Upon taking office in November 2015, I wrote a State of the City article to inform our citizens of the pressing issues facing Prescott. Now, 20 months later, it’s time to provide an update on how far we’ve come in addressing those issues. During my time as mayor, our Prescott City Council and city staff members have made significant strides. Let me summarize:
Early in my term we undertook a top-to-bottom review of our economic development team and realized we needed a major change of focus. Since then, we’ve developed an exciting and aggressive plan to attract technology companies to Prescott to take advantage of the extraordinary talent our young graduates from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott College and Yavapai Community College offer to our community. Two technology sectors in high demand are computer coding and cyber security operations. We’ve taken steps to establish a computer coding school program through Yavapai College and are contemplating coding instruction at the high school level as well. A cyber security operations center will be established in association with ERAU before the close of 2017. Implementation of a regional innovation center/business incubator is underway to draw a multitude of new businesses to Prescott. Currently, two business development conferences are scheduled for early August with more than 150 technology company chief executive officers to familiarize them with Prescott and our centers of learning.
Through negotiations with Great Lakes Airline, commercial air service has been greatly improved with service to Los Angles and Denver. Since December, passenger enplanements have increased dramatically over previous years, and once we have 10,000 or more passengers utilizing the airport annually, increased Federal Aviation Administration grant opportunities will be available for major infrastructure improvements. Two infrastructure improvements being evaluated at the airport are a new passenger terminal and increasing the length and strength of the main runway. This will accommodate the new fleet of Forest Service planes used to support slurry missions to fight wildfires. As utilization of our airport services has improved, new businesses continue to locate in or near the airport industrial park, which will enhance local employment opportunities.
Sober Living Homes
Substantial improvement has been made in reducing the number of residential recovery homes. Approximately two years ago there were more than 170 recovery homes listed with the City of Prescott. With the Council’s establishment of an ordinance to raise the standard of care in recovery homes, only 42 homes are currently registered with the city. This reduction allows for better oversight by the city to ensure the health, safety and welfare of clients in the homes, and fosters improved relations between recovery homes and residential neighbors. In addition, insurance investigations have exposed fraud and excessive charges for addiction care, which contributed to the reduction in recovery homes as well.
Public Safety Personnel Retirement System
We are on the precipice of major and permanent reform to this failing system, but hard work is ahead. As mayor, I provided testimony before the state legislature last year, which led to the establishment of a new retirement system for the future. But it will not eliminate or slow the growth of pension debt for many years to come (20-30). Faced with a growing $78.5 million unfunded liability, resulting partially from a $26 million increase in the last four years, Prescott citizens understand the unsustainability of this pension debt and its burden on the taxpayer. The Prescott City Council indicated the need for a two-pronged approach to address this ever-growing debt: 1) pursuing state legislative action, and 2) proposing a local sales tax increase. I’ve convened three mayors’ summit meetings to galvanize other mayors whose cities have significant PSPRS unfunded liabilities to bring pressure on the legislature and governor for permanent reform. I sent a letter to the governor with the signatures of 18 other Arizona mayors requesting his assistance. In addition, a PSPRS Ad Hoc Committee has been formed at the legislature to propose permanent reforms.
Improving City Services
Efficiency measures implemented in city departments since the beginning of my term of office resulted in personnel reductions that now save the city $575,000 annually. We continue to evaluate all city departments for service and efficiency improvements and implemented city-wide customer service training for all employees. The intent is to make it easier for customers to do business with city staff and reduce transaction times. Instead of a culture of “No,” we now strive for, “How do we get to yes?”
This is a sampling of some of the significant efforts we have started during the previous 20 months. I believe too often we focus on the problem of the moment and forget to look at all the progress being made. So, stay tuned as we look forward to the future and continue to advance these initiatives in Prescott. QCBN
By Harry Oberg
Harry Oberg is the mayor of Prescott.