Over the course of its last two meetings, the Gila County Board of Supervisors has refined what it hopes to get help with from the federal government.
At its Feb. 16 meeting it approved a letter to send to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) listing items of interest the BOS discussed with him in a recent online meeting.
This week, at the Feb. 23 work session the BOS had a telephonic meeting with federal lobbyist Patricia Power of Bose Public Affairs Group. Each one provided Power with the items with which they were concerned and Power offered them an update on what to expect from lawmakers in Washington, D.C. over the next few weeks and months.
• Steve Christenson, D1, said the northern part of the county has a lot of forest roads that serve many small communities and due to the maintenance make it difficult for emergency vehicles to access. He said the county cannot do all the maintenance and needs help from the Forest Service.
• Woody Cline, D3, said the new fire suppression tactics of the Forest Service are hammering the county, creating problems by letting fires burn rather than working to put them out. “It needs to change,” he said.
Cline also expressed concern over talk that President Joe Biden is reinstating some NEPA regulations that his predecessor rolled back.
“If that’s the case, it would take five or more years to get anything done with the Forest Service,” he said.
• Tim Humphrey, D2, said he echoed Cline’s concern about the Forest Service fire treatment policy. He said with the Pinal, Woodbury and Bush fires, tens of thousands of acres have been turned into moonscapes. Plus, many forest roads have been closed due to flood concerns, which impacts the recreational opportunities for residents and visitors and that creates economic problems.
• James Menlove, county manager, pointed out that due to COVID-19 many businesses in the county have taken a big hit. He would like to see some of the pandemic relief money be freed up to let counties help local businesses. Additionally, COVID-19 has put a spotlight on how inadequate the broadband service is in Gila County, he said. While the county has been working to develop a way to bring the service to every home and business, it is looking like it will be a $70 million project, so he hopes there will be federal funding to make the project a reality.
Menlove reiterated Christensen’s concerns about not having enough money to address road problems, especially on the Young and Control roads.
He also said there is an ongoing worry about the overgrown forest around the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — should there be a fire in that area, there is a risk the reservoir would be filled with debris, effectively eliminating a critical source of water for the northern part of the county.
Most of these same issues were shared with Kelly in the county’s meeting with him and reinforced in the letter sent to his office last week.
Power told the BOS that since December, “It’s been all COVID all the time.” It is expected the House will pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill by the end of the week and send it to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.
“The plan includes funds to address many concerns,” she said.
A second Biden COVID-19 bill is currently in the process, which is more of an economic recovery bill including broadband as part of infrastructure.
“It could be pretty generous, so I would suggest you consider what you want on your wish list. Dream big,” Power said.
Future funding opportunities are expected to open up when Congress begins the appropriation process, and there is some discussion that it will re-institute earmarks for specific projects, a practice abandoned several years ago. She said this is another chance to create a list of requests. In both cases — with COVID-19 relief funds and appropriations — she urged supervisors to prioritize.
Power pointed out there is likely to be a positive response to anything related to climate change, diversity, and environmental equity.
Addressing some concerns of the county, Power said the Forest Service’s fire suppression policy has not largely been discussed, but she suggested the supervisors bring it up with the county’s congressional delegation. As for road maintenance, there have been some changes bringing more money into the program, but not enough, she said.