The Tonto Apache Tribe abruptly dropped its request for a $200,000 annual contract with Payson to provide police services, on the eve of the council’s planned approval.
The Thursday council agenda included a proposal to approve a $200,000 contract with the tribe to provide police protection for the casino and several hundred acres of tribal land.
However, the Tribe abruptly cancelled the agreement hashed out in the course of weeks of discussion in favor of continuing to rely on its own police force.
In an e-mail to the council, Payson Police Chief Don Engler wrote, “The Tonto Apache Reservation Law Enforcement Agreement will still be on the agenda tonight, but they have chosen not to sign the agreement. They have decided that they want to try to cut expenses in their police department and retain it. Thank you for your support of our goals as we attempt to retain competent, certified police officers.”
Engler had hoped to use the $200,000 from the contract to provide raises for officers and perhaps fill some of the three currently vacant positions.
The town council spared the police department from layoffs in the recent effort to cut town spending by $4.5 million in the face of falling sales taxes and building fees. However, the department suffered a 10-percent budget cut — mostly from the deferred purchase of a computer program to track all police calls and the location of 911 callers. The department also remains two officers below its authorized strength and expects to be hit by additional retirements in the next few months.
The town had previously provided police protection on tribal land, but dropped the service when the family of a man injured in the casino parking lot sued the town, since the tribe remains virtually immune to lawsuits due to its distinctive legal status as a quasi-independent nation.
The town settled the lawsuit out of court, although no Payson police officers were involved in the incident.
Engler said a tribal official called off the negotiations shortly before the council meeting.
“They told me they chose not to sign and intended to use their current department. Basically, they didn’t give me a lot of information.”
The Tribe has reportedly been coping with declining revenue from the casino, with its gaming operations and hotel rooms. Reportedly, the tribe recently reduced some staff and reduced hours worked by employees.
The Tribe on Nov. 13 elected Ivan Smith as the new tribal chairman over challenger Louise Lopez in a 37-32 vote. Smith had promised to focus on providing more affordable housing on the tribe’s reservation at the southeast edge of town — recently expanded from 85 to 358 acres in a land swap with the federal government.
Smith took over from his sister, Jeri Johnson DeCola, who resigned on Sept. 30 at the request of three members of the five-member tribal council.
Tribal officials could not be reached for comment before press time on Friday.