Few differences emerged among the three Democratic candidates for Gila County District 2 Supervisor as they spoke at a recent candidate forum.
All three oppose building a highway to bypass Payson, and all support a reinvigorated logging industry to mitigate risk of a devastating fire. Each also judge Payson's court facilities inadequate, though none offered an alternative.
Payson resident Bill Backes, Globe resident Mike Pastor and Miami resident Danny Michels spoke to roughly 40 people at the Citizens Awareness Committee candidate forum in Payson. Improving county court and jail facilities was heavily discussed, and was the only question asked of both the sheriff and county supervisor candidates.
"Boy this is a hot issue," said Michels. "Obviously the voters did not want to support a tax increase." He spoke of last year's failed ballot measure to finance new and expanded courthouse and jail facilities in Globe and Payson.
Although against new taxes, Michels supported action before the U.S. Department of Justice intervened.
Backes agreed that the justice department could force a solution. "Anytime you're forced to do something, then you know it's going to cost more money," he said.
Calling Payson's courthouse a "postage stamp," Backes joked that the supervisor's office hasn't changed in 15 years. "I think they still have the same boxes piled up."
However, Backes opposed spending money to save money. "You don't go spending millions to save a quarter million in transportation costs."
Pastor agreed that thinking would need to break the box for a solution.
The candidates similarly agreed that building a road to bypass Payson would be, as Pastor said, "an economic disaster."
"The only benefit for a bypass is for travelers," he said.
If drive-through traffic decreased, so would those travelers' unplanned visits to Payson businesses.
Michels said the same issue confronts Globe. However, he said an Arizona Department of Transportation official told him to not worry about any bypasses. "We're broke," the official told him.
But Michels said if a majority of constituents say they want a bypass, then he'd work toward that. As a business owner, he added, he's against the idea.
Backes agreed that a bypass would result in economic disaster but added, "I know how frustrating it is to get around town."
With 60,000 cars traversing the Beeline Highway on weekends, Backes said some remedy needed to be found such as increasing the number of highway crossings.
When asked about reducing the risk of fire, Backes said he supports lobbying to change the laws, to increase private industry's access to the woods.
"I want to see private industry do it. I don't want to see my tax dollars doing it," he said.
Michels agreed. "We need to lobby. We need to bring our logging industry back."
Pastor suggested increased collaboration with federal agencies and also advocated for aggressive lobbying to bring industry into the forests.
Pastor, who sits on the board of Gila Community College, also supports lobbying to allow the college to function on its own instead of under Eastern Arizona College's umbrella.
Pastor said enrollment at GCC has increased from 170 full-time student equivalency to 875 in four years.
Although EAC receives roughly $2,000 funding for each full-time student, Gila County College receives just $925, Pastor said. He called the situation "sad."
"You better believe I'm a supporter" of creating an independent college, Pastor said.
"That is the goal of the community college and that's with the blessing of EAC, believe it or not."
Backes commented on the situation's economic absurdity. "Whatever we're purchasing, we get to pay an extra 25 percent to Eastern Arizona College," Backes said. "If you want that (independence) to happen, we have to lobby for it and put me on the list to help."
Michels said, "I'm not opposed to lobbying for our own college.
In a campaign season where almost every county supervisor candidate has questioned the county's fiscal conservatism, CAC asked the candidates where they stood on taxes.
Backes said, "I voted with you last November on that half-cent sales tax. Sorry John, but we've got to find another way." He was speaking to Sheriff John Armer who spoke earlier that afternoon at the candidate forum.
Backes provided a miniature property tax lesson, noting that in 2006, Arizona voters amended the state constitution to set base property tax rates at 2005 levels and allow a 2 percent increase in the total amount collected each year.
While the county tax rate has dropped every year since 2005, some homeowners have seen property tax increases if their assessed values rose. In theory, growth can pay the difference, but if assessed values increase, so can property taxes, even if the rate stays consistent.
He said that while the measure may have proved beneficial for wealthier and more urban counties like Maricopa, with skyrocketing property values, rural Gila County suffers from it.
While Payson generally experienced healthy property values in 2005, southern Gila County was economically depressed. Now, with stirring economic activity, the county's ability to collect taxes is stifled by its 2005 property values.
Last year's county budget was roughly $75 million, and Backes said $18 million of that came from property taxes. "I have to commend them (supervisors) for their ingenuity," he said.
Voters should proceed cautiously with constitutional amendments, Backes added.
But because voters statewide decided the measure, Backes said, "you ask me about something over which I don't have direct control."
Michels said, "the property tax is a rough issue." Much of the $91 million budget the county recently passed came from grants, Michels said.
"If you want services, we got to find a way to pay for them. If you don't want services, then it's easy to cut taxes."
Michels added, "I am not for increasing taxes by any stretch of the imagination."
Pastor said he didn't support increasing taxes and recommended lobbying the state legislature to change the laws.