Payback's A Lousy Basis For Public Policy


Say the words "Star Valley police contract" to some members of the Payson Town Council and you'll get a loud snort, maybe a little eye roll.

Say the words "contract renewal," and maybe you'll get cackle - a brief hand rubbing.

Turns out, some Star Valley officials have kind of alienated a few of their neighbors -- what with questioning their integrity and intelligence whenever the topic turns to water. And this year, Payson spent itself into a budget hole by not reacting quickly enough to a slow-down in tax collections -- while Star Valley was rolling in the dough extracted from speeders on Highway 260 and keeping expenses low. Alas, certain Star Valley folks couldn't quite restrain the faintest hint of public gloating.

So now that Star Valley would like to save some serious cash by extending the two-year-old contract by which Payson has provided police services, some members of the Payson council would rather make rude sounds than look seriously at the financial terms of a proposed extension.

The "no way" argument goes: You guys wanted to be a real town -- so now you're gonna have to cough up a lung like the rest of us.

And no doubt, payback is a time-honored basis for public policy. But it hasn't worked all that well in the Middle East -- and we're not so sure it's a sustainable approach here alongside the Middle Arizona. And we're big on sustainable, here in Rim Country.

We might not mind a nice wolfish roll in the dead carcass of payback if someone could get the burglars, meth heads, drunk drivers and vandals to pay more attention to those lines of jurisdiction.

But being knuckleheads and criminals, they're just downright inconsiderate about where they do their crimes -- first Payson, then Star Valley, then who the heck knows.

So it's in the best interests of the residents of both towns to have a single law enforcement agency with adequate resources looking for all those idiots running loose -- without regard to a town boundary.

That's the big argument in favor of a contract extension.

Besides, a new contract looks like a good deal financially for both towns.

The Star Valley contract only requires Payson officers to roll in response to a call seeking help. In the past year, the calls were mostly minor -- one or two a day. Police handled a couple of time-consuming cases, like drug busts and an aggravated assault. But the contract allows Payson to bill extra whenever officers spend more than 100 hours on a case.

Figured on a per-call basis, Star Valley residents are actually paying nearly twice as much as Payson residents. That's not quite a fair comparison -- since officers have to drive further to get to calls in Star Valley. Moreover, figured on a per-capita basis, Payson residents pay nearly twice as much for police protection as Star Valley residents. But again, that doesn't account for the higher level of service in Payson.

In truth, the two sides aren't that far apart on the cost of the actual services. Perhaps the current $258,000 annually is too low -- considering it would likely cost Star Valley twice that to create its own four-man force. But it seems like the current contract provides a good place to start serious negotiations. That's especially true since Payson never did actually hire the two extra officers the town thought it needed to handle the Star Valley calls.

The chief difficulty lies in finding a way to deal with the thorny liability issues. Currently, Payson pays into a statewide self-insurance fund to cover lawsuits. The potential liability is enormous -- as evidenced by the need to settle for $250,000 a ridiculous multi-million-dollar lawsuit simply because Payson had an arrangement to provide backup for the casino security folks, who didn't do enough to prevent a drunk driver from causing tragedy in a parking lot.

Clearly, town negotiators need to find a way for Star Valley to shoulder its fair share of the liability in any new contract.

But if the two sides can find a solution to that problem, we see no reason Payson should not extend the contract -- hopefully indefinitely. It's time the white dove flew above the Middle Arizona.

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