Steve Peru became Coconino County Manager for a second time two years ago. Originally from Morenci, Arizona, he came to Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University and was hired by the County in 1979 as a social worker after graduation. Over the next 32 years, he served in a variety of roles, including Community Services Coordinator, Finance Director, Elections Director, and Deputy County Manager, eventually becoming County Manager in 2006. He retired in 2011, and went onto positions at W.L. Gore & Associates, President & CEO of United Way of Northern Arizona, and Executive Director for the Coconino Community College Foundation, before returning to County Government in 2021.
Q: You got your start in social work, correct?
A: My undergraduate degree was in sociology with an emphasis in social work, and that’s because back then, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Northern Arizona University did not have a social work program. They had applied sociology, but you could focus in social work, so I did that.
When I started at the County, I worked in community services. I started with senior services and homebound visitation for the elderly. After a few years, I was given the opportunity to head up the Job Training Partnership Act, which was the workforce development program. It was a program where you could still use your social work background, but you could also interact with the business community. Back then, the precursor to JTPA was really a workforce program for the public sector. With JTPA, we could interact with the private sector to talk about on-the-job training, and we could fund an individual to work in a private sector job. The goal was to provide the training to get the person skilled up to do the job, then to retain the position going forward.
Q: You continued to work at the County, moving up the ranks until you became County Manager and retired after a 32-year career. But you didn’t really retire; you went to work for W.L. Gore & Associates. What did you do there?
A: I was in the pricing communications group, which is something I’d never done before. But at the same time, in the typical Gore fashion, you could go beyond the job you’re hired to do and be involved in areas of the enterprise. I also worked in diversity engagement and some of the training and development areas.
Q: After that, you moved onto United Way of Northern Arizona and Coconino Community College. But then you returned to the County.
A: Each of them wound up being related to the other. One of the things I did at Gore was support the employee giving campaign for United Way, so I had close relationships at United Way. When the United Way President & CEO position became available, it came at a time when I missed working in the public sector, and I made the change from Gore to United Way, where I served for four years. From there, after a visit with then CCC President Colleen Smith, I interviewed and subsequently joined CCC as the Foundation Director.
And then in April of 2021, the Board of Supervisors was embarking on a new County Manager recruitment campaign because the current manager, Jimmy Jayne, was retiring. We were still in COVID at the time, and the Board felt it was important to find someone who was already familiar with the County during a challenging time with the pandemic. They reached out to me to see if I would be interested in returning to the position. I was interviewed and offered the job and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: How is being County Manager different now than it was the last time you were here?
A: For me, the biggest change is how much we can do virtually. As bad as COVID was – and continues to be – the one positive that came from it is that it really propelled us into the virtual world. We are a more technologically driven organization.
That does not take away from the human touch. We still deliver Meals on Wheels to homebound elderly today. Our plows are still out doing work. Our deputies are still out patrolling. Our detention facility is still staffed 24/7. But it does create flexibility in how we do business. We have employees that live in other parts of the state that are employed virtually. So, technology has been a huge change.
Q: What is the outlook for our regional economy?
A: For most local governments, property tax revenue is important. In Coconino County, while our property tax revenue is important, our sales tax is also very important. We have a very vibrant economy that provides the sales tax revenue that we need as an organization to provide services. And while our region does fairly well just from the tourism and the attractions that we have here, it’s also prone to what’s happening in the larger economy. The Great Recession in 2007 and 2008 was really devastating. When COVID occurred, the world economy was impacted, so for the County, everything was just frozen in terms of spending because we did not know how deep the economic impact was going to be. Luckily, it did not go as deep as anticipated, and the recovery has been quick.
But we know that at some point, the economy is going to be shifting. The big question going forward is will there be a recession. Recently, we had an employee survey at the county where we asked our employees, what are the things that keep you up? What are you most worried about? At the top of the list was inflation and the cost of housing. It’s on the minds of everyone. We have a beautiful place where we live and provide services to the public, but at the same time, it does have a challenge with regard to the affordability of everything from milk to housing.
Q: What challenges are facing the County?
A: Going back to the challenge of our economy being the housing and inflation, that ends up impacting all of us in terms of retention of great staff and employees, and recruiting new individuals that may not live here. We always like to look within the County first when filling jobs, and if we can identify talent internally, we’ll do that. But in some cases, we’re not able to. The fact that our cost of living is high, it’s really a challenge to get individuals to come here.
Q: What opportunities are you seeing for economic development for the County?
A: I think the opportunity for us here, number one, is the fact that it’s a very beautiful part of the world. A lot of folks come from a lot of places around the world to see us. The fact that we have the Grand Canyon and all of these natural attractions in our backyard is very important to us. That draws people here, which translates into sales tax revenue that supports public services.
It also leads people to say, “You know what? I would like to be here – to grow my business here or start my business here.”
We also have a lot of stability. Our growth is not explosive compared to other cities or counties, so we can gradually ramp up services. The government sector is one of the largest employers in Coconino County, and that sector is not as prone to the economic ups and downs. That’s not to say that things don’t change, but the sector is fairly stable as an employment sector.
Other positives include higher education. NAU has a huge impact on the local economy and the community college has been doing amazing things, and it will do even more with the funding increase that was approved by the voters. Their career technical education programs, workforce development, all those aspects are all important ingredients to a thriving economy.
We also have great major employers here in the County, certainly in Flagstaff with Gore, Nestle Purina, Joy Cone, and the list goes on and on and on. Then finally, the importance of our small-business sector; it’s amazing what they can do with what they have to work with. The margins are small, and expenses are high, but the impact of small businesses on our local economy is huge.
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