Council Needs Compass Heading To Outrun Fiscal Zombies

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At just the wrong moment, the slow motion decay of the state's economy has caught up to Payson -- like a fetid zombie lurching out of the darkness just as our hero steps in a gopher hole.

Last night, the town council began the painful process of grappling with some hard choices. The good news is that the council has before it a heartening number of bold initiatives that could contribute mightily to the well being of residents. The bad news is that the odds of paying for the ambitious wish list keeps dwindling.

Last night, the discussion centered on whether to award a $94,000 contract to a consultant to come up with a new and better master plan for parks -- plus a $42,000 contract with another consultant to come up with design standards for signs and landscaping on the highway. In addition, the council approved a $6,700 monthly contract with the Payson Senior Center to support that group's vital and compassionate services.

Last week, the discussion centered on projections that suggest revenues this year will come in $5 million behind projections. Blame it on a dramatic drop in revenue from building permits and sales taxes.

Most of these blows remain beyond the town's control. And we applaud the council's energy these past two years that has led to far-sighted efforts to develop convention facilities, a public gym and swim complex, a transformed event center, a comprehensive trails system, design standards and a host of other initiatives.

But what's clearly lacking at the moment is timely and reliable financial information on which the council can base its decisions.

Fortunately, the council also last night approved Town Manager Debra Galbraith's $125,000 annual permanent contract, which means she can bring her financial expertise fully to bear.

Moreover, at its last meeting, the council approved the hire of Doug Hill as the new chief financial officer, which means Galbraith won't have to continue doing double duty.

We hope that this will quickly improve the flow of financial information to the town's elected policy makers.

The recent fumbling in the dark with those budget issues during the council sessions illustrates the need, what with the rustling of deficit zombies in the bushes.

For starters, although the council briefing revealed the size of the projected shortfall -- it didn't include any information about what cuts the council might need to consider to balance the books come the end of the fiscal year.

Moreover, the council doesn't receive the kinds of monthly updates on the budget status that are routine in many other towns.

The council and the public should get at least quarterly reports that show whether both spending and revenues are on target, so that the councilors can make adjustments before the gopher hole turns into a bear pit.

Reportedly, a clunky financial accounting system and Galbraith's determined effort to do two full-time jobs for the past year have delayed that kind of necessary financial information system. We hope that Hill's arrival heralds a change in this regard.

Fortunately, zombies move slowly.

So, first off, the council ought to insist on pulling its collective leg out of the gopher hole of financial confusion.

Then the councilors ought to insist on a compass heading in the form of timely financial information so that when they set off to find a solution, they're heading for sunlight instead of right into some convention of werewolves.

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