High tension at sexual assault case involving minor

Pima County Prosecutor Tracy Miller grilled the defendant in a sexual assault case involving a 15-year-old girl, during his testimony at Superior Court on Thursday.

Orestes Roberto Ybarra, 35, was charged with two counts of sexual assault, and one count of sexual abuse and indecent exposure on May 30, 2015.

At the time of his arrest, Ybarra was a clinical assistant at Ideal Physical Therapy, now ATI Physical Therapy, a national rehabilitation center that owns 600 clinics operating in 24 states.

According to court documents, during a deep tissue massage Ybarra allegedly rubbed the victim’s vulva, and penetrated her buttocks with his finger and penis. She resisted, attempted to flee and Ybarra blocked the door, according to her original interview with a sexual assault specialist.

Ybarra scheduled the physical therapy session on Saturday, a day the clinic is normally closed, and for work he was not authorized to do. Although he received clinical training in-house, he understood a licensed physical therapist must be working at the time of treatment.

During his original interview with Tucson Police Department, Ybarra admitted he had broken multiple company protocols the day of the incident.

“I was concerned,” he said. “I thought I opened the door for a lawsuit.”

But Ybarra said he realized the implications were far more serious when he was contacted by TPD Detective Gerardo Diaz, and throughout his interview with police.

Ybarra told the court his direct supervisor was getting married the week of the incident, and he was under a lot of pressure to keep the clinic busy.

He denied assaulting the girl in any way, but he admitted during the massage treatment the pair was arguing about her boyfriend.

Earlier in the day, the state called TPD Criminalist Cheryl Langdon to testify against Ybarra. Langdon processed the DNA evidence used in the case, explaining the typical procedures for criminal investigations and later fielding questions from the grand jury.

One juror asked why it took until September for law enforcement to process DNA evidence for the case. After an initial objection from the defense to allow Langdon to speculate, Judge Casey McGinley asked based on her experience is this type of delay abnormal.

“Based on the urgency of the sample, some DNA requests are shelved, while others are collected with urgency,” Langdon said. One factor that contributes to expediting DNA analysis is whether the suspect poses a public threat, she added.

Can DNA evidence deteriorate over time, another juror asked? As long as the evidence is stored properly, DNA samples can last indefinitely, she said, and the evidence for this case met that threshold.

Diane Kerrihard, a forensic nurse at Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, conducted the initial interview with the teen. Kerrihard was certified as a sexual assault forensic nurse in the 1990s, she explained, and earned her credentials for youth cases more than three years ago.

Kerrihard has testified in at least 40 sexual assault cases throughout her career, but she is always more concerned with the wellbeing of her patients. The crux of the initial testing determines what type of treatment a victim may need and collecting evidence is secondary, she said.

“I personally don’t care about evidence, it’s more for their safety,” Kerrihard said.

Parents can be present during the process and an advocate also observes the procedure, she said, and at any time the child can stop the examination.

Kerrihard told the prosecution she did not find any bruises on the girl, but that doesn’t rule out sexual assault. She further said she wasn’t expecting to find any bruising, because less than 5 percent of children who are victims of sexual assault show signs of battery.

“People don’t want to leave evidence,” she said. “And if it’s been a while, the victim could have healed.” And physical penetration does not necessarily leave marks of any kind, she added.

Ybarra looked dazed after prosecutor Miller fired questions at him during the cross examination: why didn’t you contact the parents about a minor storming out of an off-hours session; why didn’t you contact your supervisors; why did you lie to your supervisor when he contacted you after talking to police?

A juror asked Ybarra why he wasn’t wearing underwear during the incident, or at the time of his arrest. “Typically, I don’t wear underwear,” he said.

He prefaced his testimony by saying he was nervous, especially as a father of two children — a daughter, 12, and a son, 9. As he answered the last two juror questions, Ybarra began to ramble and was lead back to his point by Judge McGinley.

Bail was set at $100,000, and he failed to make bond until his parents placed a lien on their home, which was valued at $120,525. He was released on bond in December 2015.

The modest courtroom was packed, forcing a handful of law enforcement officers and county employees to stand aback the room. During Ybarra’s cross examination, a note was passed from the audience to prosecutor Miller, who handed the communication to the bailiff. The quieted disruption was addressed by Judge McGinley after the jury left for the day. He praised the county staff and family members in attendance, and urged them to continue to care, but reminded them acting rather than reacting is the cornerstone of legal proceedings. He ended with a pointed quip, lightening the heavy mood of the day.

