Wed, Nov

A study released last week recommends Arizona should look at privatizing the operations of some of its state parks.

The Arizona State Parks system, which oversees 28 parks of natural or historical significance, has fallen on hard times in the past couple of years. The agency saw its budget gutted as the State Legislature looked for ways to cut spending and solve other financial shortfalls since the economy took a turn for the worse.

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The study was commissioned by the Arizona State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group founded in 2004 to help support the state’s park system. The 63-page report was prepared by PROS Consulting, an Indiana-based firm.

“The paramount issue is that the state of Arizona is going through a period of severe financial turmoil,” the report reads. “The financial scarcity of state funding has cast a spotlight on the debate between what are appropriate government functions, and where government has grown beyond what is necessary and affordable.”

The answer isn’t complete privatization of all parks, according to the study, but the potential creation of a “quasi-governmental agency” that would outsource some operations while leaving in place a public oversight function dedicated to ensuring that the state’s historic and cultural resources are preserved.

The study points out that the state has already had some success in cutting costs while keeping several parks open, thanks to other funding sources, including partnerships with local governments. In several cases, the parks are in towns that depend on the parks to bring people in to generate local revenue.

“To demonstrate the effectiveness of recent measures at Arizona State Parks, the field operational costs of state parks in [fiscal year] 2010 cumulatively were only $326,765 in excess of earned revenues as a result of reduced staffing and operating schedules,” according to PROS Consulting.

Five parks were closed, five parks were being operated by another entity or agency and other parks were kept open with the help of $500,000 in support from local governments.

By way of comparison, the operational costs were $1.7 million over revenues in fiscal year 2009 and a $2.3 million in fiscal year 2008.

The consulting firm looked at each park individually in order to come up with suggestions for increasing efficiency and expanding privatization opportunities.

In state parks in the Verde Valley, the study suggested a number of possible options.

At Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, the park actually brought in $110,000 more last year than it cost to operate. Still, the state could look at expanding offerings through private organizations, including offering amenities like a café, a bed and breakfast or even an equestrian center.

The picture is some what different in Camp Verde, home to Fort Verde State Historic Park. The town, along with the support of Yavapai County, instituted emergency funding measures along with the community helping to organize a massive volunteer operation to keep the 19th-century military post open. Just over 12,000 people visited the park in fiscal year 2010. The fort brought in a little over $35,000, but cost nearly $150,000 to operate.

The study recommends that the park could be closed from November through March, with a reduced operating schedule the rest of the year, along with management by a possible regional park authority, the aforementioned private-public “quasi-governmental” agency.

The same seasonal closure and reduced scheduling was also recommended for Jerome State Historic Park where more than 60,000 visitors brought in just over $160,000 in fiscal year 2008.

The park cost more than $270,000 to run and received $30,000 in temporary financial assistance from Yavapai County.
Red Rock State Park outside Sedona also operated at a loss, with nearly 60,000 visitors in fiscal year 2010. The park enjoyed $160,000 in financial assistance from Yavapai County and the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park. Once again, the study recommends closure from November to March, along with increased use of volunteers and outsourcing as many functions as possible. An environmental education center and an amphitheater were suggested as potential future revenue sources.
Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon operated in fiscal year 2010 as one of the state’s more successful properties, bringing in $710,000 in revenues with a cost of $490,000 to run. A café and a zipline or canopy tour could bring in additional revenue, according to the study.

“The best solution for privatization of Arizona State Parks is to transition the current agency to a quasi-governmental entity accountable to the state of Arizona for purposes of managing state parks, promoting rural economic development, and developing financially beneficial partnerships,” the consulting firm determined. “While future funding mechanisms for the quasi-governmental agency can be determined at a later time, it is critical that the current agency funding be held harmless through the transition.”

The study is available online at the Arizona State Parks website.

Yavapai College administrators would not comment about the substance of a closed-door executive session conducted by Yavapai College District Governing Board when the purchase of 20 acres of Verde Valley property was discussed.

The board considered but did not decide on the purchase of land owned by the school’s nonprofit foundation during an executive session Dec. 14.

Vice President for Administration and Finance Clint Ewell said he could not comment on what took place during the executive session or why purchasing the land was under consideration.

Situated on Windmill Lane in Clarkdale, the land was part of the initial 50 acres purchased by Yavapai College Foundation to build the school. The current campus consists of 30 acres. The remaining 20 acres continues to be owned by the foundation, Ewell said.

