“The state of the City of Nogales is well, ladies and gentleman.”
That was the conclusion of Mayor Arturo Garino’s “State of the City” address, delivered Tuesday morning at the VFW Hall on Grand Avenue to a crowd of more than 100 elected officials, city staffers, law enforcement officers, businesspeople and other community members.
The mayor billed the speech as an update on three years of work at the municipal government and spared few details in discussing projects completed by city workers. At one point, he spent several minutes listing roads that were paved or chip-sealed recently.
He thanked several city administrators by name and praised council members one by one for their contributions to the city. He said the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a toll on the community – in the lives lost and economic impact – but asserted that the council hadn’t let the crisis stop their work, evidenced in part by the fact that they held 35 meetings since the start of the outbreak.
The 78-minute speech represented Garino’s most extensive public comments since the January 2019 inauguration that marked the start of his second, non-consecutive mayoral term. But those interested in clues about how the city’s top elected official plans to address major challenges facing the city government and local community were largely disappointed.
Issues like a local unemployment rate that’s persistently among the highest in the state, a shrinking population, the city’s millions of dollars in unpaid pension liabilities, and the council’s multi-year struggle to hire a city manager went unmentioned on Tuesday.
To the extent that the mayor did bring up challenges, it was in his mention of the struggles faced by downtown retailers, whose clientele have been largely cut off from Nogales, Ariz. by travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Garino has said in previous interviews that the city could use some of its millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 aid money to help the local economy.
On Tuesday, however, the mayor seemed to equivocate on whether or not that was the city’s problem.
“As a city and members of the council, we have to work to be able to revitalize the downtown area,” he initially said. But he also indicated that it’s up to the local community to shop at local businesses.
“It’s not a one-man thing, it’s not a council thing” – at this point the mayor pointed at the crowd – “it’s your thing,” he said.
Speaking about economic development, the mayor said that he wanted to pursue economic incentive programs similar to one the city held last summer, which provided discounts on water connection fees over a three-month period.
However, the councilman who proposed that idea called the result a failure, saying the program didn’t have the intended impact of attracting new development to the city. Instead, the biggest savings went to the Chamberlain family, which owns a large produce distribution business and used the water connection discount to save more than $20,000 on fees related to a long-planned refrigerated warehouse.
The mayor also said that the city’s budget had increased from more than $62 million in Fiscal Year 2019 to over $82 million in the current fiscal year – something he explicitly invited the audience to applaud. But the FY 2022 budget was padded by a few figures that don’t indicate long-term financial progress.
The municipal government received large cash infusions from the federal government in 2020 and 2021 as part of COVID-19 aid packages. The two payments totaled about $5.7 million. And Deputy City Manager John Kissinger said that a bookkeeping change related to health insurance revenues had added another $3.2 million into the budget in 2022 – he said the funding source simply hadn’t been counted as part of the budget in previous years.
Garino indicated in a July interview with the NI that he’s planning to seek reelection in next year’s mayoral contest, but he didn’t say anything specific about his future plans on Tuesday.
The mayor did highlight ongoing projects that could eventually be packaged as key accomplishments, like work on the City Hall Annex building and a plan to use a refurbished city trolley as a mobile library. He also pointed to something that might later be pitched as a plan for the future: a commitment to keep trying to annex land outside city limits.
Another brief comment on Tuesday might be read either as an important policy commitment, or a bid to score easy political points.
“As long as I’m in office, we will always, always fund the police department,” Garino said, noting that the department had recently added positions and bought new equipment.
The mayor and council have approved significant salary raises for NPD personnel in recent years and rubber-stamped federal grants that provide officers with overtime pay that can also boost their retirement pensions – while also increasing the city’s long-term pension obligation. The police department, for its part, has supplied some of Garino’s principle allies in City Hall.
Garino finished the Tuesday address by saying he’d had to cut down the speech to just the highlights – there wasn’t enough time to talk about everything that city departments had gotten done. And at the same time that he struck an optimistic tone about the city’s progress, the mayor frequently blamed possible shortcomings on the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting border travel restrictions.
Those were two notes he returned to near the end of the address.
“We might’ve not been as successful because of the closure of the border,” he said. “But with what we had, we were successful and a lot of work was done.”