Mining towns battle to live

Ariz. schools threatened as tax revenue from copper mines drops

December 28, 2003|By Daniel Gonzalez | Daniel Gonzalez,ARIZONA REPUBLIC

HAYDEN-WINKELMAN, Ariz. - These mining towns are dying.

But some people here under the towering smokestacks refuse to believe it, even as the mines have laid off workers over the years. And even as the community faces its biggest crisis ever: the possible bankruptcy and closure of its school district.

Still, people such as Priscilla Torres-Westrope, a teacher at the middle school, refuse to give up. She couldn't wait to escape the doldrums of this once-thriving mining community in the heart of southeast Arizona's copper basin and left soon after high school graduation.

She earned a degree in education from Arizona State University and began teaching elementary school, first in Phoenix, then in Tucson.

But a few years ago, Torres-Westrope, 37, and her husband, Gene, 39, realized they could stay away no longer.

"My friends all thought I was crazy," Torres-Westrope said, wheeling her dusty red pickup through Hayden's deserted business district. "But I have my aunts and uncles, my mother and my father, my comadres. That's why I came home."

She and Gene and their two children moved to San Pedro, the sullen barrio where Mexican-Americans were forced to live when Hayden was a segregated community through the 1950s. Back to where most of the houses are abandoned, their windows broken and their roofs caving in. Back to where all the storefronts on Hayden Street, the town's main drag, are boarded up and closed. Back to where the only theater in town, the Rex, still stands but hasn't shown a movie since Jaws opened in 1975.

The Gila River rushing down from the Dripping Springs Mountains used to provide cool relief to mining families who picnicked along the banks on hot summer days. But the dammed river is now only a stony bed of rocks and sand.

Even the local cemetery is full. Most people have either died or moved away, draining the community's population from a high of 3,500 residents in the early 1980s to 1,200 today. Eighty percent of the population is third- and fourth-generation Mexican-American.

Despite all of this, Torres-Westrope said, she never will leave, even if the school district shuts down. Her husband, who was laid off from the mines, is taking courses through Northern Arizona University to become a teacher.

"Two things I said to my husband if the school closes down," Torres-Westrope said. "One, I'm not leaving; and, two, if I can't teach in Hayden, I won't teach. I'll do something else."

It is that kind of resolve that keeps Torres-Westrope and other residents going in the face of one of the community's biggest crises.

The Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District is in such a financial crunch that Superintendent Jeff Gregorich fears that the district, where 520 students are enrolled, might have to close and default on millions of dollars in loans.

Gregorich said the tiny school district has been hit by a string of financial problems tied to the area's sagging copper mining industry, which in the 1970s and 1980s turned Hayden-Winkelman into one of the richest school districts in the state.

"Everything happened all at once to one small community" said Gregorich, who inherited the school district's financial troubles when he became superintendent this year.

The towns of Hayden and Winkelman sit side by side at the edge of the San Pedro Valley, about 100 miles southeast of Phoenix.

The area is home to Asarco's milling and smelting operations, where ore is processed from Asarco's huge Ray open pit mine farther north. But a slump in the copper mining industry struggling to compete with cheaper copper from South America has sent property values in the area into a tailspin, sinking nearly 90 percent from an assessed value of $50 million in 1990 to less than $7 million in 2002, the latest figures available.

A flood in 1993 that wiped out half the homes in Winkelman helped decrease property values and tax revenues even more.

Then, to help keep the state's copper mining industry afloat, state lawmakers in the early 1990s voted to gradually reduce the tax rate on mines. The tax breaks, Gregorich said, further reduced revenue for the school district.

"The mines used to pay 95 percent of our school taxes. Now they only pay 67 percent," Gregorich said.

Asarco is owned by Grupo Mexico. Telephone messages left with Asarco's headquarters in Phoenix were not returned.

Adding to the financial woes are a pair of bonds totaling $8.5 million. Voters in Hayden and Winkelman approved the bonds in the early 1990s, Gregorich said, to pay for school improvements when area property values were still strong.

"When times were good it was very easy for us to vote for bond elections and for overrides because we all knew that Kennecott [which sold its Hayden operations to Asarco in 1986] and Asarco would be paying the bulk of those bonds, but times have changed and the chickens have come home to roost," said Democratic state Sen. Pete Rios, who grew up in San Pedro working for the mines.

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