The land, situated next to the southern boundary of the college, is currently vacant. It has been held by the foundation for the benefit of the college for several years. The original intention was for the foundation to hold the land until the college was ready to expand, Ewell said.

The land has been held separately by the foundation because state law prohibits community colleges from owning capital assets like undeveloped land held for future development, Ewell said.

“The foundation has offered to sell the property to the college,” he said. “A final decision is expected in January.”

“The purpose of the Yavapai College Foundation, its sole reason for existence, is to support Yavapai College,” Ewell said. “Its two boards work very closely together.”

In the past, the foundation has leased buildings it owns to the college to be used as classrooms or for other purposes, he said.
The property under consideration was valued by an independent appraiser at $400,000, according to Yavapai College Foundation Executive Director Steve Walker, who made the announcement at a recent meeting of the foundation’s board of directors, Ewell said.

The newest member of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District Governing Board is a 40-year veteran of the district with experience as a teacher and administrator.

Yavapai County Superintendent Tim Carter appointed Mary Valenzuela, longtime assistant principal and former first-grade teacher at Oak Creek School, to fill a seat on the board vacated by Mark Miskiel. The appointment is official Saturday,
Jan. 1.

Since retiring as assistant vice principal in 2009, Valenzuela has been substitute teaching for the district and conducting college classes for teachers. Her most recent class, Literacy: Reading theory, decoding and language, will be offered at Yavapai College this spring.

Although her new position will prevent her from continuing to substitute teach, she said she would continue to volunteer in district classrooms because she loves the children.

“I don’t have to get paid to do that,” she said.

Newly appointed school board member Mary Valenzuela considers some of the challenges facing the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District during an interview at her Cornville home Thursday, Dec. 16. Valenzuela was appointed to the position vacated by Mark Miskiel for a one-year term, which begins Saturday, Jan. 1.Reflecting on the new job Thursday, Dec. 16, Valenzuela said she knows she’s walking into a tough situation. Due to an expected decrease in state education funding, Valenzuela said the district is facing a severe budget shortfall that could reach into the millions of dollars.

The budget crisis has board members and administrators searching for answers, she said.

One hotly debated proposal for closing Oak Creek School, which is a Cornville community center, has created a lot of tension in the district between parents who want to see the school remain open and the governing board, which points to declining enrollment and increasing costs at the school.

Valenzuela said she is withholding judgment on the issue until taking her seat in January but believes alternatives to closing not yet considered could be forthcoming from district stakeholders. She urged everyone with an interest in the district to come forward with ideas.

She said her long affiliation with Oak Creek School could make whatever decision is reached about its fate more palatable for the Cornville residents who know her.

The role reversal that comes with the job, where Valenzuela becomes one member of a board that supervises administrators to whom she once reported, is not likely to change relationships with people she worked with for decades, especially COCSD Superintendent Barb U’Ren.

“I’ll never be [U’Ren’s] boss,” Valenzuela said. “You pick a person to run the schools. You look to make sure the policies you set are being implemented, but otherwise you show them they have your confidence and support.”

Valenzuela said she would rely on U’Ren to get her up to speed on the issues confronting COCSD, especially with regards to the budget.

She knows first hand the caliber of the teachers and administrators who work for the district and expressed confidence their talents and diligence would see the district through its current difficulties.

Carter appointed Valenzuela after Miskiel unexpectedly resigned Dec. 10 because his wife was hired to work for the district, posing a possible conflict of interest.

Miskiel was one of three candidates who filed to run for one of three seats in the Nov. 2 election. Only three candidates filed to run. Consequently, Carter canceled the election to save money because the outcome was certain.

Instead of putting the candidates to a vote, Carter appointed Miskiel and the other two candidates, Jason Finger and Janice Rollins, to fill the four-year positions.

Town fire, code inspectors declared building unsafe and closed it to the public

Owners of a historic hotel in Jerome served notice on town officials Dec. 15 of their intention to sue the town and requested a Yavapai County Superior Court judge to order the building reopened.

Robert Altherr, owner of the Jerome Grand Hotel, which was closed by the town of Jerome on Dec. 8 due to alleged building code violations, explains Dec. 15 his frustration over dealings with the town’s fire and building officials. Altherr, whose family has operated the landmark hotel since 1996, said the actions have forced him to file a lawsuit against the town.The hotel was closed Dec. 9 after fire and building officials declared it unsafe to occupy.