Final arguments and sentencing will proceed on Friday at 10:30 a.m.

Conviction, mistrial verdicts in child molestation case

Rubbing a child’s genitals is an inexplicable act and obviously motivated by sexual gratification, said Pima County Prosecutor Virginia Dawn Aspacher, during closing arguments at Superior Court on Wednesday.

It was incredibly difficult for a young child to testify against her father, Aspacher said, but she knows what happened to her, just as her sister knows what happened to them — and now so does this courtroom full of strangers.

John William Inman, 32, was charged with two counts of child molestation during a four-month period starting Nov. 1, 2015. Inman was found guilty of molesting his 7-year-old daughter on Thursday. The second allegation of sexual misconduct with Inman’s youngest daughter, who turned 3 this year, was ruled a mistrial.

He was arrested on April 14, 2016. Bail was set at $50,000 and Inman’s father posted $25,000 bond on June 9, 2016.

As the child watched TV, Inman joined her on the couch rubbing her vagina with his fingers, Aspacher said, recalling the young girl’s testimony that day. His daughter further said she saw Inman molest his 3-year-old, while saying “I love you,” according to Aspacher.

Ultimately, the jury decides the credibility of witnesses who testify, she said, but every element of this evidence has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defense Attorney Chelsea Padilla-Frankel said Inman’s daughter had trouble remembering being fondled during her testimony, because it never happened.

The defense argued that Inman’s youngest daughters were initially asked about the alleged molestation with misleading questions, in a “yes-or-no fashion,” by his teenage daughter. And the child was simply repeating a story her sister fabricated, Padilla-Frankel said.

But Aspacher refuted the claim reminding the jury that Francisca Serrano, a bilingual forensics interviewer at Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, said the initial interview of Inman’s youngest children was not misleading.

The defense insisted Inman’s children were asked a biased line of questioning, noting that Pima County Sheriff Deputy Jesus Rodriguez didn’t interview the pair, because he wasn’t qualified to do so.

Padilla-Frankel told the jury a day, month or year from now they should never wonder what the truth is about this case, and if they aren’t completely convinced acquittal is the only choice.

“Frankly, there is a lot of reasonable doubt in this case,” she said.

Judge Howard J. Fell told the jury this case presents a unique set of circumstances, whereas the state has not submitted any evidence. And the sole evidence is contained in the witness testimony, he said.

If the jurors had any clarifying questions, they would communicate with him via the bailiff, and Fell would respond in writing. He gave the group until 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday to reach a verdict, but urged them not to rush and said they would reconvene the following morning if need be.

Inman was facing 20-48 years in prison if convicted on all counts, according to prosecutor Aspacher.

A warrant was issued for Inman’s arrest on Thursday, and a sentencing date will be set when he is apprehended.

City Council mulls retirement incentive package for safety officers

Tucson City Council further discussed an early retirement incentive program for public safety officers, which could save the city more than $2.4 million next fiscal year.

The city anticipates about 12 officers from both the Tucson Police and Tucson Fire departments will take advantage of the retirement package.

The retirement incentive will offer a full payout of the officer’s sick leave, a one-time $50,000 cash payment and a three-year Medical benefit supplement. The temporary insurance package will pay about $28,800 annually, but the retiree will not receive government health coverage after the three-year mark.

City Manager Michael Ortega began by saying he wanted some direction from Mayor & Council before finalizing the retirement incentive offer. He further said the language regarding commissioned officer positions would be converted to civilian positions was misleading, and will be corrected when the proposal is complete.

Council Member Karin Uhlich, a Democrat representing Ward 3, confirmed the point of this initiative was to allow Tucson’s safety departments the opportunity to shape its supervising staff according to the community demand. For example, if a fire inspector is more valuable at a particular station, that change can be made because of the potential vacancy left by a retired officer, Uhlich said.

That is absolutely correct, Ortega said. “This gives us the best ability to really look at, and to really say, every vacancy is an opportunity. So how we approach that, and filling those positions is the key to that conversation.”

In order to minimize costs, the benefit package will be offered during a 45-day window, and local officers must declare their intent to retire by July 1, according to city documents. And officers will be granted a weeklong grace period if they change their minds.

