2008 Was One Busy Year

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Aren't they cute? Jennifer Sandoval, who plays Audrey, and theater assistant Tom Walling try on the flower heads during the unpacking process of the costumes and props for the play “Little Shop of Horrors” at Payson High School.

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Henry Dombrowski wipes tears from his eyes in the early morning sunlight Friday, June 6, as he visits the traveling replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial.

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Adam Tanner, a bareback rider out of Tucson, grimaces as he struggles to hold on during his fateful ride. Tanner needed assistance at the end of his ride as his hand was stuck in the grip and he was unable to release. It was a dramatic beginning to another exciting rodeo at the Payson Event Center, Aug. 16.

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Leonard Mennen watches as the Civil Air Patrol Color Guard marches into the Payson High School auditorium to begin the Veterans Day ceremony. All branches of the United States military were represented at the ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 11. The presentation included patriotic songs by children, teenagers and others to honor America’s veterans.

Editor’s Note — Reporters for the Roundup picked the following as the top stories of the year.

January 2008 was a busy month with arrests, school violence, flooding and a local quilter receiving national honors, as well as kidney dialysis services returning to the Rim Country.

A report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety showed Rim Country drivers were arrested for drunk driving at nearly twice the state rate. With DPS arresting 13 drivers, the statistics showed that was one arrest for every 1,171 residents. Statewide statistics show one arrest for every 2,202 residents. The statistics did not include the DUI arrests made by the Payson Police Department or the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Those agencies reported a total of six arrests for DUI from Dec. 16 to New Year’s Day.

More than two inches of rain fell in the first week of January, which is nearly all the precipitation the area averages every January. The rain closed streets and resulted in several accidents. The Rim Country received quite a bit of precipitation from November through the first week of January, prompting a National Weather Service employee to suggest the possibility that the decade-long drought in Gila County could be ending.

Parents complain about the lack of information from both school and police officials regarding a Dec. 12 assault on the grounds at Rim Country Middle School.

In another story, it was announced that the town council made interim town manager Debra Galbraith its permanent chief executive officer. She was hired as the finance director in 2007 and became interim town manager in October 2007.

A report of racially motivated violence on a Payson school bus is published. The incident took place Dec. 14, 2007, but was not brought to light until parents complained about their children’s safety at school.

In happier news, Sharon Schamber was named the No. 1 quilter in America and won the $100,000 Quilting Challenge award.

Anna Mae Deming, longtime weather observer and the daughter of Gila County pioneer families, died Jan. 17.

The Rim Country Dialysis Center holds an open house to introduce its services to the residents of the area.

Flooding strands residents

January flooding forced evacuations near Jake’s Corner, south of Payson, and stranded residents on the east side of Tonto Creek. It also caused the loss of power for more than eight hours.

DaVita, operator of the new Rim Country Dialysis Center, returned the money raised by the Mogollon Health Alliance on its behalf, to provide financial assistance to those needing dialysis.

Ken Volz is named director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Violence continued to plague the Rim Country in February and a surprisingly strong strain of the flu filled area hospital beds.

A report of a student with a gun closed Payson schools. The gun turned out to be BB/pellet CO2 gun. It and the student were located off campus within two hours of the initial report.

Jordan Heller, 28, was arrested for allegedly kidnapping an elderly Payson resident and forcing him to withdraw money from his bank account. The victim was not harmed.

News brightened a little with reports of five inches of snow in the Rim Country and the shipment of the 600th box of comfort items to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from the grassroots charity Payson Supply Line.

Things turned bleak again with the report of the principal of the Star Valley Charter School, Russell Koch, arrested for having drugs at his school and an exchange of gunfire between Payson police officers and an allegedly suicidal woman. The officers were investigated and found to have acted properly in the incident.

Widespread outbreak of flu

Payson Regional Medical Center, along with hospitals throughout the state, scrambled to find beds due to an unusually widespread outbreak of the flu and other illnesses. Chris Wolf, chief executive officer of PRMC, said it was the worst outbreak of flu in a small amount of time that he had seen in his six years with the hospital. At one point, the PRMC emergency room was almost standing room only with patients having an average wait of 50 minutes due to the volume of people the staff had to see.

Politics and weather-related problems were the top stories for March.

Kenny Evans unseated incumbent mayor Bob Edwards in the primary election, while in Pine, the board of directors of the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District had four members recalled. Star Valley voters retained their mayor Chuck Heron, who had been challenged by councilor Randy White.

The Tonto Apache Tribe recovered 273 acres of its ancestral lands through a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service, which took 17 years to accomplish.