On Monday, Dec. 20, Jerome Town Manager Candace Gallagher and Fire Chief Rusty Blair each declined to comment on the Jerome Grand Hotel’s legal action or the events leading up to it.

However, Gallagher issued a press release Dec. 8 stating the hotel “was deemed as unsafe by the town’s fire official and chief building code official, resulting in its closure following checkout of its guests.”

The closure means the hotel’s 10 employees will not have a job come Christmas, hotel owner Robert Altherr said. Altherr agreed to pay his staff until Christmas even though the hotel has no guests.

The closure came after town building officials revoked the hotel’s certificate of occupancy, originally issued in 1996 shortly before the historic building reopened for lodgers for the first time in more than 40 years, Altherr said. The hotel originally served as a hospital from the time it opened in 1927 until closing in 1950, he said.

“They have deemed the building unsafe but the truth is the Jerome Grand Hotel is one of the safest buildings in Jerome,” Altherr said. “Built virtually fireproof in 1926, in 1995 fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems were installed and both the town and the state approved the hotel to open in 1996.”

Altherr greeted reporters at the entrance to the hotel Dec. 15 just as videographers and producers of the Travel Channel show, “Ghost Adventures,” were setting up to film an episode.

By order of the town, Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Hall escorted the video crew inside the hotel, but would not allow it to film on the upper floors, where paranormal activity has been frequently reported, Altherr said.

The Arizona State Fire Marshal and Jerome Town Fire Marshal inspected the building for fire safety in 1996 and approved the same exits, exit signs, corridors and stairwells Blair faulted during court-ordered inspections in August.

The town was forced to obtain a search warrant after Altherr stopped an inspection in July before it was concluded.

Altherr said he objected to the inspection because Blair wanted to go into areas of the hotel which would normally not be open to inspection and test the safety of electrical wiring without the proper credentials to do so.

After the August inspection, the town directed Altherr to make a number of improvements, including widening the driveway in front of the hotel and creating a turn-around area that could accommodate fire trucks. Altherr said he was forced to eliminate several parking spots as a result.

“We resolved all but a few issues with the Jerome Fire Department and building department,” he said. “In our attempt to have these disagreements heard, we have been silenced, criminally charged and now formally shut down.”

Although Blair allegedly told Altherr the hotel would not be shut down during the busy season, town officials decided to revoke the certificate of occupancy one week prior to a Dec. 15 meeting scheduled to work out any further issues, Altherr said.

Altherr said the hotel halted construction of renovations months ago and did not require permits to proceed as alleged by the town. He also claimed he resolved all of the building inspector’s concerns except hiring an architect to redraw plans for the entire building, plans which are not required when only building renovations are proposed.

One pass is not the same as the other.

Recreation Resource Manage-ment representatives said they are cutting pass prices for frequent visitors to three of their day use sites in the Sedona area. Fees for camping and day usage will also be reduced.

A new pass, called the “Big Three Pass,” is currently being offered for $18 a week, or $40 for a one-year period. The Big Three Pass will be honored at Crescent Moon, Call of the Canyon and Grasshopper Point day use areas, areas where the Red Rock Pass can no longer be used.

Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, said he felt like his company had an opportunity to reduce fees during a recent concessionaires’ bid process. The annual pass, he said, offers substantial savings for those who live in the area.

“There’s a lot of demand locally from folks that live next to these places,” Meyer said. “For example there are a lot of people that live around Crescent Moon Ranch that want to be able to go out there every day and walk their dog and have some kind of annual pass. That was something we were happy to offer. It’s sort of a 365-day visit for the price of five. I think it will be quite a bargain for local folks who were, I think justifiably, disappointed that the pass went away last year.”

While the pass is currently available at the Call of the Canyon, located at the West Fork Oak Creek trailhead, they will soon be available at the Oak Creek Visitor Center, Grasshopper Point and Indian Gardens.

In 2011, fees at Crescent Moon and the Call of the Canyon day use areas will be reduced to $9 a vehicle from $10 a vehicle. Grasshopper Point day use fees will stay at $8 a vehicle.

Campground rates will also drop at Cave Springs, Manzanita and Pine Flat. The Chavez Crossing and Clear Creek group campground will also be reduced. Cave Springs, Manzanita and Pine Flat will drop to $18 per night. Clear Creek and Beaver Creek campground rates will remain at $16 per night.

“We’re dropping our fees there in the Big Three at the Oak Creek Canyon area from $10 to $9, whereas state parks raised their fees at Slide Rock from $10 to $20. I know that people in the Sedona area can be suspicious of private enterprise but there are real advantages to being able to run a business independently in that you can keep the fees down.”

