Q&A: Supervisor Anthony Smith talks county achievements, challenges

'There’s some major projects I hope to be able to announce in the spring in the area of the city of Maricopa'

Pinal County Supervisor Anthony Smith. Photo by Kyle Norby
[quote_box_right]Anthony Smith
: Pinal County Supervisor, District 4
Age: 66
Maricopan since: 2003
Family: Nancy (wife), five grown children in blended family with seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren
Education: Bachelor of Science, Purdue University
Professional background: Project Management Professional, worked at Motorola 10 years
Previous elected office: Mayor of Maricopa, 2008-2010, 2010-2012[/quote_box_right]Anthony Smith is entering his last year as Pinal County supervisor for District 4, having previously announced his decision not to seek reelection. He has been supervisor since 2013 after serving two terms as mayor of Maricopa.

He sat down with InMaricopa to talk about activities in Pinal County in 2019 and what may happen in 2020, his perspective of Maricopa, Interstate 11, transportation, future concerns for the county and more.

Remind us of your background:
I came from Illinois. I was born in Indiana and raised there. I raised my children in Central Illinois. In 1997 I came to Arizona to work for Motorola and did that for 10 years. I’ve been married to Nancy Smith, who’s a city councilmember for the City of Maricopa, for nearly 20 years now. So, we came to Maricopa in 2003 because, just like a lot of people at that time, we were looking for affordable housing. This was at the time about 15 minutes away from our Motorola plant at Queen Creek and Price Road. It’s not 15 minutes’ drive time any more. It was a place that was convenient, and it gave us a community that we felt was evolving. We were very excited about those first few years. To my amazement after less than five years they gave me the opportunity to serve them as mayor.

Since you were mayor, how has Maricopa changed?
Well, during that time in which we were trying to figure out how long is this recession and how deep is it going to be, fortunately the previous city councils had put aside a lot of that one-time money received from growth that gave our city councils the ability to, once the prices dropped on land, we were able to make some very important strategic purchases. The purchases such as for the city hall, that large complex came from basically a fire sale on some properties that had finally dropped to the point that we could buy them at a reasonable rate. The same thing with Copper Sky. All that land for that beautiful park on the southern side of the city was all purchased at one time with the idea that we would keep the frontage so that we could get commercial development. Fast-forward 10 years and that is finally happening with the prospect of hotels and retail and other things. During that time we were sustained by important projects. I think in 2009 came the Walmart. It added to the tax base. We needed that influx of money. Central Arizona College put their stakes in the ground and started the Maricopa campus. In addition, we were able to attract some healthcare with Banner and then others coming to town. That provided some of the ingredients for the community we have today. Now, there’s been a lot of building since that time, and, of course, the overpass played a very, very important part of that. But we started working on the overpass, just like Mayor Price and those current city councils, but it’s been a long haul, and we made our trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for that and ADOT meetings, etc. It’s been a whole community effort by its leadership in order to make it happen, but we’re very glad to see the results.

Did it surprise you it’s taken this long to break ground on a hotel?
Absolutely, it has. We did everything we could to help a hotel take hold. But it was a tough sell at a tough time. There was very, very much limits on capital investments at that basis. So, I think we just basically had the wrong dance partner. We did everything we possibly could to make it attractive for a hotel to come into the city of Maricopa. But it must not have been the right timing. And now I think we’ve have the prospect of not only one but two hotels. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it adds to our community. A lot of the people are wanting to visit people, plus also the number of hotel stays we have by the various car test facilities, Nissan, Volkswagen. We miss so much in revenue from hotel tax by not having a hotel in the city.

Has your political perspective changed since you became a supervisor?
There certainly is a learning curve to find out what works and what doesn’t work. One thing I found to my amazement is that my skillset in project management was a very good fit for the City of Maricopa, a new city in which about 80 percent of what we were doing was new projects. It made perfect sense to me as far as how to drive them along. Now, being a project manager, especially in the expertise of a planner scheduler, I spent my career trying to get things done as fast as possible and under budget. Well, it takes a lot of patience in government. You can’t move at the pace of the private world, and that’s oftentimes for good reason, because you have to engage the public, you have to have a lot of input and it moves at a slower place probably for good reason. I’ve learned that as the mayor of Maricopa, and it’s been reinforced now as a county supervisor that local governments move at a pace that may be frustrating for a lot of people, but oftentimes the end result is very good.