For Tucson firefighters, this retirement incentive will only be offered to the rank of captain, or battalion, deputy and assistant chief. The amount of firefighters who can accept this offer is limited to 10 captains and two chief officers.

Similarly, the city’s offer will only be extended to officers who hold the rank of police sergeant, lieutenant, captain and assistant chief.  And the amount of peace officers allowed to take up the proposal is capped at 10 sergeants and 13 commanders.

Creating vacancies in the police department’s upper management could potentially place more law officers in the field, said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. And based on precinct needs, the opportunity for promoting police officers also opens up, Rothschild said.

Ortega said this initiative is simply speeding up the natural process of attrition for ranking officers while keeping in mind the importance of public safety.

“Vacancies give us an opportunity, from a management perspective, to look at how we do business,” Ortega said.

“What I’ve challenged both police and fire to do is really look hard at the basis for us providing services,” he said. “Whatever those services are, and because of some of the constraints that we’ve had, we obviously can’t afford to do exactly what we’ve always done.”

Council Member Shirley C. Scott, a Democrat of Ward 4, asked the language regarding replacing sanctioned officers be changed in writing before the council approves the final draft of the initiative.

What if the number of ranking public safety officers willing to retire exceeded the city’s estimates, asked Steve Kozachik, council member and Democrat of Ward 6?

That would be troubling, said Ortega. The burden of replacing the maximum amount of ranking officers could prove difficult, but he’s confident with the current estimates. He said although facing that challenge wouldn’t be easy, the financial and reframing flexibility could be an asset.

“That’s a discussion, on a macro scale, that would be a nice problem to have,” he said.

City Council gets progress report on inmate reduction program

Tucson City Council discussed the progress of multiple initiatives recommended by a statewide task force that are designed to decrease the population of local jails.

The “Justice for All” report, compiled by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All: Court-Ordered Fines, Penalties, Fees, and Pretrial Policies, was released on Sept. 1, 2016.

The report recommended alternative options for non-violent offenders awaiting pretrial services including:

  • Statutory changes for setting and collecting court-ordered payments, as well as potential waiving of fines
  • Offer payment options for people who cannot afford to pay court fines, and allow more community service based repayment
  • Recommend the best practices for releasing non-violent civil offenders, while maintaining public safety
  • Review and consider alternatives to the current driver’s license suspension policy
  • Recommend educational programs for judicial officers, judges and court staff responsible for the pretrial decision-making process
  • Identify and enhance technological notification services for defendants, which can reduce the amount of those who fail to appear in court and possibly encourage defendants to appear

Christopher Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said the city could quickly implement 17 of the 65 recommendations made by the task force’s report, according to city documents. Eight of the improvements were put into effect immediately, while others are still being worked on.

Amelia Cramer, Chief Deputy at the Pima County Attorney’s office, presented an update on the initiatives aimed at quelling overcrowding in the Pima County jail.

Pima County recently received a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national endowment designed to help reduce over-incarceration by providing support for local jurisdictions to create fairer judicial practices, which helped finance some the county’s new programs.

The county was awarded $1.5 million for the next two years from the MacArthur Foundation grant, the option to extend the financial award for a third year has yet to be determined.

Cramer came across two cases that epitomized the need for Pima County to take part in this program about two years ago, she said.

The first case concerned a severely mentally ill woman who spent 45 days in jail, because a bench warrant had been issued for her arrest for failure to appear in court. The woman was originally charged with a misdemeanor for stealing a candy bar, she said.

During that same week, a man from Northwest Tucson shot rounds through his front door at Tucson Police Department officers, she said, and was released the next day on a $150,000 cash bond. This defendant was wealthy enough to post bail, Cramer said.

“We need more safety, in terms of those who are violent and dangerous predators in our community, to make sure they are in custody,” Cramer said. “And we need more justice for those who are poor, and can’t afford to post bail.”

In 2014, Pima County jail was housing almost 2,300 inmates, Cramer said, and the overall capacity of the facility is 2,377. According to county projections, Pima County jail will see an 18 percent increase of inmates by 2020, which would place the number of county inmates at about 2,800, she said.