District Ranger Heather Provencio, of the Coconino National Forest's Red Rock Ranger DistrictRed Rock District Ranger Heather Provencio said the district wanted to offer the new pass for local residents who frequent the sites.

“Crescent Moon is a very popular place for locals to hike,” Provencio said. “We wanted an opportunity for them to be able to get a yearlong pass, since we are not able to offer that with our Red Rock Pass now.”

Provencio said fees are required at sites run by concessionaires, and the Red Rock Pass does not apply there.

“The Red Rock Pass is good at any of our sites that are developed in the 160,000 acres that surround Sedona,” she said. “The Big Three Pass is for our concessionaire sites. That would include Crescent Moon, Grasshopper, and West Fork of Oak Creek, also known as Call of the Canyon. Those are sites run by the concessionaires and people pay a fee to go to those. People are required to pay a fee separate from the Red Rock Pass because those sites are run by concessionaires.”

When it comes to changes for the Red Rock Pass, Provencio said work is continuing on seeking public comment regarding whether the pass is needed.

“We’ve just hired someone to help us with that public process, gathering comments, and we’re looking for feedback on what people think about a pass. We want to share with them some of the benefits we have as a result of that pass and kind of talk through some various scenarios on that pass,” Provencio said. “Do we keep things the way they are? Or do we look at possibly shrinking our area where that pass is required or possibly just keeping it at our more developed sites and we’ll be talking to people about the trade-offs and about other ways for managing recreation in the area beyond that kind of fee.”

Within the next three months, Provencio said people will have the opportunity to comment on the pass. Comments are also welcome on their website, found at www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino.

“Instead of one pass there’s two, but the prices of the two passes combined are very competitive with the old Red Rock Pass,” Meyer said. “The Forest Service is still offering a Red Rock Pass that applies to the Forest Service-run facilities. We’re offering it to the Big Three. If you compare the prices, it’s roughly equivalent to what the combined passes used to be like. Largely, we’re trying to get back to where we were a year ago.

“The goal all along, both ours and the Forest Service, was to get back to having the ability to have a pass for both Forest Service and concession-run facilities at a reasonable price and that’s what I think we have done.”

Sedona City Council members revoked Resolution No. 2002-32, opposing the Red Rock Pass, during their regular meeting Nov. 10, in favor of a more neutral stance on the matter. Members said they plan to revisit the Red Rock Pass issue during the upcoming public comment period hosted by the Coconino National Forest. Council members voted unanimously to revoke the resolution during the November meeting.

Nearly 4 million people visit the red rocks of Sedona each year. Of that 4 million, an estimated 1.5 million make their way into the Coconino National Forest annually. There are 16 developed campgrounds within the Red Rock Ranger District, with seven wilderness areas, three public cultural sites, roughly 300 miles of trails, two historic cabins and more.

Recreation Resource Manage-ment operates over 150 parks in 12 states throughout the country. Besides the Forest Service, the private management firm also works with water districts, state and county agencies. In addition to parks and campgrounds, the firm also runs more traditional concession operations such as stores.

The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday, Dec. 6, to hire an expert on redistricting to prepare to redraw the county’s he 2012 election.

The county hired Federal Compliance Consulting of Maryland, headed by former U.S. Department of Justice Senior Attorney Bruce Addelson, who had national enforcement responsibility for federal voting laws.

Yavapai County Administrator Julie AyersThe supervisors authorized the county to spend up to $85,000 for Addelson’s services during the next year.

The county expects the 2010 census to show its population surpassed 175,000 residents, a threshold that will require redistricting under state law, Ayers said.

“When the county passes the 175,000 threshold, we will be required to expand the Board of Supervisors to five members and to establish supervisorial districts accordingly,” she wrote in the Board of Supervisors’ agenda.

Lines that currently draw three supervisors’ districts will be redrawn as five to accomplish several constitutionally required goals, Ayer said.

A redistricting plan must create districts that are relatively equal in population. The plan must not dilute the strength of minority voters. It must not result in a “racial gerrymander,” which attempts to draw lines according to the racial component of various neighborhoods.

Finally, a redistricting plan must take into account traditional redistricting criteria such as compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivision lines and communities of interest, she said.

Since the redistricting process must comply with federal statutory guidelines and will be subject to review by the U.S. Department of Justice, it will require careful planning and execution, Ayers wrote.

