CONCHO — The 3,500 residents of the impoverished community of Concho face big problems – and have desperate needs.
But they also want government to mind its own business, while protecting the freedom and property rights of residents.
That’s the contradictory message that emerged from a two-year, community-led process to come up with a plan for the unincorporated rural community, located 40 miles south of Interstate 40 in a 190,000-acre area bounded by Highways 180, 180A and 61. Only about 65,000 acres are privately owned, with the rest mostly owned by the federal government.
The plan includes a heartfelt plea for the county to improve policing, take action against drug trafficking, provide a “desperately” needed medical clinic, seize and auction-off many abandoned parcels, provide at least minimal animal control services, tackle pervasive blight, provide a job center and apprenticeships, systematize and improve road maintenance and put up street signs so police and ambulances and residents alike can find an address now and then.
But despite that long list of critical needs, the plan adopted by the Apache County Board of Supervisors last week also struck a defiant note when it comes to government meddling with the day-to-day lives of its citizens.
Ironically, the plan opted to leave land use issues to the county although, “the land use portion clearly reflects the overwhelming majority of the community and their desire to limit government restrictions, intrusion of personal property rights and regulation in the area.”
The adopted vision statement said, “The residents of greater Concho see their independence, liberty, and rights of property as citizens under the United States Constitution, as God-given, and those rights are not subject to any governmental incursion into them. We hold to one of the original mottos proposed by our Founders on the first coin of America: “Mind Your Own Business.”
The plan urges government to focus on providing “for the safety and security of its citizens or residents and to allow them the greatest freedom and liberty to pursue and direct their own, individual best interests.”
That said, the rest of the plan details the serious social and public safety problems faced by the community with the lowest average income in Apache County, which itself has the lowest average income in Arizona.
The plan set ambitious goals to address the identified problems, but offers few financial resources beyond applying for grants or establishing volunteer committees and nonprofit organizations.
So here are the key elements of the plan:
Sheriff’s patrols are “severely limited and less than sufficient.” The sheriff’s office in recent years has dropped vacant house patrols, school liaison officers, drug surveillance operations and many other previously offered services. As a result, the community is plagued by more drug trafficking and dangerous drug houses, said the report.
“We need a coordinated effort to root it out of our community,” said the plan.
The committee appealed to the county to establish a sheriff’s substation, develop a community watch crime prevention program and crack down on drug trafficking.
The county provides almost no animal welfare services, whether it’s picking up stray dogs or dealing with rabid and diseased animals.
Residents have established the non-profit Concho Animal Advocates, which has provided limited services, including picking up stray pets and neutering feral strays. But the community still urgently needs help from an at least occasional animal control officer to deal with “vicious domestic pets and rabid and diseased animals.”
Back in the 1970s, developers with big plans bought up many empty lots – including the proposed Concho Valley Country Club Golf Course. The developments went belly up, owners abandoned the lots and the unpaid back taxes now far exceed the value of the land.
The committee that prepared the Concho plan urged the county to take action to seize the parcels and auction them off for whatever back taxes they can bring. Not only would that generate revenue, but it would get the properties back onto the tax rolls and open the door to future development.
The report acknowledges that the community is blighted by many lots piled with trash, abandoned buildings, old cars and assorted junk. However, the committee urged the county to rely more on community efforts to nudge owners to clean up, rather than heavy-handed government action – unless conditions actually pose a danger to public health.
On the other hand, “the committee realizes that there are significant health and safety risks in some areas where support from Government resources may be essential,” including, “infestations of unmanaged vermin potentially spreading disease or unmanaged fuel loads creating significant fire safety concerns.”
The plan calls for establishment of community groups working hand-in-hand with the county to get lots cleaned up, which could provide a model for other communities as well.
The community faces a crisis when it comes to finding jobs for its residents, with 100 percent of the students in the Concho Elementary School qualifying for free and reduced lunches based on family income.
The plan calls for the establishment of a jobs center in the community, along with apprenticeship programs to train people for blue collar jobs, including electrical, ranching, fencing, biomass production, heavy equipment operations and other fields. The state and federal e-rate program will bring high-speed Internet access to the elementary school, which could therefore give a big boost to such apprenticeship and training programs.
The plan urges the county to maintain easements along roads throughout the community, including weed control to limit the odds a wildfire sparked by a tossed cigarette. Many of the roads are only fitfully and unpredictably maintained. Moreover, so many roads do not have street signs that ambulances and emergency service providers can’t find individual homes. The community adopted a detailed road signage plan back in 2005, but the county never implemented that plan.
The community has almost no medical services, despite the “desperate” need — especially for the many elderly and disabled residents, including many retired veterans.
“While providing basic medical care is costly, the population of the elderly veterans, retired military and low-income families does provide for a financial support for providing a medical clinic in Concho proper, it has been proven by study after study that preventative medical care is the most cost-effective way to reduce major catastrophic health care costs. A basic medical clinic is the answer to providing the desperately needed services.”
The committee urged the county to work with the federal Veterans Administration, Summit Healthcare and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to establish at least a part-time medical clinic to provide primary care services to the community.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org