Rim Country residents, SemStream Propane and the Arizona Corporation Commission met in a forum about fees that were double and triple what had been paid in the past.

The heavy rains of the fall and first part of the year which prompted one National Weather Service employee to suggest the 10-year drought Gila County was experiencing might be coming to a close caused damage so severe to Highway 87 south of Payson, it had to be closed for several days. On March 21, a landslide near Sunflower caused the pavement to buckle. Once several hundred tons of dirt were removed and some stabilizing efforts completed, the road was reopened March 27, with traffic restricted to a single lane of travel in both directions. No estimate was given on when the road will be fully repaired.

PHS student lands Flinn scholarship

The month started off on a high note, when Payson High School senior Mark McCarty landed the prestigious Flinn Foundation Scholarship, which goes to the top 20 students in the whole state. The full-ride scholarship with money for room and board also included several summers of overseas study. McCarty was the third Payson High School student in history to win the award, but he’s no stranger to winning. He’s also the state wrestling champ in his weight class for 3A schools.

The Tonto Apache Tribe also scored a victory, when it joined other tribes and environmental groups in a lawsuit that forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its decision not to continue listing the small, but growing population of desert bald eagles, despite the recovery of the bald eagles nationwide.

Economic slump hits Payson

The economic slump that would dominate the news for much of the rest of the year hit home in April, with the revelation that a 15 percent drop in sales tax revenue would result in the town’s budget coming up $5 million short. The shortfall had been rumored but not put into hard numbers in the months leading up to the stunning budget study session. The slowdown wiped out the town’s reserves and forced a hiring freeze and other cuts.

But not all revenue sources were dropping: Gasoline topped $3 a gallon at the pump in April as the price of oil hit $112 a barrel. That seemed shocking at the time — but much worse lay in store.

The buying of water companies

Star Valley in April made big plans to bid on, condemn and finally force the sale of Brooke Utilities’ Payson Water Company network in town.

The town offered $475,000 based on an outside appraisal — but later put the idea on hold when new information suggested the water company was worth more than the council wanted to pay. On the other hand, the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District in April also vowed to condemn and buy the Brooke Utilities’ company serving those communities — a bid still grinding along by the end of the year.

New Star Valley council members

Star Valley rounded out its election by appointing two new council members — Nathalie Stroup and Chris Benjamin. Stroup came in fourth in the election and got the nod to finish the two-year term of a council member who quit. Benjamin agreed to serve for a month or so until the newly elected council members took their seats after a second council member resigned.

The debate about whether to extend Mud Springs Road to the highway, which had resulted in repeated heated hearings, reached some sort of a strange semi-conclusion in April with the cancellation of a plan to build a new roundabout where the extended road would meet the highway. ADOT concluded the extended road wouldn’t carry enough traffic to justify anything more than a stop sign — although residents fear it will become a defacto bypass.

Campaign spending reports showed that Mayor Kenny Evans spent a record $27,860 on his winning effort to unseat Bob Edwards. Evans spent $11,000 of his own money, pushing his cost up to $10.47 per vote received. Edwards spent about $5.55 per vote received. Councilor John Wilson set some sort of reverse record — spending less than $50 for his winning re-election bid.

Teen goes 122 mph to avoid police

Curt Alan Sahlsten put in his bid for knucklehead of the year when he got ticketed for doing 122 miles an hour on the Beeline. The 18-year-old Payson resident tried to outrun police, as a DPS airplane followed him from above.

The Arizona Supreme Court came to Payson to hear two appeals, including one death penalty case. Residents filled the high school auditorium to hear attorneys plead for the life of Cody James Martinez, who said his lawyers never had a chance to prove that his own history of child abuse caused him to lose control and murder an acquaintance he thought had molested the child of a friend. In the end, the justices rejected his appeal — saying the jury did consider all the evidence before concluding he committed the murder for the handful of things he and his companions stole from the victim’s apartment.

Pine Strawberry board member resigns

In March, Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District board member Barbara Hall resigned, suggesting that the newly elected board had engaged in “illegal and unethical” activity as a result of decisions and conversations that took place outside the public meetings. She was one of three board members not recalled in the furor concerning an agreement between the district and Brooke Utilities to drill the K2 well.

Payson gets Blue Ridge water

Payson signed an agreement with the Salt River Project to secure rights to 3,000-acre-feet of water annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir — enough to guarantee a long-term water supply even if the town eventually doubles to more than 36,000 residents. Now all the town has to do is build a $30 million pipeline to deliver the water to the existing systems.

Star Valley hit the speeders jackpot with the establishment of an unblinking pair of photo speeding enforcement cameras on Highway 260. The cameras flashed more than 5,800 speeders in March and April — about 10 times the number the town planners had expected.

