Horsemen In Showdown With Town

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At the end of more than a few old Westerns, the triumphant hero rides off on his horse into the sunset.

While that may be a tired and trite scenario, a real-life version played out at the end of a meeting between the Payson Horseman's Association and local town and county officials when Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler dramatically announced that pending town council approval, both the practice and main arena at the Payson Event Center will be opened to area riders.

The meeting of minds occurred at the regular monthly meeting of the horseman's association Wednesday, Nov. 8, at Mario's Restaurant, but not before a few surprises.

Association President Mary Little had invited members of the council and Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen to the meeting to hear concerns from Rim country horse people who are upset because they haven't been able to use the new rodeo grounds freely as they were allowed to use the old facility at Rumsey Park.

In the association's November newsletter, Little urged its 265 members to attend and let their concerns be known. "We can't let this happen! We must stand together and be heard," she wrote.

About 150 members answered her call to action, cramming a banquet room to express their concerns to Underkofler, Christensen, Payson Mayor Ray Schum, and council members Hoby Herron, Barbara Brewer and Bryan Siverson.

During several recent town council meetings the issue of keeping the new grounds open to riding groups and other horse people has been discussed as part of proposed changes to the town code relating to the use of parks. At the Oct. 26 meeting, approval of changes was tabled for a second time because a representative of Payson's insurance carrier, Arizona Municipal Risk Retention Pool, had toured the arena with Administrative Services Director Kelly Udall and determined such usage of the facility would not be covered under the town's policy.

In a Guest Comment column that appears on the editorial page of today's Roundup, Little points out that other equally dangerous activities, such as skate-boarding and playing football, are covered by the town's insurance. "That same insurance should cover individuals riding their horses in an arena for their personal pleasure ...," Little writes.

As the meeting got under way, PHA member Mike Farrell pointed out that horse people have a significant impact on the Rim country's economy. Guest speaker Glen Jordan, president of the Arizona State Horseman's Association, elaborated.

Citing a 1990 study by the University of Arizona, Jordan pointed out that pleasure horses alone add $2.42 million to the Gila County economy. "We're good for the economy. We're dynamic for the economy," Jordan said.

He also pointed out that horse people are becoming more politically savvy. "Western Horseman magazine now has, for the first time, a political page," he pointed out.

But Jordan also emphasized the historic importance of horses. "This is our personality," he said. "It's who we are. It's the heritage of this state."

At that point, Little introduced Joe Wager, owner of Bridle & Bit magazine. Wager gave the locals a history lesson that opened more than a few eyes.

Using new information uncovered by town historian Stan Brown, Wager traced the history of Rumsey Park.

With a dramatic flair, he told the crowded room that Brown had uncovered some interesting terms and conditions that were part of a 1968 grant awarded to the town by the National Park Services to build the pool and upgrade other facilities in Rumsey Park, including the old rodeo arena. That grant, for $383,295, stipulates that if an existing park facility is eliminated or moved to another location, any and all accesses and uses lost in the process must be replaced and must be operated under the same terms and conditions previously applicable.

"The file for that old grant is three or four inches thick, and we discovered lots of stipulations and control mechanisms that come into play," Wager said. "It doesn't say you'll go to the hoosegow if you don't comply, but it does say you have to get permission (from) the park service to reduce access or eliminate uses."

Recalling the moment the next day, Wager said that he could see his revelation had flustered Underkofler. "In my opinion, this whole thing was more of a staff problem than a council problem anyway. The town staff is always screaming, 'Liability.' In my opinion, this town hides behind liability to avoid responsibility," he said.

Wager, who was dressed all in black, had laid his cards on the table in dramatic fashion. Did the town manager, a relative newcomer to these parts, have an ace up his sleeve?

Underkofler walked slowly and deliberately to the front of the room, stood next to Wager, and, in the best tradition of old Westerns, saved the day.

"I've only been here five years," he said, "so I wasn't aware of these matters. But yesterday I received a letter from our insurance carrier informing the town that it will cover the town's 'new equestrian facility including the trailhead' at no additional cost with the exception of rodeos, tractor pulls and similar events."

Underkofler informed attendees that he would therefore ask the council at its Nov. 16 meeting to provide $11,000 to authorize some recommended safety and security measures so that not just the practice arena, but also the main arena, can be used by area riders.

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