Let’s look back on the past year. What are the biggest successes you think the county’s had?
One of the big deals is that when ADOT selected the [Interstate 11] route that is south of the city of Maricopa, comes from the area in Hidden Valley, comes through the south of Maricopa, swings over about the Barnes Road alignment and then goes and connects to the I-8 near Casa Grande, when they selected that as the recommended alternative, that was a big deal. Because the other alternative went down State Route 85 at Gila Bend and then on I-8. It did nothing for Pinal County. It did nothing for the city of Maricopa and its growth. With that new road, not only do you get economic development associated with what you might find along the 101 or the 202 in the metro Phoenix are, but in the big picture it provides a commerce corridor that connects one of our main trading partners, Mexico, to Arizona and points northward but it also, as we develop additional manufacturing and high-volume employees opportunities in the Casa Grande area with the Lucid project and the Nikola project, those will give access to those jobs in about the same drive time or probably even less than what you would traveling to the metro Phoenix area. It also takes a lot of traffic off the 347. Of course, we have what we are still moving through the courts, the Regional Transportation Authority that the voters approved two years ago. I’d like to see that be successful in the courts. But that includes the widening of 347, and that coupled with the future I-11 I think will help in order to better manage traffic and transportation in this area and give people who live in the city of Maricopa an alternative for traveling into the metro Phoenix area. We want to keep them in Pinal County to those jobs that we have in the Casa Grande area and the I-8, I-10 area. So, that is a big deal. It’s not done. It’s years away from being built. But it’s an important thing, just like when I travel on the 101 and 202 today, I’m glad that there were people who had the guts and stood up and put the lines on the map, and now you see hospitals, you see retail, you see auto dealers, you see addition of employment opportunities in that area. Someday we’ll have that just south of the city of Maricopa and really quite available for our uses.

Another thing that I’m very happy that we’ve accomplished in 2019 is the finalization of a new county complex for the city of Maricopa. This was very important because currently a lot of people in Maricopa and Western Pinal drive to Casa Grande and even Florence in order to get county services. We’ll be bringing those services to this area, and some of those services are things like the recorder’s office, the assessor, planning. We’ll be expanding the justice courts, and of course the justice courts are associated with the county and municipal court is associated with the City of Maricopa. Also included in this location that is in the Heritage District in the area near the post office but around the existing justice court is a sheriff’s substation. Now, that is going to be a big deal for your local police because it’ll have holding cells. Currently, if there’s a person arrested and needs to go to jail they are transported by Maricopa Police to Florence. It takes the Maricopa Police off the streets as they do these transports, and it’s also very costly. So, there will be holding cells at the sheriff’s substation, and they will be able to transport the prisoners at a time in which it is more appropriate and saving the City of Maricopa lots of money. This project will probably break ground in January. We’re out for bid for the entire project right now and we hope to complete it in October of 2020.

Dec. 2 we’re going to break ground for the Lucid electric car manufacturing project. That’s going to be about 2,000 employees. They’re already hiring certain critical positions at this time. But it’s going to be  a big deal for the city of Maricopa because in the plan for workforce recruitment they are hoping to get 25% of their workforce from folks in the city of Maricopa. That again takes some of the pressure off 347, redirects them into another location and it also provides a much quicker drive time from what they currently experience. These are high-tech jobs and this is very comparable to what you would get at Intel and some of the other high-tech jobs you would have in Chandler and Ahwatukee area.

We had a change in leadership. We had a very good county manager in Greg Stanley. That was about five to seven years that he was there giving us leadership. He provided great leadership during the time period, but anytime you have a change of leadership at the top, you hope for the best. With Louis Andersen taking the helm, I have confidence it will continue in the direction of strong economic development, putting an emphasis on providing quality service to the people of Pinal County communities and continue our prosperity.

