In February, Billie Orr – city councilwoman for Prescott, AZ – sent a letter to Lisa Atkins, the Arizona State Land Commissioner, asking her for help in annexing land in the historic and beautiful Granite Dells. Her letter stated the exact parcel number and described how it was adjacent to land owned by Eco Development, the company that is making plans to develop the land.
But Commissioner Atkins wrote back in a letter dated March 30th that numerous requirements have to be met and that some of the land is owned by Prescott Valley. Atkins also said such annexation, according to state laws, requires approval of both her department and the State Selection Board. On that Board sits the Governor, State Treasurer and State Attorney General. There is no Board meeting scheduled anytime in the near future.
Orr’s letter indicated to Atkins that the annexation would be an effort to get land currently owned by Arizona Eco Development. I offered Jason Gisi, owner of Eco Development a chance to comment but he declined.
Atkins also said the annexation would require the coordination with the town of Prescott Valley, which may or may not have been done yet. Because the land is owned by Prescott Valley, I offered Prescott Valley town hall the chance to comment but they declined – the Mayor, the town manager and the town attorney all declined.
Orr’s letter asked about utility easements for water and sewer lines but Atkins reminded Orr that that is a separate process and steered Orr to yet another state statute.
One local taxpayer asked me if Orr was allowed to do this, saying, “If it was done in a closed executive session while the Mayor was out of town, it kind of sounds like the good ol' boys doing business in a cigar smoke filled back room.”
Prescott’s new public relations person, John Heiney, responded to my inquiries when Orr refused and he said, “Mayor Pro Tem Orr’s letter to the Arizona Land Trust was sent following an Executive Session of January 28 at 1 p.m. As we discussed, I am unable to share additional documents or details from Executive Sessions. However, the attached agenda has an item regarding Arizona Eco Development. State law allows the council to give direction in executive session in furtherance of negotiating a transaction. Mayor Pro-Tem Orr drafted the letter in the Mayor’s absence, as he was on vacation at that time.”
But Heiney refused to answer four other questions and the closed door meeting agenda was difficult to interpret because a few paragraphs separated the phrase “Arizona Eco Development negotiations” and “negotiations for the purchase, sale or lease of real property.”
I contacted Save The Dells – the public opposition group that formed to stop Eco Development’s plan. They issued a “no comment.”
Orr’s letter CC’s State Representatives Noel Campbell, and Steve Pierce, and State Senate President Karen Fann, as if to say “we’re including you too.” Atkins return letter is sent to those three, and all members of city council plus City Manager Michael Lamar, but it does not include the Mayor.
Noel Campbell stepped out of his busy legislative session where he had been getting briefings and preparing for votes and graciously gave of his time to comment on this.
“I hope they’re trying to make a regional park out of this state land trust parcel,” Campbell said. “Orr is pro-development and I oppose that in the Dells. She may be too closely tied to developers. She supports Eco Development’s plans. Even if you make it a regional park you will make money off it. The city was recently touting that 93,000 visitors hike our parks and they bring money for food and lodging and that means more tax money for the city. If she keeps up what she’s doing we will run another candidate for her seat in the next election.”
Former Prescott and Prescott Valley Vice Mayor and Councilman Harold Wise feels the same. He wants to know why Orr has been vice mayor for so long – council members used to rotate to that role on a regular basis, and Wise feels she is too cozy with developers.
Wise pointed to campaign finance reports that are posted on the city’s website. None are there for 2020, but 2019 and previous years are, and Billie Orr is certainly harvesting her share of the honey pot. Orr’s donors include Senate President Karen Fann, and Jason and Mike Fann (whose relatives get many highway construction projects through ADOT); thousands of dollars from Jim and Linda Lee (developers of The Ranch, Touchmark and Gateway Mall), Ron and Nancy Fain (developers of nearly all commercial areas in Prescott Valley), thousands of dollars from Dr. Hojat Askari (a physician from Thumb Butte Medical center), political wannabee Jodi Rooney, State Representative Steve Pierce, councilmen Steve Blair and Steve Sischka (who married into the Olsen’s Grain family); Jim Chamberlain gave $2,500 in 2019 - Prescott Living magazine says he owns Sun State Builders; and Malcom Barrett, Pamela Jones, Darlene Packard, Donna Werking to name a few on Orr’s massive donor list. Prescott Firefighters gave $1,500 and Prescott Police Association gave $2,000.
Land Commissioner Atkins admits in her letter that she has met with City Manager Lamar to discuss the issue. Is the Mayor, Greg Mengarelli, the odd man out on this? He wasn’t available for comment.
Through Atkins’ spokesman, Dave Cherry, she said she believed Orr was communicating with the Arizona State Land Department with the City Council's full knowledge and authority. But she did not include the Mayor’s knowledge in her comment.
But that raises an issue. There is a policy which limits wheeling and dealing for large sums of money that comes out of a closed door executive session. Purchases and annexations of a large value are normally done out in the open and votes are cast before the public.
Orr’s interests, according to the letter are: more availability of water and waste water services that raise property values; the property could receive municipal-level services; and the area annexed allows subdivision into developable lots. But then she fell back on the old “larger community issue involving preserving the unique geological formation of Granite Dells” which is exactly why Save The Dells is opposed.
A source within Prescott Valley city hall, told me off the record, that Prescott and Prescott Valley’s plan to pump underground water from the aquifer near Paulden is nowhere close to having the $150 million needed for that project. That source told me the towns are “betting on the come.” In the dice game known as Craps, in Las Vegas, “betting on the come” means you are hoping the cash will come with a good roll of the dice but you aren’t sure. The source also said the only way they will be able to afford the $150 million is if the towns keep selling building permits so new families can raise the tax monies needed for the water pumping. And that’s the betting on the come scenario.
The $150 million dollar plan is spelled out on both towns’ websites and has been widely reported, including in two reports by this reporter, on this website. The plan seems like a sound one and is required to fulfill the Arizona statute mandate for assuring a 100 year supply of water.
Is Orr’s annexation plan going to get her “developable lots” that will bring new houses and new families who will bring more tax money for the big water pipe to Paulden? Maybe, but that’s why locals would rather have these things talked about in the light of day, and not in a back room deal when the mayor is out of town.
The door is open for anyone we offered to comment, when they are ready.