Rural municipal governments are built from the same model but are unique in their own way

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Winkelman holds the record in Arizona for being the smallest incorporated town in the state.

By James J. Hodl

Copper Area News

Ask towns along the Copper Corridor what type of government they have and they will reply the Council/Manager form, under which administration of government functions are handled day-to-day by a hired town manager while an elected mayor sets the agenda for the council enacting the laws and budget.

But in practice, the function of these governments wedged in northern and eastern Pinal County and southern Gila County can vary widely from the model. What changes there are can be attributed to evolution and more recently to budget constraints resulting from shrinking populations and tax bases.

Superior on the northern section of the corridor has a traditionally strong manager in Margaret Gaston, who not only oversees the day-to-day activities of the town but does double duty as head of Superior’s Finance and Economic Development. But unlike many Council/Manager governments, Superior has an elected Mayor in Jayme Valenzuela, who exercises broad powers to set the government’s agenda, including drafting the annual budget.

While noted for its proximity to the Tonto National Forest and having one of Arizona Highway Magazine’s 50 best places to dine in the Los Hermanos Restaurant and Lounge, Superior also has the area’s best attended council meetings. Citizens there have great interest in their government and are eager to share their opinions, several Superior executives bragged.

As with all towns in the corridor, Superior has battled a budget deficit. With revenues “stretched thin, Superior employees have had to pitch in and at times to perform more than their job,” said council member Mila Besich-Lira. To shore up the budget, the Superior Council earlier this year raised the town sales tax to 4 percent, which when combined with the state 5.6 percent sales tax and the 1.1 percent Pinal County sales tax, brings the total levy to 10.7 percent, making it among the highest in Arizona.

In return for their tax payments, Superior not only has a large fire department combining professional and volunteer firefighters, but also is one of the few area communities offering ambulance service.

The major current in-town project is the widening of US 60 from two lanes to four lanes with a central turn lane. This project will run north through Miami. The town also has applied for CDBG funds for another civic improvement project but won’t know if it is approved until July.

Miami, which being incorporated in 1918 gives it the oldest town government in the corridor by more than 30 years. It has the most traditional functioning Council/Manager governments, with Mayor Rosemary Castaneda, who was appointed from within the ranks of the town’s seven-member council; and City Manager Jerry Barnes, who not only directs the day-to-day operations of Miami but fills in as head of the Parks and Recreations Department.

Besides being the birthplaces of Nixon Administration US Treasurer Romara Acosta Banuelos and Western film actor Jack Elam, Miami is noted for its frugality. For instance, the city has never had a website, seeing no need for one in a town with fewer than 2,000 residents, said Karen Norris, recently hired as Miami’s Clerk. It also has been slow to fill government positions, as its volunteer fire department is currently without a chief. As a result, Miami has kept is portion of the sales tax to 2 percent. Much of the city’s revenues comes from contracting fees and enterprise funds.

Mammoth on the southern section of the corridor may seem a tranquil delight for birdwatchers and rock hounds, but its government is quite lively. There has been a certain volatility in management, as three different council members have assumed the vice mayor position in the past year. And the government has spawned at least two online blogs that critique and criticize (some say over criticize) government operations. Both blogs are predicting the next elections to be exciting.

In Mammoth, the town manager duties as mostly performed by the clerk, though some aspects of managing Mammoth government departments have been assumed by some council members. Council members have assumed “commissioner” positions overseeing town departments.

“Salary and location issues make it harder for places like Mammoth to find qualified people to fill administration jobs,” admitted Large, who currently commutes to her Mammoth job from Tucson.

While maintaining only a 2 percent sales tax, Mammoth secures revenues through use and property taxes, plus CDBG and Enterprise funds. Through grants from the US Department of Agriculture, Mammoth is upgrading its water quality with the building of a reverse osmosis system that will extract more minerals (local water is extremely hard) and pollutants from the town’s water supply than current technology, Large said.

Having more local amenities than other area towns, Kearny has the traditional Council/Manager government with one twist. While council members serve four years terms with half going up for election every two years, the mayor (currently Sam Hosler) runs separately for his job every two years. Council members, however, appoint the vice mayor from their ranks (currently Daniel L. Radcliffe).

Kearny has a strong manager in Anna Flores, who also doubles as head of the Finance and Parks and Recreation departments. She also headed the clerk office until Cathy Woolery was hired on May 1. Management of the town includes the Kearny Airport, which is widely used by small aircraft to fly sportsmen, snowbirds and vacationers in and out of the area year round.

Other Kearny amenities include the Kearny Golf Course and the Kearny Library, which Flores describes as one of the best in Arizona. Kearny also has a municipal ambulance service.

Operating revenues for Kearny come from assorted sources, but primarily the 3 percent sales tax, and taxes on hotels/motels, rental property and construction-related contracting. Flores bragged that Kearny has no business licensing fees.

While Hayden is on paper as having the Council/Manager form of government, it has operated without a hired town manager for some time, though Hayden Clerk Laura A. Romero said one may be hired after the November elections if the 2014-15 budget allows it. Until then the mayor also serves as acting town manager.

Hayden also elects its mayor separately from council members once every four years. Currently, Councilman Tommy Lagunas is serving as mayor. He was appointed at a special meeting in June after the directly elected Mayor Chale Vega resigned after pleading guilty to a felony. Without a manager, more administrative duties are becoming captive to the elective members of the government, signaling to some that the town could revamp into another format. Saving the manager’s salary would help reduce the town’s budgetary needs.