One of the things I continue to be very thankful is the strong financial position Pinal County is in. Pinal County was the first county to regain all the jobs that we lost during the recession. We have a very favorable tax rate. In fact, we lowered our tax rate once more. We intend on lowering it, assuming the revenues are sufficient, again next year. We actually have a strategic goal of lowering it to 3.75, and in two more years, we will achieve that goal. It’s important when you do a lot of recruitment of companies that you have a favorable tax rate, a low tax rate. Plus, also, a lot of entrepreneurs, small businesses, they need the lower tax rate in order to help with their bottom line also. So this is strengthening the financial position. We have plenty of moneys in reserve. We are able to deliver about the same amount of service or maybe a little bit with the same number of employees that we had about eight years ago.

In looking at the county numbers, we found that for a four-year period, 2014-2017, there was a steady rise in home prices and housing prices in general, whereas wages seemed to go up and down and overall were stagnant. Is that a concern?
We’re in a transitional economy. In fact, Pinal County is in a big transition. We’ve got historic industries such as agriculture and mining that have been very good for Pinal County and Arizona for decades, but we’re slowly making that transition. We certainly didn’t want to be communities that were bedroom communities to Tucson or Phoenix. We wanted to attract our own workforce. When I first became supervisor, I was astonished that over 50% of our workforce leaves Pinal County every day in order to work in Maricopa County or Pima County. We’ve certainly made great instrides on that and will continue to make that. With the city of Maricopa and San Tan Valley, those numbers are even higher; this 70%, 80% of the workforce leaves every day. We’re strengthening our transportation system out in the central area. We’ve got the North-South Corridor, which is not the same as the I-11, which connects around the Mesa Gateway Airport and goes truly down the middle of Pinal County all the way down to Picacho Peak and connects with the I-10.

We had the tiff between Apex and Atessa. How often does that occur and do supervisors have to wade into that?
I think that was a rarity. At the time when it happened, I thought, ‘Well, I think this is kind of crazy. Why can’t we have five racetracks? Why can’t we become the center of automobile manufacturing and tests and entertainment in the auto industry?’ I try to be more broad-ranged in my thoughts and not be so strung out on competition and trying to eliminate your competition. I very much supported Apex, and I very much supported Atessa, but when they got into that battle, I certainly was very supportive of where I live, my hometown, the city of Maricopa for the Apex project. And, of course, that’s turned out super. They’ve, I think, gone beyond what they thought they would on their success and their recruiting and membership. I’m wanting that the Atessa project overcomes their deficiencies in their water that they are working through the state and are able to put something special in that area, which is just south of I-8 near Bianca and Montgomery roads. Those are important project. Again, it brings more employment to Pinal. But we work very well with our communities. contrary to what might happen in Maricopa County. They oftentimes have pitched battles between the communities. We try to rally around all the communities in Pinal County. For now we’re working very well, tighter, and complement each other, whether it’s a project in Casa Grande with Lucid working hand-in-hand to make the project a reality, working with Coolidge and Eloy regarding the Nikola project, and of course there’s some major projects I hope to be able to announce in the spring in the area of the city of Maricopa. We continue to be a very attractive place because we have an availability of land, we have a workforce and we have a favorable tax rate. And we’re having a lot of interest from around not only Arizona but in other states and around the world.

As healthy as the county is right now, what red flags would you warn your successor about?
There’s certainly the concern about water. We have some conflicting information. We have certain forces that say we only have 80% of our supply that we’ll need in a 100-year time period. You’ve got others, including our local experts at Global Water, that say that’s inconclusive data. The information that they have, and I think if you manage it correctly, that you’ll have an adequate amount of water. I’m a person, coming from the Midwest in which we have water management up there, we need to remember that we live in a desert. I’d like to see more reuse, more conservation of our water resources. I think that comes down to planning and planning out developments. I think we sometimes need to rethink how we are using and managing our water, and I think that’s part of the formula for moving forward. We’re fortunate that we got money from the state in order to rejuvenate and renovate some of our groundwater wells. We’re going to have to manage that transition away from the CAP water resource to our wells to just make better use of our water. Again, it just comes down the reality that you live in a desert, and I think there’s going to be an adequate amount of water, it’s just that we’re going to have to manage it better than we’ve ever done before.

