Duncan isn’t Arizona’s smallest town, not by a long shot. But we’re small enough not to make much of an impression outside our immediate area. Nothing ever happened in Duncan that made the history books. That could change if we become the first municipality in Arizona to disincorporate.
Anyone who has attended Duncan council meetings over the last five years may have heard either the town’s attorney or the auditor warn us about our declining financial position. If you’ve wondered why those warnings haven’t been taken seriously, you’re not alone.
As a town council member for a little over four years, I’ve watched two different mayors and the town manager brush aside concern about our dwindling reserves. I didn’t know what to do about that. It is the mayor’s and manager’s job to lead us, to provide the context and the direction for implementing changes. It’s uncomfortable and out-of-turn for a council member to step in front of the mayor and manager to push for change.
Yet that’s the way it has to go in Duncan, because leadership has not come from the top.
To get any kind of change approved by our council – assuming all five members are present for a vote – there must be at least three votes in favor. Council members must be careful not to violate Open Meeting Law, so we don’t have a way to plan a majority vote action outside of the town meetings. If we are serious about getting something either passed or defeated, we have to do our own preparation and keep our contact with other council members within legal bounds.
In Duncan, we have also been slowed down by unexpected changes in our council. Three council members have resigned in recent years, for different reasons. Each time that happens we start over in some ways, as a new council member struggles to get up to speed and we all try to understand on what issues we might be able to secure majority votes.
This leads to the next important point. Government, even at its smallest, is tedious, repetitive, frustratingly slow, and often gravely disappointing. Regardless, effective governing requires training, just like any other skilled job. I had been on the Duncan Town Council for more than a year before someone told me that there was a training I was supposed to attend as a newly elected official, a program run by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. It wasn’t anyone in Duncan who told me about it; it was our consultant Bill Pupo.
After I completed the training I asked, at a council meeting, whether the mayor or other council members in office at that time had completed the full program. They had not. They did not even seem concerned about having skipped that step. This was early in 2018. What an eye-opener.
Since then, only Councilmember Alex Blake has finished the training for elected officials. Vice Mayor Valerie Smith is working through the video links provided to her by the League, so she is on her way (the training is virtual at this time, due to coronavirus). Only three of us are trained.
The town manager has never attended meetings of the Arizona Association of Community Managers. Early in 2020 some of us insisted that the manager enroll for the summer meeting. Then it was cancelled due to coronavirus.
So, we have been flying blind. There’s no excuse for that. In some ways we are a stronger council today. There is no member who has conflicts of interest—as far as I know. Each member is intelligent and diligent about participating. But we still aren’t where we are supposed to be. There seems to be little passion among townspeople to monitor what we are doing. There was a rush to challenge us over holiday plans last year. Otherwise just a handful of citizens observe us grappling with audit results or anything else. Coronavirus has made our jobs and townspeople’s involvement much harder.
It’s important to ask: Would Duncan be better off as an unincorporated part of Greenlee County? We know disincorporating would make it a snap to get laws enforced – the county’s laws rather than the town’s. How would water and sewer and roads and so on work? Some of us are studying that, as we work on a strategy to keep the town alive.
One thing that seems clear is that if Duncan disincorporates, and its water and sewer services are reorganized under the county, rates will go up. I want to underline that. The truth is that customers of Duncan’s water and sewer must prepare for rate hikes whichever way things go. The town can no longer keep rates down by letting its cash position get worse every year. People will have to either conserve water or plan to pay more for their normal use. Sewer fees are fixed and they will go up too, whether there is a town or not. Duncan’s sewer system is fraught with problems. We have to raise rates so that there is money to prevent a large-scale failure. There are reasons that Duncan might not be able to access emergency grants or loans, but that is too much information to get into at this time.
Duncan’s council is doing due diligence now. We should have done it years ago. If all goes well, we’ll keep our town.