A brief update: The state of the city

Flagstaff City Council Chambers full of residents for a council meeting on April 17, 2018.

While Lumberjacks took a respite from their courses, Flagstaff City Council stayed hard at work. Over the month of December 2020, councilmembers discussed and voted on issues spanning from the city’s water supply to vaccine distribution, as new members transitioned into their seats. 

COVID-19 in Flagstaff

On Nov. 30, 2020, the city returned to Phase Two of its reentry plan, which, once again, demanded a return to remote work when possible, restricted gatherings to 10 or less people and closed certain public amenities with essential services and outdoor parks remaining open, according to a press release from the city of Flagstaff.

Confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 peaked in Flagstaff throughout late November and began to decline until spiking again the week of Dec. 25, 2020, public works director Andy Bertelsen said during a Jan. 5 council meeting. The city reported 946 positive cases over the week of Jan. 2 with 12,194 cumulative cases in the county as of Jan. 8, weekly report published by Coconino County Health and Human Services. Flagstaff’s current positivity rate is 19.8%, which is 9.8% over what is considered substantial by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Saliva testing at the University Union Fieldhouse resumed Jan. 6 and will be held until May 6, Christy Farley, NAU vice president of the Office of External Affairs and Partnerships, said during the Jan. 5 meeting. Testing is available in the University Union Fieldhouse weekly Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Additional testing for students is available at the COVID Clinic in the Health and Learning Center. 

The university will continue its randomized mitigation testing throughout the spring semester and all other COVID regulations will remain in place.

Vaccine distribution

Rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine began Jan. 4 and is projected to continue throughout the year, director of special initiatives Kim Musselman reported during a Jan. 6 city COVID update. Flagstaff is currently in Phase 1A of the rollout, which is limited to health care workers, emergency service workers and long-term care facility staff and residents. Phases 1B and 1C include educators, law enforcement, essential workers and people over 65 years old. 

The general population should expect to receive their vaccination some time before the end of summer. Furthermore, the vaccine is available to everyone for free, with or without insurance, Musselman said.

“I think in light of the limited resources that have been provided, with respect to counties being able to roll this out, a lot of great work is going on,” Musselman said. “Coconino has administered just under 2,000 vaccines and in comparison to other counties, we’re rolling along very well and expect to see [the number of vaccines administered] increase exponentially on a daily basis.”

The new council

Three fresh faces joined Flagstaff City Council Dec. 15, 2020 — councilmember Miranda Sweet, vice mayor Becky Daggett and Mayor Paul Deasy. These new additions meant goodbyes to former Mayor Coral Evans, as well as former councilmembers Jamie Whelan and Charlie Odegaard, who both ran for mayor last year. 

Prior to the inauguration, the Arizona Daily Sun reported reported tensions between then-mayor-elect Deasy and the previous council, with Whelan telling him he had “gone rogue” and his relationships with council were on “thin ice,” according to the Sun.

The issue arose from a debate over whether or not the inauguration and following team building retreat should be held in person or virtually, which Deasy made a decision on via social media prior to being sworn in or speaking to his council. In the end, Deasy and Sweet were sworn in from home while Daggett and council member Jim McCarthy attended in person,  according to additional reporting by the Sun.

Despite initial tensions, Flagstaff City Council and its new additions continue to make headway on important issues. 

A declaration of a housing crisis

At a Dec. 1, 2020 council meeting, Flagstaff City Council declared a housing emergency. This declaration prioritizes affordable housing, the resolution acknowledged as a crisis-level need for the city and has been a documented necessity for 50 years. 

The resolution states many residences in Flagstaff are second homes and short-term rentals, skewing local housing availability. In contrast, data from the Coconino County Coordinated Entry Front Door program indicates nearly 700 people, representing 366 households, experience homelessness in the community, according to the resolution. 

“The housing crisis we’re having right now is not unique to our city,” Evans said during the Dec. 1, 2020 council meeting. “I also think, in my mind — and this is just me personally — I’m not understanding why it seems to be an ‘us against them’ issue. I spoke to a group today of people from Flagstaff and they were very, very candid in what they had to say. They said, ‘It’s nice we’re saving the environment for Flagstaff, for the privileged people who have moved here, but what about us? Don’t we get to stay here or did we just build the town, make sure it looks pretty and now we have to exit stage left because we can’t afford to live here.’ I think it is a value statement.” 

Within nine months of the adoption of the resolution, council will, with input from the city’s Housing Commision, review a housing plan, which will detail development and preservation plans for the next 10 years. The plan is projected to consider how the city can better utilize land and financial resources, encourage more economical construction and increase attainable housing opportunities locally. 

The resolution also states the city will explore options for further funding for affordable housing developments and expansion of accessible housing programs. Additionally, the city will continue lobbying the state and federal governments to increase funding for affordable housing. 

Fresh water conservation plan

Additionally on Dec. 1, 2020, Flagstaff City Council adopted a new Water Conservation Plan, which was designed to save and protect the city’s water. 

This 20-year plan is projected to include water budgeting and various conservation strategies, which will delay a need for new water supply by about six years, Tamara Lawless, water conservation manager and project lead on the plan, said during the meeting. With the plan in place, the city is not expected to need new water until around 2048. Without it, the city would need to invest in a new supply by 2034.

Furthermore, this new plan should defer approximately $160 million in water costs. 

“Investing in the water conservation programming that is laid out in the plan may reduce our city’s long-term demand enough that we can delay the need to invest in a new water supply,” Lawless said in an email interview. “We’re not sure what that new supply will be, but we do know that it will be expensive … There’s a saying in the water conservation field that water conservation is our cheapest water supply. In other words, investing in water-conserving technologies and behaviors is much less expensive than using our existing supply at an accelerated rate.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic in flux, the new council has a busy year ahead. As 2020 came to a close, much headway was made on several issues — expect to see plans and action in 2021.