If ultimately the courts rule against the RTA, what next steps do you foresee taking?
Well, my term ends on Dec. 31, 2020, and we anticipate all court challenges will be done by the fall of 2020 and we’ll make those decisions. It would be my hope that we continue. It’s unfortunate that counties and communities have had to go forward on their own in order to fund road improvements rather than being able to rely on the state or the federal government in order to provide for these needed improvements, but we did. It was, I think, the right thing to do. I look forward to the success. I think we’ve got a good case and we’re going to win. It is frustrating for me and I think for many people who drive the 347 every day that we are still paying lawyers and court fees on something that we could be building roads. I know the county has spent over $1 million in legal fees. Those moneys could have been used to build roads. It’s frustrating when you get those delays, but more importantly there are people seriously injured, sometimes even killed, along those roads and that is just, I believe, inexcusable that we’re tied up in court on something that we could correct if we’re given the chance. The good news is the courts continue to let us collect the half-cent sales tax, and we have somewhere around $23 million, $24 million already collected. When we win our lawsuits, because I’m an optimist and I believe we will win our lawsuits, we should be able to get in the final design and construction very quickly. The good news for the city of Maricopa is that two of the high-priority projects are in the city of Maricopa, basically – the widening of 347 and the construction of the East-West Corridor. The East-West Corridor connects Maricopa with Casa Grande and gives us an alternative way to get over to I-10. More importantly, when Lucid is in their manufacturing, it gives the people of Maricopa a very convenient and expedited way to get over to that job market.

What are you looking forward to working on in 2020?
I think there is a great opportunity to continue with more economic development wins. We want to see the Nikola project break ground, and I have no doubt that it’s going to break ground. There are other big projects I would love to be able to mention today, but they’re not available and we don’t want to have loose lips that sink ships type syndrome. I think it’s going to be a 2020 that’s full of additional wins for economic development. Plus, once those manufacturing companies get into operation, we’re going to be very aggressively going after the supply chain. I think the supply-chain services and providing for those manufacturing is a great opportunity for the city of Maricopa and other communities to have those local businesses in there. I believe that it’s going to be very important to follow the future Interstate 11. We’re working on the federal legislation in order to have it designated from Wickenburg all the way down to Nogales a single route. Once the federal designation is given by federal highway I believe that’s going to cement into that route and we’ll be able to move forward with design and construction.

That’s been kind of a political fireball for you in Hidden Valley. They pretty much mind their own business until they feel threatened by something. Is that something you would tell your successor about and give them guidance on how to deal with the situation?
I certainly believe that you have to represent the people. I understand where the people from Hidden Valley and Thunderbird Farm and those areas out in there are coming from. They have moved out there oftentimes to enjoy the solitude and the quietness of the country. I appreciate that. But I’ve been quite a proponent for projects in that area. I campaigned on those. When people put me into office for things that I campaigned on, I don’t feel necessarily it’s the right thing to do to change course. I truly believe it’s going to work for the best. When it comes to noise and pollution, most of our cars they predict in the future are going to be electric. I don’t know that they’re going to hear anything, maybe a hum would be at the most. I’ve also been a big proponent of Palo Verde Regional Park that is on the western edge of Pinal and Maricopa County. When we’re competing with states like California, Texas, Colorado, Washington and Oregon for jobs, a lot of those have workers that participate in outdoor activities, whether it’s hiking or mountain biking, etc. This is a park that, when it gets into operation some years down in the future, will be about three times the size of South Mountain Regional Park. That will provide a great opportunity for people in this area to get that good outdoor recreation. We want to create healthy counties, and one of the ways you create healthy counties is providing an abundance of recreation opportunities. We have a beautiful county, a beautiful state, and why not get out an enjoy it.

This story ran, in part, in the December issue of InMaricopa.