Economic revitalization, national forest borders limiting growth and a lack of work-force housing arose as priority issues for county and town officials at a recent government mixer. Replacing or building infrastructure, still important but more peripheral, ranked fourth.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin orchestrated the event for officials and government employees to discuss their needs and plan ways to use their collective energy to address those needs.
"It's our effort," Martin said, "so we can stand on each other's shoulders and stop stepping on each other's toes."
The gathering in Payson was the second out of five planned. The first meeting was held in May, the next will take place in November.
Mayors and councilors from towns in Gila County and all three county supervisors, along with county Superintendent of Schools Linda O'Dell attended the event.
No representatives from the Tonto Apache Tribe attended the mixer, though they were invited. Martin said the tribal council has shown an interest in collaboration and she looks forward to their attending future meetings.
Locations vary, partly to allow county officials to explore the vast county they represent, and partly to eradicate the feeling of being on another's turf, Martin said.
She acted as facilitator Friday, noting that one cannot both facilitate and effectively participate. The event began with introductions around the room before Martin maneuvered into explanations of healthy and unhealthy communication. The idea, Martin said, is to neutralize conflict, or use it as a catalyst for change at the very least.
"We weren't in a decision-making mode," Martin said. But the gathering did yield movement.
A spin-off group comprised of town mayors and Board of Supervisors Chairman Jose Sanchez will informally meet to discuss ways to improve the situations deemed especially problematic.
Star Valley Mayor Chuck Heron said he's never before seen this type of collaboration in Gila County, but was worried that the group's efforts would duplicate those of the Central Arizona Association of Governments, of which Heron is vice-chair. He suggested the two groups work in concert.
CAAG brings together mayors and a county supervisor from each Gila and Pinal Counties. The main difference between CAAG and the mixer's spin-off group, besides composition, is the latter's informal nature. CAAG functions similarly to a town council and can pass resolutions. It assists towns with planning by compiling data and, for instance, it helped Star Valley develop its general plan. The group also works to develop local economies and create transportation plans.
The mixer group functions more as an informal brainstorming and collaboration building exercise.
"We have to look at it very closely so the two supplement one another, but don't over overlap or duplicate one another," Heron said. The mixer spin-off group's devotion to Gila County issues helps provide the group with its own identity, Heron added.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans agreed that some areas overlap. "Is there duplication? Absolutely," he said.
"The goal is that by communicating through multiple mechanisms, we'll be able to have an early warning when one or more of us is going down a path that is counterproductive to the other."
For instance, if Payson makes a decision that detrimentally impacts Star Valley, or the county.
"The goal is not to eliminate those conflicts, but to minimize the fight when we do have conflicting interests," Evans said.
"The group is not identified as an action group. It's identified as a collaboration group," he added. "We are in a new era of collaboration."
And through collaboration, local leaders have another tool to address the areas they consider problematic.
Heron agreed that Gila County's largest problem is economic vitality, and attributed the problem to work force availability. "We do not have an adequate labor force anywhere and the reason for it is there's no place for them to live."
Martin said that if the county and its towns could address the "landlocked" problem, then more space would become available for work-force housing. Land exchanges between the Forest Service and the county or a town are becoming increasingly difficult.
With the value of Forest Service land skyrocketing, municipalities are losing their ability to broker a deal. By the time entities negotiate an exchange, Martin said the land's value changes and the deal must be re-negotiated.
"If they could get a hold of some of that Forest Service land within the community -- or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land -- maybe they could use that for work-force housing," Martin said. "The process to do that has become so cumbersome."
Another collaborative aim involves "piggybacking" bulk purchases such as asphalt or culverts to save money. Martin said such moves exemplify her ideal of "standing on each other's shoulders instead of stepping on each other's toes" mantra.
"That's a really neat, elegant, simple way of doing that," she said.
November's election will likely change the game's players. Martin is facing re-election, as is Supervisor Shirley Dawson. Sanchez is retiring.
"It changes the mix; it changes the dynamics," Martin said. "They've agreed to meet until May of next year." After that, either the newly elected or the newly re-affirmed county officials must decide if the mixers are worth continuing.