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Yuma County Annual Review

The year 2018 was a period of continued progress in expanding services to Yuma County residents despite continuing state budget mandates hitting the bottom line, officials said this month.

This was enabled in part by improving financial conditions outside the offices and some penny-pinching from within, County Administrator Susan Thorpe said.

"The economy has gotten better so our financial stability is there, it's not booming but we're in better shape than we were before," she said.

The county Board of Supervisors has been committed to shoring up the county's general fund reserves, and have gotten an assist from staff, she added.

"I think the general fund balance is around $20 million right now, we were forecasting about $14 million, $15 million. But we ended up really underspending our budget this year so we've got a lot more that went into the fund balance as we go into the new fiscal year, so that's good news," she said.

While the state Legislature afforded Yuma and other counties one-time relief from some statewide obligations, it was hit by a $757,000 spike in required contributions to the Elected Officials Retirement Program, which factored into how the board structured its property tax rates for the fiscal year that began in July.

Thorpe said one significant cost-cutting move the county made was to contract with the state Department of Corrections for workers.

"We're getting a lot of good skilled labor for a very low cost, 50 cents an hour," she said.

This year, the Board of Supervisors' moves to become more active in attracting more economic development to the county began to take root.

"The conversation started more than a year ago, when the board talked about having an economic incentive policy and adopted that, and then actually did an agreement with Gourmet Garden this year, and then we also contributed to the spaceport study that (Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation) was doing," she said.

In July, the board adopted an economic incentive package for Gourmet Garden worth $89,000 toward employee training costs, as long as the company meets certain hiring, salary and health insurance benchmarks.

At the beginning of December, the board approved using $20,000 out of an economic development contingency fund to help Yuma International Airport provide a matching grant to get support from a federal revenue guarantee program. This would be used to attract new passenger service to the airport, possibly to Denver or San Francisco.

Deputy County Administrator Paul Melcher was tapped by Thorpe in November for a newly created position, director of economic development and intergovernmental affairs. This allows him to focus on these two aspects of his previous job there. The county is now searching for a new deputy administrator.

Since Melcher's job will also have him monitoring legislation at the state and federal levels for possible impacts to the community, he will have to keep an eye on ozone and air quality regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency named part of Yuma County a "non-attainment area" for ozone pollution after the limit was tightened, to a standard the county probably won't be able to meet due to airborne pollutants being blown in from other areas, rather than locally produced substances.

"One of the things Paul's going to continue to work on is the ozone, because Sen. (Jeff) Flake was leading, trying to roll back the number to 75 that they had moved up to 70, on parts per billion, but he wasn't able to get that over the finish line," Thorpe said.

Now that Flake is retiring, and Arizona is getting two new U.S. senators in January, Melcher will have to approach Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and/or Republican Martha McSally in search of a new sponsor for that bill.

Yuma County also sought to expand its role in cross-border issues involving trade and politics by joining groups like the Arizona-Mexico Commission and the Border Counties Alliance.

Locally, maintaining gravel roads continued to be a renewed focus of the public works department in 2018, after it resumed scheduled maintenance of about 200 miles of unpaved county roads in mid-2017. It was halted due to budget concerns four years earlier.

Thorpe said, "That's going to be an ongoing improvement for people all across the county who felt like they were neglected before, or nobody was paying attention to their situation, and that was a daily experience to be on gravel roads that didn't really come up to a standard that we would want them to."

Toward the end of this year, the board looked at possible guidelines for accepting certain unpaved roads not currently part of the county network for a reduced level of maintenance, which will probably come back for a vote in early 2019.

Recent growth in the demand for more bicycle-friendly conditions led the board to approve its first dedicated bike lanes this year, part of the widening of North Frontage Road between Avenue 10E and Fortuna Road.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Tony Reyes said the vote was a turning point for a county that, in the past, has tended to only build what it had to when it came to road and other projects, to keep taxpayer costs down.

He said, "we all need to assume here that from that point on we need to do the design with bike lanes, because I think it'll be very difficult to tell people that for other sections we're going to do it the old way here."

The board also voted to resurrect its dormant Parks and Recreation Commission so the county could begin applying for grants to fund new recreational facilities, particularly the Foothills' area first public park.

The first meeting of the new board is scheduled for Jan. 9.

Thorpe added, "And the other really innovative thing we're doing, credit Adult Probation for getting the grant, is the North End Community Connections, the general health and mental health clinic for probationers and their families."

The clinic opened in May on the first floor of the county's Adult Probation building, and is operated by local nonprofit Community Health Associates, which applied for the grant with statewide mental health care provider Cenpatico.

The goal is to reduce recidivism among probationers by providing accessible health care, and to ultimately offer services to the general public.

Thorpe said the county's investment of $565,000 on updated election equipment appeared to be paying off with its debut for the August primary and November general elections, removing the glitches that led to long Election Day waits at voting centers two years ago.

District 3 Supervisor Darren Simmons represents the largest geographic area of the five board members by far, stretching from the Foothills all the way through Dateland to the Maricopa County border, as well as the Yuma Proving Ground and Martinez Lake areas to the north.

Aside from the town of Wellton all of it is unincorporated, leaving the county as the only public service provider.

Simmons said the highlights of the year for him included being able to broker a deal between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the owner of the Castle Dome Museum and Hull Mine, providing temporary access for outdoor enthusiasts of the Kofa Wildlife Refuge while a bypass road around the Castle Dome property is built.

Getting the parks board back online is another achievement which he hopes will lead to the park many Foothills residents have been clamoring for.

He credited streamlined permitting processes in the county Department of Development Services for helping to fuel new commercial development for the Foothills, with commercial construction springing up on Fortuna Road and some new housing starts scattered throughout the county, as well.

He said the one issue he hasn't been able to make much progress on is the odor complaints being attributed to the Far West Water and Sewer Company, the family-held utility that serves most Foothills businesses and residences.

"The county's trying to get to where they're kind of in charge of overseeing the system itself. It would still be up to (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality) for the plants, but we're trying to get in where the county can come in and cite for the system," he said.

In November, the city of Yuma received a request to consider annexation from the property owners association for the Mesa Del Sol area just east of the city. Dissatisfaction with Far West's services were cited as the main reason in the association's letter.

This has led the city to look into buying the Far West system, though the outcome of any future annexation vote is far from clear.

Thorpe said county projects slated to start and/or finish in 2019 include the widening of County 8th Street between Avenues C and D, a long-planned flood retention basin within the city of Yuma's Smucker Park.

Two major road projects mostly funded by the federal government are on deck for the northern part of the county, with $14.5 million allotted to remove dips and make other improvements to Martinez Lake Road and another $9 million to improvements on Red Cloud Road.

Also coming next year is Phase 2 of renovations at 197 S. Main St. in Yuma, which will include a new auditorium and offices for the Board of Supervisors, along with other office space.

This will include a complete overhaul of the parking lot behind the building, which is owned by the city but will be rebuilt by the county through an intergovernmental agreement.

"It's in such bad shape, we have to tear it up and redo the whole thing. Because that's really going to be our front door, for board meetings, and we need for that to be decent, where people can walk on it and not trip," Thorpe said.

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