“And you all, Mayor and Council, are well familiar with the costs of the current jail, can you imagine how much greater those costs would be if the county had to build yet another jail,” she said. “So the county began looking for ways in which to reduce the jail population in a manner that would be safe, and also ensure justice.”

The county recently determined that more than 80 percent of inmates housed in Pima County jail have not been sentenced, Cramer said. Although inmates in jail and prison are often erroneously lumped together, the two populations are quite different, she added.

When the county began implementing their automated reminder system, there was a 24 percent decrease in defendants failing to appear in court. The city is planning in rolling out its own Interactive Voice Response system, which will offer reminders in both English or Spanish via a mobile alert.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, asked Cramer what is being done to combat recidivism.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat of Ward 1, further asked Cramer whether the MacArthur provides bias training for law enforcement and judges, which can prevent cultural discrimination for peace officers in the field and presiding judges.

Cramer said there are efforts being made, at the city and county level, to recognize and reduce implicit bias for law enforcement and within the criminal justice system.

Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said city court is an innovator and leader regarding limited jurisdiction courts, which is why they were able to immediately implement some of the improvements recommended by the statewide task force.

For example, Tucson City Court hasn’t issued a failure to pay warrant in at least 10 years, Hale said. “We’ve just been ahead of the curve for a long time, and I just wanted to make that clear.”

After two years, armed robbery and kidnapping trial winds down

Michael J. Thurman testified against his former friend and co-defendant Quentin L. Evans, on Thursday, during the tail end of an armed robbery and kidnapping trial at Pima County Superior Court.

According to court records, at about midnight on March 5, 2015, Javier Figueroa, Moises Enriquez, Travis Vertrees and Omar Estrada-Vasquez were robbed at gunpoint by three men, while arriving at Figueroa’s home.

Thurman said Figueroa was considered a thief amongst his friends, and the robbery was supposed to teach him a lesson, but until the night of incident talking about the robbery was just a joke.

Rebecca Mueller, deputy Pima County attorney, asked Thurman how their discussion went from being to a joke to something serious.

“Alcohol and drugs will do a lot of things to your thinking, but I can’t really answer that,” Thurman said.

Mueller said at some point it was no longer a joke, which Thurman confirmed.

Thurman, 19, was 17 at the time of his arrest, and was on probation services for a previous felony conviction.

Defense attorney Stephanie K. Bond evoked a range of emotions from Thurman during the cross examination. At one point, Judge Sean E. Brearcliffe directed Thurman to simply answer Bond’s questions.

As Bond went through his prior interviews, she methodically identified the inconsistencies with his testimony. Thurman said he was being medicated at the time.

Evans and Thurman were charged with five counts of armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and aggravated assault. In exchange for his testimony, Thurman is being charged with one count of attempted armed robbery, and will serve between two and nine years in prison.

Mueller walked Thurman through the night of crime, also pointing out where his testimony and prior interviews with police were inconsistent.

Thurman said he restrained one of the victims with makeshift handcuffs, and held all three outside, while Evans and another suspect entered the Figueroa residence in search of marijuana and money.

During an interview with law enforcement in July 2015, Thurman said Evans bragged about pistol whipping one victim during the home invasion — a claim he denied during his testimony.

Figueroa told the Tucson Police Department that he recognized the defendants, because they used their street names during the crime.

TPD obtained a search warrant for Evans’ residence, and found a semiautomatic handgun, a revolver, a black mask and identification cards belonging to the victims as well as Estrada’s watch and wallet.

Thurman and Evans were inseparable at the time of their arrest, he said. The two friends moved into Evans’ new apartment one day prior to the incident.

Thurman’s step-mother died in December 2014, of an alleged drug overdose, according to a letter written by his biological mother, Michele Keller.

Keller gave birth to her son while in prison, and Thurman remained under his stepmother’s care until her death. Keller served multiple sentences in prison for drug offenses, but has remained clean and sober for more than 10 years.

The defendant’s bond was originally set at $50,000. Thurman’s bail was reduced to $10,000, but he has remained in jail since his arrest. Keller pleaded with the court to release Thurman in her custody, although she could not afford bail.

Judge Brearcliffe told the jury that they are ahead of schedule, but some witnesses cannot testify early. The trial is set to end on Friday, March 31.

Amphi School Board gifts brightest students

The Amphitheater School Board approved two measures that will bolster programming for its gifted students on Tuesday.