The major civic attraction in Hayden is the Hayden Golf Course. It also is home to many fine restaurants, said Romero.

Major sources of revenue to Hayden include the 3 percent sales tax, a 3 percent use tax, and other levies on hotel/motels, property, utility bills, mining and timber extraction.

New candidates interested in running for the Hayden Council are invited to step forward as at least one current member is considering retiring at the end of term, a town spokesman reported.

With a population of only 353 residents, Winkelman became in 2010 the smallest incorporated town in Arizona. And with its tiny size came declining revenue sources.

Winkelman has a smaller council than the other corridor towns, having only five members, from whose ranks the mayor is appointed. Winkelman has no town manager, though the administrative duties are perform by town Clerk Sylvia M. Kerlock. In the entire Copper Corridor, nobody multitasks like Kerlock, who also heads Winkelman’s Finance, Human Resources, Parks and Recreations departments. Kerlock also is the town public relations manager.

Other budget savers include sharing the police department with nearby Hayden. But the town’s website is currently down.

Revenues come primarily from a 3.5 percent sales tax, a property tax, contracting fees, licensing fees, and Enterprise funds.

Despite a shortage of revenues, Winkelman has several local projects in progress. ADOT grants are enabling improvements to Third and Fourth Street. Another government grant is being used to upgrade the town’s water treatment plant.

One thing all of these municipalities have in common is that town councils are elected to four year terms but election is staggered so that only half of members stand before the voters every two years.

Within the Copper Corridor are several communities with slightly larger populations than most of the incorporated towns but have not incorporated.

Oracle, with a population of 3,686 residents, has seen incorporation proposals come up three times in the past but they never got anywhere possibly because of a smaller tax base. Since the local mines closed more than a decade ago, the local business community has shrunk to a handful of stores that could not generate enough sales tax revenue to fund government operations, several residents explained.

The same applies to San Manuel, which has 3,551 residents, but not much of a tax base. Both have become bedroom communities for people who work in Tucson and havens for retired people. According to San Manuel Library employee Linda Lee, retirees especially prize the sturdy construction of homes in this one-time company mining town.

But then the same problem has faced San Tan Valley, which with 81,000 residents (as of 2010) is the largest unincorporated community in the state. Sitting in Pinal County just over the border with Maricopa County and Queen Creek, growing from a single subdivision in 2001, the community considered incorporation in 2011 but it never got to a vote. This was partially due to citizen fears that it would greatly raise their property taxes due to a lack of retail businesses to provide sales tax revenues. But the retail base is growing, and there are proponents who are looking into pushing the issue again soon.

Residents of the Copper Corridor do pay property taxes to one agency or another, but the exact percentage of assessed property value is hard to place from year to year due to changing property values and civic needs. For instance, Superior placed a 7.6269 percent on assessed property value for the 2013-14 fiscal year, but that rate will be different once the town’s 2014-15 budget is approved and put into effect, said Superior Manager Margaret Gaston.

Property taxes also can be set by the area’s school districts, which get their basic funding from the state, but can raise the levy on real property if voters approve an override for up to 15 percent over the total funding provided by Arizona.

Like town governments, school districts have elected school boards that set educational policy and determine how much individual programs are funded. All the districts have school boards of five members who serve four year terms but elections are staggered so half the members face election every two years.

Of area school districts, the Superior Unified School District and the Oracle Elementary School District currently have 15 percent overrides in effect. The Miami Unified School District last November had a 10 percent override approved by voters last year. Ray Unified School District also has a 10 percent override in effect. The Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District and the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School Districts have no overrides.

Among projects at local schools, the Superior Unified School District received a $98,550 grant from the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) to install campus-wide video surveillance systems in both its schools and an interlocking door system at its junior/senior high school to improve school security. Superintendent J. Patrick O’Donnell is also proceeding with plans to make both of its schools nearly energy independent by the installation of solar panels to generate the electricity each school uses. Already installed on the high school, the panels provide 90 percent of the electricity needed, as will the panels to be added to the elementary school.

Oracle Elementary also received a $9,889 ADE school security grant to install the locks on classroom doors to better protect students from imminent threats posed by outsiders.

At Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District, funding to boost school security is being sought. According to Superintendent John Ryan, the district’s schools have a vandalism problem that he believes can be remedied by security cameras, but the district hasn’t the revenues to put the project in its current budget.

Oracle Elementary School District plans to put an initiative on the November ballot to keep its override at 15 percent as the 2014-15 school year is the last year it can keep the maximum before they begin a three-year spiral to zero.

Concerning the towns that have dropped in population and losing their tax base, there is an option. According to Ken Stroboek, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, the option is unincorporation. But there is a Catch 22. Under Arizona law, unincorporation is permitted only after a town has paid all outstanding debts.

Not that any of these bustling municipal governments are even remotely thinking in that direction.

James Hodl (98 Posts)

James J. Hodl is a career journalist who has worked for newspapers, magazines and trade journals. A graduate of Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, Hodl began his career as a reporter with the Palatine (IL) Herald and the Morton Grove (IL) Review before becoming editor of the trade publication Appliance Service News. In recent years, Hodl has had articles published in Consumers Digest, Good Housekeeping, Home Remodeling, Kitchens & Baths and Salute; and has contributed to trade publications serving the home furnishings, restaurant and casino markets. A native of Chicago, Hodl relocated to San Tan Valley in 2013.

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