Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls delivered his State of the City address on Thursday, streamed live as part of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce “Good Morning, Yuma” virtual event.
Nicholls got the bad news out of the way, touching on how the COVID-19 pandemic and the release of asylum seekers into the community impacted the city, before moving on to better things, such as the record-breaking new home construction and the resolution of the largest debt in the city’s history.
Nicholls acknowledged “a very tough year” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It started March 11, 2020, when Gov. Doug Ducey declared a statewide emergency, preempting action by local cities.
A few days later, on March 15, Nicholls issued a proclamation of local emergency “to be ready for that inevitable day when COVID hit Yuma.” That happened five days later, on March 20, 2020, when Yuma County had the first confirmed case of the virus.
The mayor reinforced the governor’s executive order related to businesses and operations in the city during that time period.
Ducey allowed businesses to reopen in May, but after a flare up in June, the governor left it up to local governments whether to mandate face coverings in public spaces. With a 5-2 vote, the council agreed to amend the mayor’s emergency proclamation by adding a requirement for the use of face coverings within public places in the city.
On Sept. 11, the city allowed businesses impacted by the pandemic to extend their premises outside so they could keep densities low but have more room to operate, offering a safer environment for customers and staff. The governor later followed suit with a statewide extended premises policy.
On March 25, the governor rescinded mask mandates, and Nicholls also lifted the directive that mandated face coverings in public spaces in the city.
Nicholls noted that the counties are tasked with public health, not local cities. However, throughout the pandemic, the city kept close contact with the Yuma County Public Health District.
City officials also met with nonprofits and businesses to assess their challenges. Their comments and suggestions were summarized and forwarded to the governor and his staff for consideration.
Noticing that schools were not using their supply of personal protective equipment since kids were not in school, the mayor’s office reached out to the schools to see if they could share their PPE with first responders.
“The schools stepped up, and they allowed those resources to move to where they were needed most in the community,” Nicholls said.
The city also reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to talk about border measures and how to keep the border open but safe.
As far as city operations, Yuma went virtual, with a lot of processes moved online. The city was financially prepared for the pandemic, as it had a 20% fund balance as part of the approved budget, Nicholls said.
Nevertheless, City Administrator Phil Rodriguez took measures to reduce spending, put a freeze on nonessential hires, and incentivized early retirement, netting $11 million in savings.
When healthcare workers were overwhelmed during the second wave, the city launched the Adopt-A-Nurse program. “That gave the community a way to express their gratitude to those working hard and those in the hospital,” Nicholls said.
The program drew 78 donors who contributed more than $10,000, with six companies, Swire Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Canyon Distributing, McDonald’s and Sierra Coffee stepping up with donations. To date, the program has provided healthcare workers with more than 3,800 meals, drinks and notes of encouragement.
“But we’re not done,” Nicholls noted, adding that donations or letters of encouragement can still be submitted through the city website at www.YumaAZ.gov.
The community learned that the Yuma Civic Center is an “amazing asset” when YRMC used the facility to conduct a 10,000 COVID-19 testing blitz. It later became the hospital’s vaccine clinic site.
Then, on March 29, the Civic Center was converted into a state-run vaccination site as part of a partnership between the city, county, YRMC and Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. The “super-pod” administers 1,000 vaccines per day, seven days a week and is looking to bring that up to 4,000 vaccines a day.
“That is how important our Civic Center is to the community and to the health and wellness in an emergency,” Nicholls noted.
The city also became a partner in the sewage testing early detection program led by the Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture and the University of Arizona. “It gives us the opportunity to monitor what the COVID levels are in our community because COVID is detectable up to 10 days sooner,” the mayor explained.
Testing the sewage in schools and different sections of the city and county allows officials and citizens to “know when we need to take extra measures,” he added. “We still need to keep up with these measures even though the numbers are going well.”
He noted that more than 800 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in Yuma County. “That’s over 800 reasons to continue to take precautions, to follow business safety measures, to make sure we are using our face coverings when it’s necessary, to stay safe in gatherings and continue to sanitize as we go about our community and we return to a regular level of normalcy in our community. I think those are the things that will keep us from going into a third wave,” Nicholls said.
The U.S. Border Patrol once again began to release asylum seekers into Yuma County border communities.
“In 2019, we had a great influx of migrant families that couldn’t be accommodated in their system and were being released into Yuma,” Nicholls explained. “At that time, the city had a multipoint response, a shelter system with nonprofits, a lot of advocacy done to try to get to a resolution.”
In 2019, within three months, more than 5,200 individuals were released into the local shelter system.
In 2020, the city didn’t see any releases into the community. But, in 2021, the same situation began, “this time with COVID as part of the equation,” Nicholls noted.
In the first two weeks, 350 people were released at transportation hubs throughout Yuma County. The pandemic had reduced the nonprofit capabilities, and temporary shelters were no longer in place to accept the migrants.
But a group of nonprofits stepped up and are doing COVID-19 testing, quarantining those who test positive and transporting other migrants to regional shelters in other communities “to support their need to get to their ultimate destinations,” the mayor said.
As of Thursday, about 2,500 people had been released into the community, “but the great majority have found their way to regional shelters and to their ultimate destinations,” he added.