The board agreed to improve Amphi’s Realizing Excellence through Academic and Creative Help program by: hiring at least three new full-time elementary school teachers and increasing the time allocated for instruction; and expand instruction in English high school classes for advanced students.

Spending an estimated $117,660 for supplementary textbooks and technology for the district’s elementary and middle schools will be explored at a later date.

Patrick Nelson, superintendent for Amphi, said the initial report that earmarked ways the district can improve its REACH curriculum would be too costly, so school operations identified the three most pressing issues.

“Implementation of the entire report would be, at this point in time, prohibitively expensive and probably not doable — unless the governor and the legislature come through with quite a bit of additional funding,” Nelson said.

Monica Nelson, associate superintendent for Amphi, said this discussion would only address the first steps towards revamping the REACH program, which were identified by meeting with parents and teachers involved in the curriculum.

“And we felt like we couldn’t do everything, that’s why we called these, very carefully, ‘first steps,’” she said.

Deanna M. Day, vice president of Amphi’s Governing Board, asked for clarification about why there’s a difference between the cluster model — a technique that groups gifted students together — in elementary school compared to high school.

Donna Shreve, a department chair at REACH, said the cluster model of instruction at the elementary school level is mandated, whereas high school students can choose whether they want to attend a seminar-style cluster class.

Shreve further said expanding the push-in technique — where gifted instructors would visit a student’s regular English class, teaching joint curriculum throughout the year — would make the advanced programming more efficient at the 9th and 10th grade level. “So by having the REACH teacher push-in to that classroom, then they’ll get those services.”

One of the biggest concerns is the inconsistency in Amphi’s gifted program, said Melanie Derksen, a department chair at REACH. Students in middle school receive daily advanced instruction, but once they reach high school the program diminishes, she said.

“We need to figure out what we can do, in 9th and 10th grade, for our REACH teachers to service these children,” Derksen said.

Jo Grant, president of Amphi’s Governing Board, asked how the REACH committee and Amphi school operations choose the three items being considered that evening.

Shreve said the glaring shortfall of the REACH program was in outreach to the youngest gifted students at Amphi schools, which is also the greatest concern for parents.

At the high school level, the REACH chairs, as well as Associate Superintendent Nelson, said if they had to choose between implementing a boost in programming for freshman and sophomores, or continuing to fund the gifted internship program, they would choose the former.

Reducing, or removing, the junior- and senior-level internship opportunities in order to supplement the costs of enhancing outreach for younger high school students would be a detriment to Amphi students and the community overall, said Scott A. Leska, an Amphi Governing Board member.

“I think that’s a disservice to those students who are looking forward to it,” he said.

The original framework for assessing, and improving, Amphi’s advanced curriculum was not a matter of choosing between slashing one part of the program to fund another, said Cymry DeBoucher, an honors internship coordinator at Canyon del Oro High School.

Moreover, the honors work DeBoucher is involved with is much more than a once a week seminar class for Amphi’s brightest pupils, she said. Honors counselors often spend up to 15 hours each week, scheduling job interviews for students looking for advanced-level internships, and molding the direction of these pupils beyond graduate school.

“We also see academic competitions as an important part of what should be provided to gifted students,” she said. “And that may or may not be part of the gifted process, but it certainly has been at my high school for 20 years.”

Tucson City Council considers pilot program to quell homelessness

Fred Fisher said one way to stay sane when you are homeless is to accept the harsh reality.

Fisher came to Tucson via a two-year contracted position that required him to travel. He chose to stay in town, and when his savings ran out he wound up homeless. That was nine years ago come July.

He applied for public housing through the City of Tucson’s Housing and Community Development Department program, and was placed on a waiting list about three years ago.

The Tucson City Council discussed the Permitted Overnight Sleeping Pilot Program, on Wednesday, Feb. 22, an initiative that will provide temporary housing at designated safe spaces for people facing homelessness. The city unanimously voted to revisit a properly vetted proposal within 120 days.

In its current draft, the program will authorize 10 overnight sleeping areas throughout Tucson. Local ministries, non-profit organizations and businesses will be allowed to house up to four vehicles or micro-housing structures on their property.

Michele Ream, director at Community Supported Shelters Tucson, said part of Tucson’s homeless problem is the extensive wait for affordable housing, so providing temporary safe spaces can make all the difference.

