County Debates Wish List

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Gila County supervisors are at odds over how to present a continually evolving, $301-million list of local projects they hope will end up in a massive federal stimulus package focused on modernizing infrastructure.

The county’s draft wish list includes $28 million for a wastewater treatment plant for Pine and Strawberry, $12 million for a sewage treatment plant in Star Valley and $37.5 million for a new jail and women’s dorm.

Another short list of three proposed education and communication projects includes $5 million for a green library in Pine, heated by bio-mass wood chips, and $6 million for county-wide high-speed Internet access.

The county’s projects will have to compete with others nationwide that local and state governments hope to fund through a proposed federal stimulus package that will reportedly range from $850 billion to $1.2 trillion.

“It’s like everybody’s wanting to run up and sit on Santa’s lap,” Supervisor Shirley Dawson said. “I don’t know if China is going to print enough money.”

For the moment, the supervisors can’t agree on the best strategy for getting local projects onto the national list.

Supervisor Dawson pushed to prioritize the local projects, starting with the jail request. By contrast, Supervisor Tommie Martin urged the board to send a “smorgasbord” of projects to the county’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think we’re in the driver’s seat to prioritize,” Martin said. “We don’t know what’s going to get funded.”

The board chose not to vote, but directed staff to divide the list into categories — wastewater, schools, roads and forests — and to re-present the list on Tuesday.

“I still think page one, number one is the Gila County jail,” Dawson said. “I believe it is critically important that Gila County agree on what our priority is.”

Sheriff John Armer spoke on behalf of a new jail, and Dawson urged him to move the design phase ahead of the current second quarter of 2009 target date.

Since the public rejected a bond request for new justice facilities last year, county officials have been debating how to remedy jail overcrowding.

The women’s jail is so overcrowded, the county has resorted to placing mattresses on the floor, which violates federal mandates, according to the county’s wish list.

The women’s jail could enter the design phase in the first quarter of 2009 and begin construction by the second quarter for a total cost of $750,000.

Also during the second quarter, architects could design the jail, with construction beginning in the fourth quarter of 2009 for a total cost of $36.8 million.

The county’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. alerted Martin to a possible infrastructure package brewing, which she said Congress wants ready for President-elect Barack Obama to sign on Inauguration Day.

“There’s no promises,” Martin said. “It may not happen.” But if it does, the county supervisors want Gila County ready to attract that money.

States and other municipalities are already lining up, supervisors said.

Urgency has sped up the list’s creation, and also flavored what projects made it on the list. County officials have said Congress will heavily examine each project’s economic impact, and it will also demand ready-to-go projects.

However, many projects currently on the list show start dates of the third quarter of 2009 or beyond.

A $5-million wastewater collection and treatment plant request for Christopher Creek and Tonto Creek, for example, lists design for the third quarter of 2009 with construction in early 2010. Star Valley’s proposed sewage project is also listed for the third quarter of 2009.

The draft list also includes two elevators for a combined $800,000 — one for the courthouse and one in the Payson county complex.

The roughly 20 road projects listed with no descriptions include the Control Road, which supervisors are working to pave, and a Tonto Creek Bridge.

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