Last week I attended my first League of Arizona Cities and Town's Annual Conference along with over 1200 other attendees. 1165 were delegates from the 91 AZ Cities and Towns, and 119 of those delegates were youth delegates, a few of which were from our very own Sierra Vista Youth Commission! The conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with and learn best practices from cities and towns all across Arizona. It also provided a forum for municipalities to come together to discuss bill proposals we want to see brought to the Arizona Legislature, and if adopted, would be of significant benefit to our residents. Like my previous travel report, I will only be covering the sessions chose to attend. I will add that with more than 25 educational sessions on topics ranging from fundamentals of local government, council-manager relations, and legislative issues, to sessions on water, recycling, economic development, Census 2020, public universities and short-term rentals, my take-aways from this trip may greatly differ from that of my colleagues.
Highlights from Tuesday Night and Wednesday:
For me, the conference started Tuesday night with the APS Dinner. There we heard from Senator Martha McSally on what she is doing at a federal level to make Arizona a better state in which to live, work, and play.
During the dinner I also had the opportunity to meet and connect with Mayors, Council Members, and State Representatives, most of which I had not met prior to that night.
The following morning, I was at the conference center early. I had the honor and privilege of representing the City of Sierra Vista in the Parade of Flags, which also meant I had to attend practice at 7:00am to prepare before the General Session starting at 9:00am. The Parade of Flags is a LACT tradition that highlights Arizona’s cities and towns at the beginning of every annual conference. Side note: I've had some people ask me what our flag looks like, so with help from a kind stranger, I took a picture of it before practice. You can see it has our seal but wondered about the rest of the design for the flag. So after a little bit of research, I found out that back in 2001 council approved a resolution to adopt a new design concept for a city flag as recommended by the Arts and Humanities Commission. From the official minutes: "Chad White, Chairman of the Arts and Humanities Commission, briefed Council and the public. He gave a brief description of the three designs and outlined the artists' intentions.
Council agreed that they preferred Design 1, which was created by Larry Scott. Council stated they would like to see design modifications, which would include: the City seal being copper with an apron attached containing the date of the City’s incorporation, the red should be a cardinal red, the mountain peeks should be more rounded, and the birds should look less like seagulls and more like raptors." And now back to our regularly scheduled travel report...
The opening general session on Wednesday started off with a keynote address; the president’s report; and the followed by the Parade of Flags. Speakers for this session were: Maricopa Mayor and League President, Christian Price, City of Tucson Host Mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, The University of Arizona President, Robert Robbins, National League of Cities First Vice President and Los Angeles Councilmember, Joe Buscaino, and Keynote speaker and author John O’Leary. John's job was to inspire all of us public servants before we headed into our first sessions, and boy did he. He shared his story of survival and how the kind and continuous acts of a stranger inspired him to heal and become the man he is today. He reminded all of us in the room that what we do as elected officials is not about us, and urged us to ask ourselves on a regular basis, "What more can I do?"
The first concurrent session I attended was titled History of Arizona Water Rights Litigation, the General Stream Adjudication Process, Key Issues and Why it Matters. The speakers were Lee A. Storey, a Partner at TSL Law Group, and Patrick B. Sigl, a Supervising Attorney for the Land & Water Rights on the Salt River Project. We were given a good over view of the history of water rights litigation starting from Winters v. U.S. (1908) to the ongoing cases today. Patrick Sigs spoke on the consequences of slow pace of adjudications. How it has caused uncertainty which hinders economic development and growth, using the cases here in Cochise County as examples.
The second concurrent session I went to was on The Basics of Economic Development for Cities and Towns: What Elected Officials Need to Know. Panelists included Wendy Bridges, the AZED Pro Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Prescott, Mignonne Hollis, the Executive Director of Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation, and Jaye O’Donnell, the Assistant Economic Development Director for the City of Mesa. During the session they defined economic development and it's context for local government, key functions of local economic, development stakeholders and partners, potential funding sources, and our role as elected leaders. And quote that stuck out to me was "Have something in your community that tells a story. Stories help build economic development." I believe that's exactly what we are going to accomplish with the redevelopment and revitalization of our West End. Including the murals and artwork our community chooses to display. It also got me thinking of the importance of the city producing more signature events like the new Sips & Skies, and the Sky Island Summit Challenge, and that we shouldn't stop there. If you have ideas for a new annual event you would like to see offered here in Sierra Vista, that would draw large crowds of people, I want to hear them! Please reach out to me at Carolyn.Umphrey@SierraVistaAZ.gov.
The final session I attended on Wednesday covered Arizona Primary and Secondary Property Tax Systems. The speakers were Mark Reader, Managing Director for Stifel and Paul Ulan, Principal at Primary Consultants. Paul is familiar with Sierra Vista since he helped us pass the school bond for SVUSD a few years ago. During this session we were taught about Arizona property tax basics. I'll admit, I'm no expert, but it's nice to have a better understanding in this area.
Highlights from Thursday and Friday morning:
The first concurrent session on Thursday was on Tackling the Homeless Issue in Our Communities and I was told this is the first time that the League held a session on the topic. This 8:00am session was completely packed. The panel included Casa Grande Mayor Pro Tempore Donna McBride, Superior Mayor Mila Besich, Surprise Director of Human Service & Community Vitality Seth Dyson, Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland, and Mesa Director of Housing and Community Development Liz Morales. With Sierra Vista City Council adding the issue of addressing homelessness to our strategic plan for the first time, I was very interested to learn from other cities and towns that have already begun taking action. Many of the answers the city representatives had presented from their own programs were similar to one another, but the approaches were not. The one main approach that was universal was the involvement of the community stakeholders, making sure that they had a seat at the table. I think the Mayor of Casa Grande said it best when he said that "It has to be a community solution, not a city solution." And there was an agreement that the reason they have been successful in taking on homelessness in their communities was because "Council took the lead" or "the city made it a priority." Some of the ideas presented I could see working for us, others not so much. Either way, I'm excited to share what I have with everyone at an upcoming work session.
