When wildfires were raging close to town, our community raked needles from yards, cleared debris for our elderly and less-abled, and helped neighbors in threatened neighborhoods get ready to evacuate. When flooding hit, nearly 1,000 of us were out there filling and piling sandbags, clearing the mud from our neighbors’ homes and helping each other physically and emotionally. Through COVID-19, we worked to protect one another, and aside from Navajo Nation, our greater community has the highest vaccination rate in the state.
COVID Has Had a Large Impact
We’ve experienced more than 40,000 COVID cases in Coconino County, 2,200 hospitalizations and 430 deaths. We are thankful for healthcare professionals for putting their physical and mental health on the line to protect our community and save lives. Our hearts go out to those family and friends of the lives lost. Organizations like Threaded Together made Personal Protective Equipment, Grand Canyon Distillery converted to make hand sanitizer and TGen labs quickly created COVID tests for the city and the nation.
We are fortunate to see our economy rebounding with record-setting tourism, job growth continuing to rise and innovative companies, such as Bee Well hand sanitizers that began at the city’s business incubator to create a natural and environmentally friendly hand sanitizer alternative.
We saw UACJ Automotive Whitehall Industries start operations in Flagstaff, with more than 300 well-paying jobs coming in the near future. This is the largest employer to move to Flagstaff in over 50 years. TGen has grown. Goodwill is opening two more locations. And, we have seen many local small businesses dusting off the ashes of the economic downturn and finding new opportunities through their own ingenuity in 2022. It is our job as locals to support them, which is why with the American Rescue Plan dollars, Flagstaff City Council allocated $635,000 for small business support.
Flagstaff is open for business and we’re here working hard. The unemployment rate for December was the lowest it’s been in more than 20 years, at 3.7%.
Creating Housing Solutions
We all know the weight of inflation, especially in our housing market. People are struggling to find homes to rent and purchase. A recent report from Housing Solutions found that a minimum wage worker has to work more than two full-time jobs, 87 hours a week, to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Flag without being cost burdened. Prices have increased 13.7% in the last year alone. But we, as a city government, continue to increase housing stock and support individuals needing a home. We’ve reduced restrictions on building Accessory Dwelling Units, small houses in people’s yards. We’ve expedited the process to build housing that is 100% affordable units that utilizes the low-income housing tax credits, and with the American Rescue Plan dollars, we allocated $2.3 million toward housing programs in partnership with local non-profits and others.
In 2021, Flagstaff City Council did not raise the property tax levy, and instead reduced our property tax rate to not further burden our people.
Protection from Wildfire
Wildfire season is just around the corner and our brave firefighters will be out there once again working tirelessly to protect our community. We are extremely thankful that in 2021, the Forest Service allocated more than $50 million to our region’s 4FRI forest thinning operations. In addition, we were allocated $3.5 million by Congress for Flagstaff’s Watershed Protection Plan. I want to thank our federal delegation and especially Congressman Tom O’Halleran for his advocacy in seeing this through.
The City of Flagstaff also has been working to bolster our fire defenses in other ways. In 2021, the average Flagstaff firefighter received a 5.9% raise.
Dealing with Floods
Flooding last summer was traumatizing to many, with millions of dollars in damages to private and public property. Still today, people live behind feet of sandbags. Some homes have black mold from the flooding. And some don’t know if their home will be flooded this monsoon season.
Flagstaff City Council has made this a top priority. Through our partnerships with Coconino County Flood Control District, the Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Flagstaff Unified School District, and our federal delegation, we have secured more than $14 million in just six months for the Museum fire flood area and Spruce Wash. Several of these projects will be completed before monsoon season. We are so proud of Team Flagstaff and are grateful for our partnerships that have funded, engineered and soon will complete critical infrastructure.
The Museum fire flood area is not the only flood zone we are concerned about. It is crucial that we complete the Rio de Flag Flood Control project to protect downtown and the neighborhoods of Southside, La Plaza Vieja and Townsite. This is a $122 million project, with 65% funded by the Army Corp of Engineers, and we are in the midst of land acquisition and negotiating with BNSF railroad to break ground.
Once completed, this project has the potential to prevent $1.5 billion in damages that would affect approximately 1,500 structures in Flagstaff.
Moving Toward Greater Sustainability
Wildfire and flooding dangers have further highlighted our changing climate, and Flagstaff is placing sustainability efforts at the forefront of our policy decision-making. Last June, Flagstaff City Council passed the Carbon Neutrality Plan and we are taking steps to implement the big shift in thinking it will require to see through. We are actively redesigning our transportation system to improve bike/pedestrian safety and have approved the Active Transportation Master Plan. We are providing new development incentives that will create more sustainable developments. The drop-off composting program has diverted 4,000 pounds of food waste out of our landfill, and we have set aside $30,000 for a project providing employment opportunities for unsheltered individuals to pick up litter in our community.
We are thankful to have received word recently from Congressman O’Halleran that $750,000 was allocated by Congress for Flagstaff home retrofitting for greater energy efficiency.
Focused on Inclusion
We have also been making large efforts to become a far more inclusive community and city government. City Council has approved designs for the new entrance to the downtown library, with easier access for those with wheelchairs and everyone.
City Council meetings are now being live-streamed with closed captioning, so that deaf and hard of hearing individuals can actively participate.
Our CARE team – Community Alliance Response and Engagement – offers a 9-1-1 diversion team in which a behavioral health specialist and fire EMT will be responding to certain 9-1-1 calls regarding mental health or substance use. Our program has a patrol unit out in the community helping people get the services they need.
Another large focus has been to close the digital divide through greater investment in broadband infrastructure. With the state project to create new fiber north on I-17 and west on I-40, Flagstaff is positioned for private market interests in quality high speed internet throughout our city. Through the development of the Broadband Master Plan, we are prepared to take our internet infrastructure to the next level, and with more than half a dozen internet companies showing interest in Flagstaff, we are setting ourselves up for the future. Broadband is the great equalizer, providing educational and economic opportunities. With that in mind, the Flagstaff City Council allocated $1.5 million dollars last year to advance our broadband capacity.
I want to thank Flagstaff City Council and the work of city staff, our partners and, most importantly, all the teamwork that has achieved so much in so little time.
Our path forward is one that will create an even more prosperous and thriving community. FBN
By Paul Deasy, FBN
Paul Deasy is the mayor of Flagstaff.