“I will continue advocating for funding for those procedures, but also for moving those releases to larger communities that can accommodate this kind of activity, with robust infrastructure, with a lot more funding for their nonprofits and more transportation routes. Those are the things that will make a really positive impact on the migrant conditions here as we get through and we work through this issue as a nation,” Nicholls said.
THE GOOD NEWS
“On to the good stuff,” Nicholls quipped.
This year, the city administrator led the council through an “amazing” process of strategic planning with extensive community engagement. The city hosted listening sessions with citizens, and based on the concerns and issues expressed by the people of Yuma, the council developed a vision statement and five strategic outcomes that will be used to guide decisions.
The vision statement says: “Yuma is a thriving, safe and prosperous community with opportunities powered by innovation, partnerships, collaboration and robust education – a unique place that all generations are proud to share.”
One of the very first things the council and administration did as the result of the strategic planning process was “jump into the single largest unfunded liability the City of Yuma has ever faced,” Nicholls said.
That liability was a $140 million debt with the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System. “This system is the retirement system we promised to our men and women who serve in our police force and our fire department. Over the years, the way it’s been managed and the investments that have happened have caused the (debt) to grow at a very large rate, with a 7% interest on top of that.”
The city refinanced the debt at the “dramatically” low interest rate of 2.38%, resulting in savings of $74 million. “That’s the single largest cost savings in city history,” Nicholls noted.
The strategic plan also led the city to refocus on higher education in Yuma, particularly the proposed multiversity campus in the downtown area. Phase 1, which called for setting up nonprofit status and preparing to move forward with funding to meet the demands of the future, has been completed.
Executive Director Jim Schuessler met with key players around the state and is now getting ready to launch into Phase 2, which calls for using federal funds to plan for how the multiversity should be developed.
In 2017, the city adopted the Infill Incentive Plan as a way to bring investment into the downtown and the older areas of the community. “We learned this year that that plan is extremely successful,” Nicholls said.
The city saw an increase in pre-development meetings and housing permits within the infill district. New homes increased three-fold. Officials now want to expand the infill program into other areas of the city “to try to replicate that success.”
In addition, residential construction grew at a record-setting pace in 2020, with the start of eight major subdivisions and two major apartment complexes. Compared to 2019, the city saw a 13% increase in new homes.
“That’s over 600 more homes, a new record for Yuma,” Nicholls said.
In 2020, 601 new homes with a construction value of $167.6 million were built. In 2019, the city had 534 new homes with a construction value of $143.8 million. That’s a 16.5% increase in the total construction value, the second highest value ever seen in Yuma.
In the first quarter of 2021, new home permits are up 46% compared to last year. “So we’re on pace to have another record this year,” the mayor noted.
“Drug use is a growing concern in our community and like every community we want to work against that for the protection of our youth and the protection of our future,” Nicholls said.
This year the mayor worked with Yuma Union High School District and the Yuma County Anti-Drug Coalition to form the Mayor’s Drug-free Communities Task Force. The group received a grant from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy of $125,000 a year for five years, for a possible total of $625,000. The funds will be used to “educate our youth to discourage them from getting addicted to drugs and helping them find out ways to have fulfilling lives,” Nicholls said.
As far as the budget, the city kept the property tax rate the same as the previous year. “We were still able to do some amazing things in our budget to address priorities,” he noted.
The city added 12 new positions to the police department and acquired body cameras for the officers and a bomb robot. The city also funded nine fire department positions previously funded by an expiring grant. The city also kept a promise to raise employee pay.
Addressing streets, the city increased by 150% the number of pavement preservation projects, covering 154 lane miles.
Yuma experienced community growth, in particular the hospitality and healthcare industries. Home2 Suites on North Main Street is now open with 113 rooms. Sheraton Four Points will open soon with 108 rooms and an “amazing meeting space that looks over the valley.” La Quinta by Wyndham just broke ground; it’s located next to the Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex and will have about 100 rooms.
These new hotels will add 300 rooms to the more than 4,000 hotel rooms currently in the city.
In the area of healthcare, Exceptional Healthcare Community Hospital broke ground in the east part of the city. Construction of Talas Harbor Behavioral Health Facility is underway. The Arizona Veterans Home is also under construction and will open in early 2022 with 80 rooms, including 20 rooms for those with memory care issues.
“For a community that has over 7,000 veterans, this is an important asset to have, and it’s been a great partnership between the City of Yuma, the state of Arizona and the federal government to bring this to our community,” Nicholls said.
Yuma also experienced industrial growth, with Swire Coca Cola moving into a new 57,000-square-foot facility with 70 employees.
An $850,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration will provide sewer service to 20 industrial lots in the Yuma Commerce Center.
The Thomas F. Allt Utilities Complex, a 20,000-square-foot building under construction, will house the city’s Utilities Department.
In closing, Nicholls thanked Rodriguez “for his leadership through this pandemic, for the actions he takes to make sure the city is running well, and the economic viability of the city is supported and that we are moving forward in a positive direction.”
He also thanked deputy city administrators Jay Simonton and Jennifer Reichelt for assisting with city leadership and cty staff “for their hard work, particularly this last year.”
Nicholls thanked his wife of 25 years, Danette, his children, parents and in-laws. “Without that kind of family support, these kinds of activities would not be possible,” he said.
“In the end, I’d like to thank you, for giving me the honor and the privilege to represent you and this great community of Yuma,” Nicholls said in conclusion.