Population Shift Poses Vital Political Challenge

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So it’s official: Most of the people in Gila County live in Rim Country. Last week’s census figures promise to complicate efforts by south county politicians to perpetuate their power grab. The Census Bureau released figures for every community as quickly as possible to help elected officials complete the once-a-decade redistricting required by law.

The figures show that 55 percent of the county’s roughly 53,000 people live in the northern sections — although south county voters currently dominate both the Board of Supervisors and Gila Community College board.

Moreover, the figures show that Gila County has stagnated compared to Maricopa County.

Redistricting now poses a grave political challenge for Rim Country community leaders and elected officials. The political dominance of south county has long resulted in lopsided county priorities.

Granted, differences in poverty rates ensure that southern Gila County will still need extra help when it comes to the use of the county’s social safety net programs. However, the county’s foot-dragging when it comes to providing basic county criminal justice facilities in Rim Country and lamentable indifference to providing core services to unincorporated Rim Country communities demonstrates why redistricting matters.

By the same token, the domination of the Gila Community College board by three south-county dominated districts has long impeded development of GCC’s Payson campus. That southern tilt may prove especially damaging in the next few years, as GCC faces the challenge of independence and of working out a relationship with the proposed Payson four-year.

Meanwhile, the lopsided growth patterns statewide pose challenges for both local officials and the Legislature. In the past decade, the population of Gila County rose 24 percent while the population of Gila County rose just 4 percent. Payson grew at three times the overall county rate, but still only half as fast as Maricopa County. Clearly, the decade further concentrated power in Maricopa County — leaving the rural areas further and further behind.

The Legislature must take special care to tend to the economies of rural areas. In Rim Country’s case, that includes at least staying out of the way of building an ASU campus here and attracting a variety of businesses at the same time.

In the meantime, the latest census figures underscore the challenge ahead — both for Rim Country and for the county as a whole.

Driving takes tragic toll

What would you do if every year, we suffered a fresh 9-11 tragedy — with every victim a teenager? Well — you’d better decide: Every year, 3,000 teenagers age 16-19 die in car crashes.

Payson High School last week devoted a precious day of instruction to trying to reach students on this deadly topic. The day featured mock accidents, a mock-funeral and the very real story of a brave but tormented woman who watched her sister die — the victim of a foolishly speeding teen.

The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that teens are four times as likely to die per mile driven as older drivers. Young men run twice the risk as teenaged girls. Speeding causes 37 percent of those crashes and drinking another 26 percent. Moreover, teens are far less likely to wear seat belts than older drivers. The result: Three-quarters of the teens who die in car crashes aren’t wearing seat belts.

Moreover, the odds a teenager (especially male) will get into a fatal crash rises significantly when you add teenaged passengers (especially male.) The odds of dying peak in the first year a teenager gets his license and declines steadily from there.

Studies show that teenagers simply can’t gauge risk as well as adults. Moreover, they remain fatally vulnerable to peer pressure, as evidenced by the sharply higher death rate when a young driver has teenaged passengers to impress with his reckless skill.

We applaud the high school for trying to reach students with the creative and often compelling series of events on Friday — even at the cost of valuable instructional time.

But we know the burden must fall ultimately on parents. So don’t let your teens drive until they have completed a comprehensive drivers’ licensing program, which cuts death rates 40 percent. Ban them from driving for at least a month every time they fail to buckle their seat belts. Don’t let them drive with other teens in the car. Take away the keys if they ever drive drunk — or get a speeding ticket.

Driving’s not a right for teenagers: It’s a hard-won privilege — and the most dangerous thing most of them will ever do.

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