NAVAJO COUNTY — Faced with an economic meltdown and a pandemic, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors this week turned to a familiar face for help.
The Supervisors approved a $10,000-per-month contract with retired assistant county manager Paul Watson to cope with the fallout of COVID-19 — from salvaging economic development to prying money loose from the state and federal government.
Watson worked for various government agencies in the White Mountains for 31 years before he retired last October from his job as Navajo County Economic Development Director. The county at that time approved a six-month contract to keep him working on economic development issues two days a week.
But the board of supervisors brought him back on a full-time with a week-to-week, $120,000 annual contract to help cope with the economic devastation of COVID 19.
The county has one of the highest concentrations of COVID-19 in the state, which has shut down the vital tourism industry. Even before the virus struck, the county had lost hundreds of high-paying jobs in mines and coal-fired power plants.
His new contract position will include making sure the county gets its share of assistance for local governments in the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package adopted by Congress – mostly to bail out businesses and improve unemployment benefits during the crisis.
The CARES act included $150 billion for states, tribal governments and local governments to cover costs related to the pandemic. Navajo County offers a host of services critical to the pandemic response, from contact tracing people exposed to the virus to enrolling a flush of people seeking coverage by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). The county can get grants to provide child care, gloves and masks, services for impoverished families and additional services related to the pandemic – but all of it involves jumping through hoops and filling out paperwork.
Watson has broad experience in economic development, even before hiring on at the county in 2015. He served as Snowflake town manger for seven years, manager of Pinetop-Lakeside for 13 years and finance director for Eagar for several years.
At Navajo County, he worked on a partially successful effort to save the wood products industry in the White Mountains as the logging industry shut down and a major paper mill closed. He’s been deeply involved in efforts to save the state’s only biomass plant near Snowflake as well as a small-log sawmill, both crucial to stalled forest thinning efforts.
Meanwhile, the closure of the Navajo Generating Plant and the Kayenta Coal Mine also hammered the local economy, providing 1,100 direct jobs and 4,500 indirect jobs.
As a result, Navajo and Apache counties were already reeling before COVID-19 hit. Statewide, the unemployment rate has risen to at least 7 percent – perhaps 15 percent – in a month. Historically, unemployment in Apache and Navajo counties has remained 1 or 2 percent above the statewide average – even in the midst of economic recovery. The unemployment rate on the Navajo Reservation typically hovers around 50 percent, but with the reservation essentially on lockdown due to the spread of the virus, the jobless rate has undoubtedly spiraled.
Statewide, last week another 95,000 Arizona residents filed for unemployment – second only to the 128,000 who filed for benefits the week before that. As of April 10, 164,000 people were on the rolls. The federal CARES Act relief package has expanded for unemployment eligibility to part-time and self-employed workers and raised maximum benefits from $240 a week to $840 a week for at least the next two months.
The Department of Economic Services has been overwhelmed by requests for benefits, but says people are starting to receive the enhanced benefits now. People delayed by the crush of new applications will receive the higher maximum benefit retroactively to the date they first submitted an application.
The economic carnage convinced the Board of Supervisors to extend Watson’s contract for the duration. Watson will continue to work with the county and cities throughout the region to attract new businesses, get in line for federal stimulus money and cope with the array of impacts from the pandemic.
As of Thursday Arizona had 4,234 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 150 deaths. That included 410 cases and 11 deaths in Navajo County and 118 cases and four confirmed deaths in Apache County. Both Navajo County and Apache county have among the highest per-capita case rates in the state, with most of those cases concentrated on the Navajo Reservation.
Watson will serve as the liaison between Navajo County and state, local and federal agencies when it comes to both economic development and the pandemic. That includes gathering information and participating in conference calls, press conferences, meetings and other events.
The agreement can be terminated with seven days notice.