By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
With another wave of massive growth coming the West Valley’s way, the mayors of Surprise, El Mirage and Youngtown are using the word “regionalism” a lot these days.
The three mayors haven’t had much time to work together, but they at least agree on one thing: If the West Valley is to grow effectively, it’ll take a group effort to get it done.
“What’s great for one city is great for the region,” El Mirage Mayor Alexis Hermosillo told a crowd of Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce members during last week’s “Meet the Mayors Breakfast” at West-MEC.
It was the first event for Hermosillo and Surprise Mayor Skip Hall, who each took over their respective cities in the last few months. The two mayors and Youngtown leader Mike LeVault spoke for an hour on issues ranging from transportation, water, quality of life and how to deal with a state legislature that seems to favor progress in the East Valley.
“We need to be at the table when the East Valley is there trying to get money,” Hall said. “Because in the past they’ve beat us to the table, and they’ve gotten the money. We just need to make sure our voice is heard.”
The leaders are already discussing the need to extend the Prop. 400 transportation tax as early as next year. The half-cent tax began in late 2003 and will run out in four years unless something changes.
“Everybody knows how frustrated I’ve been about the jurisdictional equity that was put in place in 2003,” Hall said. “Surprise just got hosed. I don’t know how else to put it. And the way Proposition 400 was structured there was no review of the jurisdictional equity in that total timeframe of 20 years.”
Hall said part of the problem is Surprise was allotted money based on a population of about 65,000 people earlier this century. But the city has now more than doubled in size and has no real transportation system like much of the rest of Maricopa County.
“The funds to fund buses, etc., are just not there,” Hall said. “If we to do it, it’s all on our dime. And our residents have been playing half a cent for a lot of years and there’s not much to show for it.”
West Valley leaders will be fighting the East Valley cities that are looking for funding for light rail extension. Valley Metro is currently pushing deep into Mesa with an extension project along Main Street.
The only problem is it costs between $80 million and $100 million to lay down only one mile of light rail tracks.
“That displaces a lot of money,” Hall said. “When you lay down a rail track, that’s it, you’re fixed. But you can move a bus route if this street isn’t working. You can’t do that with rail without laying new tracks.”
LeVault said transportation issue are especially crucial with the population center of the West Valley expected to move from near State Farm Stadium in Glendale now to somewhere in Surprise over the next decade.
“You’ve heard me say many times that the next decade or two belongs to the West Valley,” said LeVault, who has been the town’s leader since 2006. “This is where the growth is going to be taking place. We can either ignore it and let it sprawl out of control or we can do a good job planning and enhance the quality of life for our residents.”
He said there’s no way the West Valley can survive without an extension of the transportation tax and a bigger cut of the pie.
“That’s not a ‘Gee, we could really use that,’ LeVault said. “That’s a gotta have for the West Valley. Without an extension of Prop. 400, we are going to run out of money.”
LeVault, who also serves on the board for the Maricopa County Association of Governments said the group is just now recovering from the loss of $6 billion out of the transportation improvement program during the Great Recession a decade ago.
“We’re just now getting that money back in place and catching up,” LeVault said. “So, we’ve got to work hard to make sure Prop. 400 gets extended.”
Hermosillo said transportation is a quality of life issue to her.
“Transportation has a direct impact when it comes to accessibility to jobs, accessibility to health care, accessibility to schools,” Hermosillo said. “We need to have an alliance when recruiting funds or support for transportation in this region.”
One of the ways West Valley leaders plan to band together is the recent formation of the West Valley Caucus. It’s a group made up of each of the city and town mayors, the heads of the chambers of commerce and state legislators such as Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray.
“We have some really good mayors in the West Valley,” Hall said. “They’re action-oriented, they’re articulate, they know what they want, and I think we have a shared vision.”
Hall shared his vision for Surprise to the Chamber audience in what is a sneak-preview of his State of the City address on March 28.
The first-year mayor discussed the need for restaurants and entertainment options, especially for teenagers.
“We’ve got a lot of chain restaurants,” Hall said. “We need more entrepreneurial specialty restaurants and specialty retail.”
Hall said he can envision Bullard Avenue being the entertainment corridor of Surprise in the future.
The mayor said one of his goals is to create engagement for Surprise residents. He said he often meets people who tell him they only vote in presidential elections but skip the local ones.
“We impact more lives on a daily basis than the state or the federal government,” Hall said. “If there’s a pothole, they’re not going to call the federal government. If there’s a traffic light that’s not working, they’re not going to call the federal government. Or if you call 9-1-1 because your aunt just had a heart attack, the federal government is not going to help.”
Plus, LeVault said the partisan politics of the federal government is the least effective way to run local programs.
“All we have to do is look at what’s happening at the national level, and if we do the opposite we’re going to get along just fine,” LeVault said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Hall said he hopes residents are invigorated by new leadership. Longtime Mayor Sharon Wolcott resigned in November to open the door for Hall. The city also has two other new councilmembers and City Manager Mike Frasier was promoted internally in December.
“The City of Surprise is refreshing itself,” Hall said.
Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, at email@example.com or on Twitter at @thestonecave.