APACHE COUNTY — Alton Joe Shepherd has three top priorities.
Jobs. Jobs. Oh, yeah – and jobs.
The District II Supervisor was recently named chairman of the Apache County Board of Supervisors.
That makes sense, since his district includes a portion of the Navajo Reservation, with an unemployment rate above 50 percent. But then, the whole county has an unemployment rate of 10 percent – nearly three times the state and federal average.
But the stress on economic development has a special urgency now, with the coal industry shutting down throughout both Apache and neighboring Navajo counties.
“No one is saying we’re going to open up these coal fired plants and keep them alive. My priority is how do we work together to get to that point. We can’t have our rainy day fund forever. We have to create those job opportunities,” Shepherd told the Independent.
During his term as chairman of the board, he wants to remain focused on replacing the power industry jobs, while also building up the region’s tourism-based economy. Moreover, the county has made progress in winning state and federal support to bring redundant, high-speed broadband to the region. This will open the door to new types of industry.
“When the time comes, we need to be prepared to diversify our renewable energies. We have millions of tons of slash (from forest thinning projects),” he noted, which can be harvested and used for power generation. “How do we turn that into economic development? How do we protect our watershed? How do we protect our forest?”
Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project have both announced plans to phase out coal-fired power plants that provide hundreds of stable, high-paying jobs in a region beset by the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state.
Shepherd was elected to the board three years ago. He hasn’t decided whether to seek another term this year. He has a long history in leadership positions on the Navajo Nation, where he spent a decade in law enforcement. He has also served two terms on the Navajo Tribal Council.
He quickly took on the critical job of serving as the county’s liaison with the legislature. He spends months during the legislative sessions lobbying for county issues – especially trying to win state funding for roads and other infrastructure projects. Counties remain critically dependent on the state, since they administer many state programs locally, including medical, employment and education programs. The county has responsibility for a wide range of programs and services – but often has no control over the funding to provide those services.
During the recession, the state legislature slashed county funding to balance the state budget and has not quite fully restored that funding, despite the booming state economy.
As a result, the once healthy Apache County reserve fund has shrunk by about two thirds – leaving the county with a thin cushion against emergencies. Moreover, the utilities now on the chopping block pay about two thirds of the property taxes in the county.
That’s why Shepherd wants to focus on things like biomass power plants and forest restoration and thinning projects through efforts like the Four Forests Restoration Initiative. However, once high hopes for adding another biomass-burning power plant suffered a setback recently when the Arizona Corporation Commission decided not to require utilities to buy biomass-generated power, eroding the foundations of any successful forest thinning effort.
On the other hand, the county still has the advantage of land along both he transcontinental railroad and a major interstate highway.
For instance, a recent Northern Arizona University study concluded the region could economically harvest and sell biomass to South Korea, which is building wood-pellet power plants to meet emissions goals. The key lies in a highly efficient connection to the railroad. The standardization of the shipping containers that fit on trucks, trains and cargo ships makes the county’s transportation corridor a vital resource in a world increasingly driven by international trade.
Moreover, Navajo County has in the past few weeks approved two major alternative energy installations – both a wind farm and a solar power plant, again underscoring the potential for a new, renewable energy industry in the region.
“I see the vision,” said Shepherd. “I’ve had the experience of being on the Navajo Tribal Council – and seen how much it has affected our nation’s coffers (when power plants close). When these plants go away, that’s going to be a big impact. Look at St. Johns – we used to have hotels here. And we’re hoping we can thrive again. Everyone is talking about 5g (broadband) and renewable energy and the I-40 corridor – how does that fit into our picture? The opportunity is there. They key is putting the right people in there – to start working with cities and towns. We can’t wait 12 years to have a plan.
“Look at our county population – we’ve decreased by 2.8 percent. Our people are not employed. They’re moving down to Phoenix. We’re just feeding that Phoenix growth. But we know that people come up here for their playground – what can we do to keep them here an extra day?”
And if we do – what do we get?
Maybe some more jobs.
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