Ream is working with a local architect to develop a prototype for the city’s proposal, which will be housed on her property. The model will be easy to assemble, and upon completion Ream plans on inviting Tucson’s Mayor and Council to stay overnight.

Homeless people simply don’t have a legal right to be anywhere, Ream explained. And the concept is to provide a temporary space for people facing homelessness. From there, they can apply for housing, local programs and stabilize in general, she said.

“The idea behind the hut is that it’s going to provide basic shelter … security, that you can lock your stuff when you leave during the day, and you can lock the door so no one’s going to come in and beat your head in when you’re sleeping,” she said. “And then just the stability that’s going to come from having a place that you’re allowed to be.”

The proposal recommends these sites be located within 1,200 feet of other rehabilitation centers or homeless shelters. The sites will also provide services such as restrooms and garbage collection, and participants will not be charged any fees.

Site rules may prohibit alcohol use or possession, designate a set time for participants to vacate the location and ask them to perform some type of community service, according to city documents.

Local leaders will also require that service providers notify their neighbors before allowing participants to utilize the sites. Furthermore, the city of Tucson will not provide any funding towards the project, and the city must be exempt from any type of legal recourse, according to the first draft of the proposal.

The local initiative is based on a few successful programs launched in Eugene, Oregon including: SquareOne Villages, formerly known as Opportunity Village Eugene, which is a 30-unit compact housing property for the homeless; and the Overnight Parking Program, which provides a legal camping space, garbage pickup and restrooms for people or families living in their cars.

‘Homeless by a Wall’ (Garry Knight / Creative Commons)

About 77 percent of Arizona’s homeless population live in either Pima or Maricopa counties, according to data collected by the Department of Economic Security in 2015. The report stated, the density of Pima County’s homeless population remains the highest in Arizona, and although the amount of homeless people has decreased it’s still larger than the national average. In FY 2014, about 1 in every 180 people were facing homelessness in Pima County, according to DES’s report on homelessness in Arizona in 2015.

Ream said the DES’s estimate is conservative at best.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat representing Ward 1, said finding solutions to Tucson’s homeless problem is an ongoing discussion. The city’s collaborative efforts with faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations to combat homelessness is certainly moving forward, she said, and fine tuning this pilot project is worth the effort.

“And if Eugene, Oregon has piloted a program like this, I don’t see why the city of Tucson should not follow suit,” Romero said.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, said this would be a valuable addition to the city’s efforts.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was concerned about naming an arbitrary amount of sites before the city is approached by organizations that are interested in participating in the program. He also said providing security at the locations is a key talking point.

And a major player in this program needs to be the city’s planning and development staff, Rothschild said.

Council Member Karin Uhlich, a Democrat representing Ward 3, said this project is designed to alleviate the pressure for people living on the street, as well as help local homeowners who are forced to deal with the liabilities of homelessness.

“And the goal of this program is to help people to join back into the community,” she said. “I think if people are hosted by a known congregation, by a known entity and have a better, formalized structure — their chances will be much better at succeeding.”

Brianda Torres-Traylor, a council aide for Ward 3, said this initiative can act as an essential transitional program for people dealing with chronic homelessness.

Assuring the participants, sites and surrounding communities remain safe is of utmost importance, Torres-Traylor said. This pilot program could serve as a flexible, community-based response to providing housing for those in need, a model that Council Member Uhlich is interested in exploring, she added.

“This could be one way to address the fact that folks aren’t getting into traditional programs,” Torres-Traylor said.

Attending a city council meeting was a first for Fisher, and he hopes local leaders can draw a conclusion about the pilot program soon than later. As Fisher waits for affordable housing to become available, he lives in a shed on Ream’s property, a luxury he’s enjoyed for the last three years.

“And when I’m out looking for work, I don’t have a backpack with my life on my shoulder, I have clean clothes and I can put two words together — I hope,” he said, with a laugh.

Local leaders settle best use of potential tax hike

The Tucson City Council discussed the best way to spend the revenue from a half-cent sales tax increase that voters will decide on during a special election on May 16.

The five-year proposal will fund repair projects for city roads, and the purchase of new equipment for the Tucson Police and Tucson Fire departments.

The temporary tax hike will generate about $50 million each year, with the average Tucsonan paying an additional $3 dollars a month in sales tax, according to the city’s estimate.