I learned a lot at the Transportation Update session. Audra Koester Thomas of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and Mark Clark, Government Relations Director for Arizona Department of Transportation, presented some really great overview of the funding situation we have here in Arizona. To start, it was stated that here in AZ, we’ve reduced funding for streets and highways each year since 1990. In 1991 the gas sales tax was at .18 cents a gallon. In the 3 decades since, personal income has gone up 167% per capita, the cost of a home has gone up by 158%, while vehicles with increased fuel economy, have had a significant impact on gas sale tax revenue. Back in '91 the best selling car was a Fort Taurus, it average fuel economy was 19 miles per gallon. In 2018 the best selling car was a Honda Civic, with a fuel economy rating of 35 miles per gallon. Making it 84% more fuel efficient than the Taurus in 1991. Today's Honda driver is paying almost half of what the Taurus driver was paying back in '91. The use of the road is the same but, the contribution is less than half of what it was. And once inflation is taken into account the Civic driver today is paying about 70% less towards maintaining our highways and roads.
Meanwhile, the cost of gas has increased considerably since '91 but the gas tax remains at .18 cents. The cost of construction our highways and roads has also increased. An average of 117% over the last 3 decades. If you adjust for inflation over the past 27 years, Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) per capita revenue has fallen by 62%. Some counties have started to collect sales tax dedicated to transportation to soften the overall impact.
There was some discussion on what can be done to improve the picture for funding and improve our maintenance structure today. Of course, it was mentioned increasing the gas sales tax, although there's no doubt we will eventually have to move away from relying on fuel tax to maintain our roads and highways. There was talk about a program called "Road Utility Concept" that the state of Oregon is leading the way on. It already has a volunteer pilot program involving 5,000 drivers. They're charged 1.7 cents per mile and they get a bill that gives them a tax credit for paying their gas tax of 34 cents a gallon. The goal being that the "pay per mile" would replace the gas tax. Although privacy concerns have many opting out of such a choice. Ms. Thomas also shared a list of options that they have outlined over the past years (Above.). She concluded her remarks by stating how important it is to bring the public into discussions so there is a broader understanding that we cannot sit idle on this issue. Mayor Price made the comment that "Nothing moves without transportation."
The annual luncheon featured: Address from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, Address from US Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Presentation of the 2019 League Legislative Awards, honoring local government supporters from the state legislature. Presentation of the 2019 League Service Award Winners, honoring mayors and council members who have served in office for eight, 12, 16, 20 years and more.
After lunch I attended the session called Recycling Today and in the Future…Is there a Future for Recycling? The speaker, Robert Gardner, Senior Vice President of SCS Engineers, went over changes in the recycling market that lead to today's recycling market, and also covered additional bans that are going into affect this year. Plans to ban the import of 32 scrap categories, per Reuters. This includes post-industrial plastic and non-ferrous scrap, except for aluminum and copper. China is doing all this as part of an environmental campaign against foreign solid waste. The Chinese Government said, "...we found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously."
Impacts from the Chinese Sword include materials recovery facilities (MRFs) increasing their processing fees and reducing material types, recyclables being stockpiled, sent to waste-to-energy plants or landfill disposed. Municipalities all over the US are reevaluating the viability of curbside recycling, like we had to do here recently in Sierra Vista. Mr. Gardner mentioned in that in the City of Kingman, they recently went from 7 drop off centers to 1 because of cost related to keeping them all staffed. The fact of the matter is recycling is not free. It is not free to collect it, and not free to process it. Which is why we are starting with one drop-off location, waiting to see how it does, and then after realizing what revenue we can expect from the first one, moving forward with a 2nd, and hopefully subsequent locations all around Sierra Vista after that. Because while we do not charge for recycling, it isn't free. Bottom line is that for our municipal systems to be run efficiently, the city has to be business savvy and continue to work on improvements like route optimization and technology whenever possible.
Our final night there was a Showcase of Cities and Towns. This was a great opportunity to tell other attendees about our beautiful city, learn a bit about theirs, and make connections with other mayors and councils throughout the state. I literally ran out of business cards after inviting everyone to Sierra Vista. Forging these relationships and connecting our cities and towns is one of the key benefits of the League that I took full advantage.
On Friday the Closing General Session had the topic Incivility and Political Dysfunction: Learning to Engage Our Differences Productively. This session was lead by Keith Allred of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. He talked about the Kennedy Administration and used events at that time to explain examples on how not to lead: The Bay of Pigs disaster, and how to lead: The Cuban Missile Crisis triumph. He then went over techniques to engage more productively, have better discussion, and reach better decisions. Some of which included inviting and encouraging contrasting perspectives, creating a culture in which expressing a dissenting view is seen as a friendly act, making sure all relevant voices are heard, and checking assumptions by asking questions. He suggested that in order to avoid contention we try to listen for understanding, attempt to find the merit in an opposing view, and try to ask follow up questions about contrasting positions and perspectives.
I feel so honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to represent our great city at the League's Annual Conference, and proud to continue staying true to my word, that I would take every opportunity to learn and work hard to become the most effective and educated public servant I possibly can be for you. As always please never hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I love hearing from you.
Your council member,