Running to be the next District 3 county supervisor, three hopeful candidates faced off in a forum hosted by the Patagonia Regional Times on Saturday to discuss issues related to the environmental impacts of mining, the current health crisis, fair taxing and ideas for economic recovery and development.
Democratic incumbent Bruce Bracker and Independent challengers Donna Federici and Justin Luna are bidding to represent the Interstate-19 corridor communities of Amado, Tubac, Tumacacori, the east side of Rio Rico, and all of Eastern Santa Cruz County.
Moderator Tom Beal, a PRT board member, started the forum by asking the candidates about their takes on mitigating the environmental and residential disruptions caused by the South32 mining project in the Patagonia Mountains.
“The mine is not a new thing. When I was running four years ago, this was a question that had been heard,” Bracker said, adding that he has long been advocating to build a western entrance near the Nogales International Airport into the mine to eliminate the heavy trucks traveling on State Route 82 and through the town of Patagonia.
But Federici pointed out another mining traffic disruption that consists of creating a wide concrete road through a residential area in Patagonia for the work trucks to move materials in and out of the area.
“It destroys quality of life, it endangers wildlife and disrupts the entire neighborhood,” she said, insisting that South32 should be held responsible for releasing information about impact studies before making major changes.
Luna said the county had limited power over controlling the mining activity, considering most of it is allowed through state and federal permits. Instead, he focused on ways in which the county could benefit from the mining activity.
“If you’re going to decide to build roads (and) disrupt residential and environmental life, then how about you bring some of your administration and utilize some buildings that have been abandoned?” he said, referring to the former Sheriff’s Office building on Hohokam Drive and the former public works building on Rio Rico Drive.
In another question specific to the eastern county communities, Beal pointed out residents’ claims that they pay a disproportionate amount of property taxes while not receiving their fair share of services.
Federici clarified that the high property taxes were not specific to the eastern county, as there were residents in Rio Rico and Tubac who had voiced the same complaints.
If elected, she said, her plan was to work on changing the property tax assessment system, as well as securing policies and grants that would prevent people from being “taxed out of their homes.”
Luna agreed on the idea of changing the property assessment formula, adding that he would also create a housing authority board that could fight for federal and state grants, as well as tax exemptions for low-income residents.
Bracker listed different services that the county has provided for the eastern area, including improved roads and support for the Fair and Rodeo Association. He insisted that eastern residents, as well as those in Tubac and Rio Rico, pay very high fire and school district taxes while the county’s taxes only account for about one third of their bills.
In terms of countywide efforts, Beal asked the candidates how they would each respond in the case of a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
Federici and Luna both said they would work towards creating a board of public health to guide the county on how to respond to the specific health concerns of each community.
Luna credited the board of supervisors for securing grants that helped pay for the testing blitzes, however, he said he disagreed with the way the county used the rest of the funds, claiming that they were partially used to raise three employees’ salaries.
“What I would’ve done is try to help the community in trying to get toilet paper, sanitizing items, masks, baby wipes, baby formula, create some sort of grant program,” Luna said. “Just being proactive instead of reactive.”
Bracker didn’t address Luna’s claims, and instead stated that he secured the funding for the testing blitzes and played a big role in asking Gov. Doug Ducey to allow cities and counties to set mask mandates.
As for dealing with the negative effects of the pandemic on the local economy, Bracker said the county and City of Nogales received large bumps in sales tax revenue from the SR-189 construction and are expecting another increase from sales related to the International Outfall Interceptor improvements.
He added that the board of supervisors is actively surveying and working with all local business sectors to find how the county can support them.
“That is the most important thing, is how are we going to continue to support these local industries and… help them survive through this pandemic,” Bracker said.
Luna suggested advertising local businesses on the county website and offering more incentives for people to open up new businesses in the county.
“We need to start looking at getting those restaurants and bars more seating room… so that these people can earn money,” Federici said, referring to the 50 percent capacity limits imposed by state regulations in response to the pandemic. She added that it was also the county’s job to help local businesses secure low-interest loans.
When asked about their ideas for economic development in the area, Federici turned and Bracker turned to Mexico.
“It’s really critical that we look at the Mexican nationals as tourists (and) offer services,” Bracker said, noting that he was involved in advocating for the Mariposa Port of Entry reconfiguration and is now focused on renovations at the DeConcini port.
“A lot of Mexican students come to the United States for education and we need higher education… There is money to be had and there’s money to grow from that sort of thing,” Federici said, adding that the county also had to enhance its ecotourism.
Luna, on the other hand, focused on offering rebates and incentives to businesses that take a chance on Santa Cruz County.
Responding to a Facebook user’s question near the end of the forum, each candidate listed their top two priorities for Santa Cruz County, if elected as the next county supervisor.
“First and foremost is repairing the relationship with the community,” Luna said, adding that he would also enhance the retail industry in order to attract more tourism.
Federici also focused on mending the relationship with constituents who “feel disenfranchised,” as well as building a friendlier environment for new businesses.
Bracker turned to expanding access to broadband connections and finding ways to support all local industries and small businesses survive the post-covid economy.
To watch the District 3 Supervisor Candidates’ forum, visit patagoniaregionaltimes.org.