Council Member Steve Kozachik, a Democrat representing Ward 6, said he wanted to assure voters that the potential citywide road improvements weren’t arbitrary, noting some of the roads were recently repaired.

Kozachik also said asking taxpayers to approve this measure again, when infrastructure money is always necessary, is exactly why he didn’t want to limit the time frame for this increase in revenue. “These costs aren’t going away,” he added.

The council decided that 60 percent of the revenue will fund public-safety investments, and 40 percent will go toward various road improvements. The public-safety money will be split evenly between Tucson’s police and fire departments, while 60 percent of road improvements will focus on major streets and 40 percent will repair residential streets.

Daryl Cole, director at Tucson Department of Transportation, said although some local roads were in good condition, maintaining those streets will save the city money in the long run.

City Manager Michael Ortega added maintaining roads in good condition will save Tucson money, and in five years, the council can decide whether the sunset tax increase should be revisited.

Council Member Paul Cunningham, a Democrat of Ward 2, said this initiative can keep the city budget on track and allow Tucson to catch up on its necessary road projects.

“This is the package that maximizes as many roads as we can to be at 90 percent functionality, and that’s why I appreciate the package that’s been put together,” Cunningham said. “And hopefully, this will right the ship, if not once and for all, and get us to the point where we have a sustainable road system in the city.”

The city also plans on purchasing 257 marked patrol cars for TPD with the additional revenue. According to city documents, 63 percent of TPD’s marked fleet have passed their “recommended useful service life.” The city also wants to purchase 1,050 ballistic vests for TPD officers. Even though new officers are provided with this essential protective gear, TPD has struggled to replace ballistic vests for local law enforcement at the recommended five-year mark.

More than $31 million will be spent on new vehicles for Tucson Fire, which includes 19 primary firefighting units, three basic ladder trucks and 90 general purpose vans and staff cars.

The city will invest more than $27 million to remodel TPD’s Operations Division South, 4410 S. Park Avenue, known as the Santa Cruz Substation, by adding a community meeting hall, a basketball court for local youth and extra space to house the growing precinct. Tucson’s Fire Station 10 will be relocated to the site in order to provide efficient emergency services to the city’s Southside.

Shirley C. Scott, a Democrat of Ward 4, said Tucson’s public safety departments did an outstanding job at identifying the investments that are essential, and further said this initiative is a good start.

“There should be more, there’s so many more things that we could add,” Scott said. “But we have to go in a measured pace and address the most important things.”

A Growing Love for Kabul

Afghanistan and Iran, citizenship and memories

Sara Shayan only guessed what Kabul was like for almost three decades, visualizing her parents’ hometown via family stories, old photographs and news reports — until September of 2015. Shayan recalls texting her sisters before the plane took off from Iran. A bashful smile raises her olive-brown cheekbones while talking about the Taliban tarmac welcome she expected.

She was born in Isfahan, Iran — an ancient city known as The Sister of Paris — but has a strong affinity and connection to Afghanistan. Shayan will defend the politics of both nations dependent upon the argument, she said with a laugh. Her parents fled Kabul during the Soviet conflict, and even though Shayan was born in Iran her Afghan roots relegated her to second-class citizenship.

Imam-Square-in-Esfahan-Iran

Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran. (Photo by: Scarto, Creative Commons.)

“Iranians are very hard-working and talented, and I think it was a good environment for us to grow up there,” she said. “But at the same time I don’t like Iran’s politics, or policy, towards Afghan people.”

Shayan and her parents were frustrated that she could only legally work and reside in Iran, but never become a naturalized citizen. It was one of the greatest motivators for her family to move to Turkey, and eventually immigrate to the United States. Ironically, it was Shayan’s Afghan heritage that streamlined their immigration application in 2007.

She can gracefully explain the secular and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan that have plagued a land she claims her own. A nationality that helped along her new life in The States and has given her a mild identity crisis, Shayan added, with a confident shrug. When Russia met defeat in the 1980s, the four sects who were fighting against a common enemy began vying for control of Afghanistan, Shayan said. And this continual infighting has bolstered the strength of the Taliban and further perpetuated governmental corruption, she said.

Although Shayan usually strays from political discussions, she dictates her interest in the four Afghan parties with a scholarly and intuitive second nature. Throughout her childhood, Shayan’s father published his own newspaper about the Hazara people — Afghanistan’s Shia minority.