The time remaining for completion of the process is relatively short. The target for completion of the process and preclearance of the new redistricting plan by the DOJ is December 2011. This will allow the county to make election packets available to candidates by Jan. 12, 2012, she wrote.

It is our intention to utilize in-house resources for this project to the greatest possible extent. There are, however, certain areas where specialized expertise may be particularly useful. These would include the complex statistical and demographic analysis of the county’s voting history and submission of the redistricting plan to the Department of Justice, Ayers wrote.

President Barack Obama is the first president who has actually worked as an attorney to enforce federal voting lights laws, Addelson said. The president appointed more than 100 additional attorneys to the DOJ’s voting rights division in anticipation of redistricting required by the 2010 census, he said.

“The DOJ’s current enforcement posture appears to differ from its approach during the 2000 redistricting cycle, with more vigorous policing apparently in place,” Addelson said.

Because Arizona is one state under court order to submit all redistricting plans to a federal judge for a review known as preclearance, it is important the county do what it can up front to prepare plan that will pass scrutiny and avoid the cost and delay of potential lawsuits, he said.

Addelson said he expects to complete preliminary studies, reviews and analysis of demographic information by the end of this year.

Outreach meetings will be conducted with community leaders in January and February to prepare for the official release of the 2010 census data from February through April. Review of the census data should be completed by April, Addelson said.
Addelson and Ayers will meet with public officials about the data in May and public meetings will also be conducted.
Alternate plans for redistricting of the county will be prepared and presented by July.

August will be spent preparing the final plan for publication in September. The county would adopt the final plan in October, leaving two months in advance of the final deadline to work with the DOJ to obtain preclearance approval, Addelson said.

With numerous computer terminals, meeting rooms, plenty of desk space and a formal conference room with video capability and giant glass table, the county’s new Business Assistance Center offers first-class accommodations at a reasonable price.

The BAC, which is free, is attracting many types of entrepreneurs, like the home office operator who needs a place to meet with out-of-town clients or network with colleagues.

Melanie Roberts is an education consultant who works out of her home in Sedona. She dropped by Monday, Nov. 15, to check out the new center, located at 851 N. Main St., and met with administrative assistant, Glen Pillow.

Pillow talked her into signing up for a membership, no charge. Using her membership, Roberts can schedule the use of any computing equipment or conference room at the center at no cost.

She promised to schedule a business assessment provided by the center, a 30-minute discussion about the status of her business that allows BAC to identify any needs it is equipped to help her with.

Roberts said she was impressed by the space and the assistance she was provided.

One useful benefit of membership for computer-challenged entrepreneurs is Pillow’s expertise as a consultant on computerized business systems.

Pillow sees it as his duty to help any Yavapai County business owner in need, either by himself, or by drawing on the expertise of other BAC partners, like Yavapai College, where business courses are available.

Pillow said the public agency partners that made the Cottonwood BAC possible, including the Northern Arizona Council of Governments, provided grant funds and other types of financial support that permits the center to offer accommodations at no charge to members.

BAC helps develop business plans, helps locate business grants, and provides employment training, under the guidance of Cottonwood Economic Development Director Casey Rooney. Rooney originated the idea to establish the center in Cottonwood after visiting a similar center in Prescott.

In addition to NACOG and the college, Yavapai County and the city of Cottonwood made financial and in-kind donations to get the center open. A grand-opening ceremony Nov. 10 drew more than 70 people.

The center occupies space formerly occupied by the city’s Planning and Zoning Department.

For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 634-0260.

Two days of evidentiary hearings last week gave a preview of testimony in the trial of James Arthur Ray, the self-help author and motivational speaker who stands accused of three cases of manslaughter.

James Arthur RayThe charges against the California-based man stem from deaths that took place at a special sweat lodge ceremony at Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona in October 2009 that was part of a $10,000-a-head weekend event.

Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died after exposure to conditions inside the sweat lodge.

Attorneys on both sides attempted to get to the nature of the ceremony; their attempts will persuade the court one way or another if events at past self-help ceremonies would be admissible at Ray’s trial, scheduled to begin in February.

Witnesses included volunteers who helped out at the sweat lodge event the night of the incident and at previous events.

The trial is set to begin Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow has set aside 65 days for the proceedings, to run three to four days a week from mid-February through mid-June, if necessary.

Ray has been excused from attending hearings in Camp Verde until his trial begins, unless his presence is demonstrated to be absolutely necessary.

Further hearings are scheduled for this week

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