Florence Town Council Okays Special Election on Purchase of Johnson Utilities

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With almost no discussion, the Florence Town Council on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of putting a plan to purchase Johnson Utilities, the company that provides water and sewage services for much of the San Tan Valley and parts of Florence, to a May 20 vote of the Florence electorate.

However, that plan has neither been finalized nor made public. In fact, the town and Johnson Utilities' owner, wealthy water baron George Johnson, have yet to agree on a purchase price.

Mayor Tom Rankin, considered to be the driving force behind the proposed acquisition, was the only council member to comment, which he did after the vote was over.

"This resolution prepares the town council to ask the general public [for] permission to purchase the utility, once the evaluation is completed," Rankin said, apparently reading from a prepared statement.

Once the council makes a decision to move forward, Rankin explained, the information the council used to make that decision, "will be made available to the public."

He added: "In the long run, I believe that the acquisition will lay the groundwork for the town of Florence, and create a strong growth and economic future."

Prior to the vote, Florence spokesperson Jess Knudson confirmed via e-mail that the utility's price tag was still being hashed out.

"The purchase price for the utility company is still be negotiated at this time." wrote Knudson, who also stated that the town eventually would release all pertinent information to the public.

When Florence looked into buying Johnson Utilities in 2007, the local Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune newspaper reported that the town council okayed a letter of intent to purchase with a tentative price "of $192 million over 30 years."

The sale never went through.

The lack of discussion during Tuesday's session is surprising considering Johnson Utilities' woes over the years.

For instance, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has issued numerous notices of violation to the utility over the past decade.

The utility's customers have complained of "low water pressure" and "yellow water," among other issues. The company endured a high-profile E.coli scare in 2012, and in 2013, it garnered further criticism for releasing semi-treated wastewater into a San Tan Valley pond.

During the call to the public on Tuesday, just one person asked questions about the possible purchase, a resident of the San Tan Valley, who inquired about the impact on customer service, and how the town would address complaints of "billing errors," "infrastructure problems," "water quality," and "smells that currently come from existing sewage plants."

None of the woman's questions were addressed.

Some San Tan Valley residents have expressed fear that Florence will attempt to annex the unincorporated area of Pinal County once it controls Johnson Utilities.

And there has been speculation that the acquisition will strengthen Florence's hand in its bid to stop the company Curis Resources from going forward with a high-tech project to extract copper from beneath land within the town's limits.

Both the town and Johnson Utilities have opposed the project.

Rankin, who was profiled as part of a three-part expose published last year by this paper, did not recuse himself from the vote, despite having a possible conflict of interest involving his longtime association with Johnson.

Johnson and his family supported Rankin's candidacy for mayor in 2012 with donations totaling more than $6,000. Johnson once lent Rankin $5,000, and Rankin's grown son Robert is employed at the Golf Club at Oasis, owned by Johnson's family.

At one time, Johnson employed Rankin's other adult son, Tom Rankin, Jr., known to family and friends as "Tom Tom."

Rankin prides himself on being part of the "good-ol-boy network," and arguably is Johnson's most vocal supporter in town.

Regardless of the issues involved, the purchase may be a done deal.

In a December meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission, commissioners and staff, along with a lawyer for Johnson Utilities and an executive of the company, spoke about the potential sale as if it were inevitable.

Which it may be, unless the voters have something to say about it.

Got a tip for The Bastard? Send it to: Stephen Lemons.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Stephen Lemons on Twitter at @StephenLemons.

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