too, he noted, with Gold Canyon residents in multimillion-dollar homes just down the road from working families.

“Every day it’s a different challenge and a different environment. … It’s very diverse and it’s 5,400 square miles. No day really is the same.

“The other thing I really like is this building (the historic 1891 Second County Courthouse). it’s an amazing building to be able to come to work in. It inspires me.”