Good news for Payson.
Good news for the Tonto Apache Tribe.
And maybe bad news for Star Valley.
That’s one way to read the current negotiations between Payson and the tribe to resume providing police protection for the reservation at a cost of about $202,000 annually.
Payson Police Chief Don Engler recently told the council the tribe had approached him to find out how much the town would charge to resume policing the casino and several hundred acres of tribal land.
The town provided such services about four years ago, but pulled out after a drunk driver injured a man in the casino parking lot and the town found itself facing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit — in part because the tribe’s legal status makes it virtually immune to lawsuits.
Engler said he entered into preliminary negotiations with the tribe and had suggested the town could provide full-time protection for the casino and the reservation for $202,000 and three- or four-day a week protection for about $150,000. The Bureau of Indian Affairs would continue to be responsible for investigating major crimes, like murders, rape, kidnapping, child abuse and others.
In addition, the town is negotiating with the tribe for a separate contract to provide dispatch.
Engler said when the town provided police protection to the whole reservation previously, officers responded to about 20 to 25 calls per month.
The possible $202,000 contract could mean that Star Valley will have to pay a much higher price to convince Payson to extend the current $258,000 contract to provide response to calls from that town, which has no police force of its own.
Payson police responded to 330 calls in the past four months under the terms of the Star Valley contract — about two or three a day.
That means an extended Star Valley contract would generate about 400 times as many calls for only about 27 percent more money.
Star Valley has 1,000 calls
Currently, Payson police respond to 23,000 calls annually with a $4.3 million budget. About 1,000 of those calls come from Star Valley.
Engler noted that after three years of providing its own police force, the tribe had concluded the contract would actually offer a “substantially” cheaper solution.
As it happens, Star Valley is also grappling with the high cost of establishing a full-time police department. The Star Valley council recently approved recruiting for one officer, to respond to calls for service — hoping to lighten the load on Payson and so convince its neighbor to extend the contract.
Officers make $40,000 to $70,000 annually not counting overtime, depending on the jurisdiction. It takes three officers to provide a single officer on shift for a 24-hour basis. It costs about $100,000 to provide the car, computers and equipment that an officer uses. Therefore, Star Valley would have to spend several million dollars up front to start a police force with around-the-clock coverage.
The questions that councilors mostly focused on was the town’s legal liability, in light of previous problems.
The incident that prompted Payson to stop providing services on reservation land involved a man who drank too much at the casino bar, went out to the parking lot and ran over and seriously injured an off-duty officer.
The family of the officer sued, only to discover that the tribe has sovereign immunity, which shields it against lawsuits. So the lawyers then focused on Payson, which ultimately settled out of court — even though no Payson police officers were involved in the accident and the primary liability came from continuing to serve the man alcohol in the casino.
Liability issue needs solving
The negotiators on both sides still have to solve that liability issue, said Engler. The town could add a rider on its own policy, for which the tribe would bear the cost. Alternatively, the tribe could take out an insurance policy that would provide extra protection for the town in case of a large settlement.
Councilor John Wilson asked whether the tribe could agree to indemnify the town for any incidents that took place on the reservation, but Town Attorney Sam Streichman said such an exemption would probably be illegal even in the unlikely event the tribe agreed.
“So far we (the town attorney) have not been involved and the tribe’s attorney has not been involved,” in the negotiations.
Mayor Kenny Evans said solving the liability problem was the key to the contract. “Lawyers have a propensity to go after the deep pocket,” said Evans, which means that a contract with the town and the lawsuit-proof tribe would mean “you might as well say, ‘Come sue me.’”
If the town does negotiate a contract with the tribe, it could start sometime next year — which could have an impact on the town’s budget situation.
The contract with the tribe could provide $100,000 in new revenues if implemented by January — or $50,000 if in place by March.
Engler wants the council to consider earmarking any new revenue for the police department. He said police salaries have lagged and he would like to give many of the town’s 27 officers an 8 percent pay raise. In addition, Engler wants to fill three currently vacant positions and to also make sure he can replace two veteran officers expected to retire in the next few months.
The rest of the town departments have not only had layoffs but continue to operate under a pay and hiring freeze.
Engler’s memo on the contract observed “as all of you well know the salary schedule for the Town of Payson has been frozen for the past year and is likely to remain frozen for the next year with current budget projections.”
He said using the money to provide a pay raise, “excluding the chief of police,” would help the town hold onto trained officers.
Payson officers make between $41,000 and $56,000, depending on seniority. Detectives make $46,000 to $69,000 and lieutenants make $60,000 to $90,000, according to a salary table included in the packet.
Gila County Sheriff’s deputies make $40,000 to $59,000 and lieutenants make $49,000 to $72,000.
One table in the report indicated that the midrange for Payson officers is in the middle of the pack statewide, at about $52,000. Midrange salaries for officers in other towns include $60,600 in Gilbert, $53,500 in Mesa, $48,000 in Sedona, $45,000 in Cottonwood and $55,000 at the Department of Public Safety.
Extra money from the contract with the tribe would also offset the cost of paying for lab results from the state’s crime lab.
The state started charging Payson for such tests this year to balance its own budget, which has prompted the town to cut back on the routine forensic testing until after the district attorney has decided whether to prosecute a case.
The council didn’t discuss Engler’s plea for more money for officer salaries at the meeting.
Evans later said that if the town does land the contract, the money would go into the general fund and that the council has so far made no commitments as to how to spend that money.
The town entered the current fiscal year with no reserves, after spending about $3 million in contingency funds in 2007-08 fiscal year.
Although the town cut general fund spending by about 10 percent in the budget adopted in July, a sharp decline in sales tax revenue in October led to an additional 16 percent projected decline in the current fiscal year. That projected decline prompted the town to undertake deep budget cuts in most departments. The police and fire departments suffered the fewest cuts, partly because they were already running a bit below their adopted budgets.