Today, Shayan easily recalls her royal reception when landing in Kabul. Her mind no longer shapes fragmented recollections of Afghanistan held by her parents. She describes spavined, war torn palaces, delectable feasts and smiling faces entrenched in a hopeful glee. After fielding two phone calls, Farsi couples her English. Then with childlike excitement Shayan further recounts her humble hosts and chronicles her next trip.

The U.S. resettlement effort 

According to the U.S. State Department’s report on refugee admissions for FY 2016, “there are currently more refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons – nearly 60 million – than at any time since World War II.”

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Syrian refugees flee to safety. (Photo by: Freedom House, Creative Commons.)

The report stated, the U.S. remains committed to providing a fruitful and productive new life for those seeking asylum in America. Furthermore, citizens who flee conflict or persecution at home not only help themselves they also contribute to America’s cultural diversity and economic vitality. And the goal for refugee resettlement this year is 85,000 people, which is a 21 percent increase from FY 2015.

The recent similitude of stability in Afghanistan is misleading, with Pakistan and Iran still respectively hosting more than 2.4 million Afghan citizens who resettled decades ago. The State Department estimates another 3 million undocumented Afghans also live and work in the two neighboring countries.

In 2014 the U.S. resettled 69,987 refugees onto American soil, of that total 753 people were from Afghanistan. About 4.2 percent of the stateside asylum seekers were resettled in Arizona that year alone.

Arizona’s faith based organization 

Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest manages Refugee Focus, one of Tucson’s local resettlement organizations for asylum seekers in Arizona. Helping refugees is just one of the four focus groups Lutheran Services assists — the organization also provides support for children and family services, aging and disability care as well as emergency food assistance and housing. Regarding its refugee program, the statewide institution provides pre-arrival housing, English language classes, employment training, work placement and immigration assistance.

Connie Phillips, president and CEO at Lutheran Services, was attracted to her new position about 15 months ago because of the organization’s mission statement of “showing kindness, doing justice and serving those in need.” Social work is her calling, Phillips said, and the work at her relatively new position keeps her motivated.

The difference between the conditions of refugee camps, and the opportunity organizations like Lutheran Services provide its clients are stark, she said. And seeing children have access to state-of-the-art educational tools compared to the dire conditions of temporary encampments leaves her awestruck, she added. “That gives me joy, and that gives me inspiration,” Phillips said.

For the past 34 years, Lutheran Services has worked in conjunction with the U.S. State Department receiving bipartisan support thus far, Phillips said. Conversely, during the current presidential political cycle, the GOP’s xenophobic rhetoric has been surprising and saddening, she said.

More often than not, Lutheran Services can boast about the people they help integrate into American culture, she said. Phillips said most of their former clients begin working for the organization as translators or case managers and many earn college degrees. And just a few weeks ago, Phillips spoke with one former client who is now a diplomat representing her homeland, she said.

The national resettlement program is important and overwhelmingly positive, Phillips said, and as a country we must stay the course regardless of any trepidation people may feel. However, her organization remains devoted to its mission.

“We’re unwavering in our commitment even though this is a time of fear, and we have to maintain our vigilance,” Phillips said.

Persian New Year

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The Haft-Seen is a tabletop arrangement of symbolic items displayed during the celebration of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year. (Photo by: Mandana Asadi, Creative Commons.)

Shayan appreciates her nurse practitioner job, but it’s not her passion, she said. The Persian New Year will begin its 13-day-long celebration on Saturday, March 19, and Shayan welcomes the new beginning. She grabs a spare napkin and pen, plotting the specific artifacts that will bring in a hopeful new chapter. Her dining room table will be adorned with seven coins symbolizing economic prosperity, a mirror for introspection, one pot of fresh growing grass signifying rebirth and the Qu’ran — her cornerstone of spirituality.

Fear of a city she could only imagine has changed into a budding grove for Shayan. Her next visit will last about two months, and only select family members will know of her arrival, she said sarcastically. It was tough managing the non-stop feasting or dealing with the fighting amongst friends and family for her limited time, she said with a laugh. But the generosity, beauty and rich history she found in the Afghan capital enchanted her and draws her back.

“Now I have a different love toward Kabul,” Shayan said.