Prank goes awry

Nearly two dozen Payson High School students painted windows, glued pennies to sidewalks, spray painted the running surface on the track and deflated the tires of school buses in a senior prank that got out of hand. Police caught one student returning to get her car, which led to the arrest of about 20 students. The pranksters included many of the school’s top students and the suspension from school and graduation ceremonies plus the prospect of criminal charges touched off a debate all over town. In the end, the Gila County Attorney offered most of the students diversionary programs, that cost them each more than $1,000, plus community service — but left them without criminal records.

New mayor takes office

A vigorous and often-controversial era in town politics ended with the departure of Mayor Bob Edwards, elected two years earlier on a campaign that advocated growth controls, greater citizen involvement and opposition to the “good old boys” network of old-timers he said ran town affairs. Tim Fruth and Andy Romance also departed the council, after deciding not to run. Newly elected Mayor Kenny Evans and councilors Michael Hughes and Richard Croy took their seats, having defeated two candidates endorsed by Edwards. Councilor John Wilson was re-elected.

An historic Tonto Basin ranch house in which President Teddy Roosevelt stayed when he visited to dedicate the Roosevelt Dam in 1911 burned to the ground as a result of a fire probably triggered by electrical wiring.

The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District board hailed a geologist’s report suggesting that the community of Pine can get all the water it needs from a long-suspected, but only recently proven, deep water table. The shallow wells that supply the community now so often went dry that the Arizona Corporation Commission had imposed a moratorium on new water hookups. A fierce debate about a plan to dig the K2 well to reach that rumored deep water table had roiled the town for months.

Cheering parents and friends celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2008 — whose students earned a whopping $830,000 in scholarships — the most ever.

Wall memorial comes to town

The traveling Vietnam Wall Memorial came to Green Valley Park, drawing 20,000-30,000 reverent spectators over the course of a long weekend. Payson residents turned out to line Main Street and wave flags as the truck carrying The Wall segments roared into town. Many of the tough-looking Vietnam veterans on hogs that escorted The Wall into town, ended up in tears and said Payson residents gave them the welcome home parade they never had.

Payson paid big money for an ambitious master plan to turn the Payson Event Center at the rodeo grounds into a year-round, covered facility to host trade shows, conventions and horse events. The consultant held a series of well-attended public meetings, but the town’s financial crisis forced the council to cancel the contract and shelve the plan later in the year.

Relay for Life raised $50,000

Some 700 walkers turn out to raise $50,000 to fight breast cancer at the annual Relay for Life in June.

The Payson council adopts a budget that cuts spending by about 8 percent, but avoids layoffs. The $36-million budget had almost no reserve fund and assumed essentially flat revenues for the coming year. Later in the year, falling sales tax receipts would force mid-year layoffs and millions in additional cuts.

The Payson council approved at long-delayed, sometimes-controversial $33-million luxury condo project just off Main Street, which featured an ambitious artificial stream and waterfall that would cool and clean the water in the Green Valley Lakes. Approved with great fanfare, the development had still not actually broken ground by year’s end.

SemStream did nothing wrong

The Arizona Corporation Commission concluded that even though residents’ winter heating bills had doubled or tripled, the local propane company SemStream didn’t do anything wrong beyond poor communications and delayed billing. Mayor Kenny Evans, among others, claimed the company had manipulated prices and imposed excessive surcharges, but a corporation commission report found no wrongdoing. Later, SemStream’s massive parent company filed for bankruptcy as a result of disastrous attempts to affect gasoline prices by betting on oil price futures.

An internal investigation cleared two Payson police officers of any wrongdoing in connection with the shooting death of a Payson veterinarian. The police responded to a report of shots fired in a home and were told by the reporting party that the woman inside was suicidal. Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores concluded that the officers fired in self defense.

Tonto Apache Tribe election

Jeri DeCola was elected chair of the Tonto Apache Tribal Council, a comeback story with a complicated ending. DeCola was ousted from the council in 1999 for failing to reveal a drunk driving conviction. After regaining her chair in June 2008, she was ousted again later in the year after a faction on the council, led by her brother, demanded her resignation after security videos in the casino showed her drinking to excess, which she said was due to her grief on the anniversary of her daughter’s death. After her resignation, DeCola’s son died, marking the end of a turbulent year.

Payson council on probation

The Payson Town Council found itself effectively on probation in July for violations of the open meeting law committed by the previous council. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office concluded that a luncheon involving the whole council at a League of Arizona Cities and Towns at which the council discussed personnel changes at town hall violated the open meeting law. After that meeting, the council forced the resignation of the town manager and eliminated the human resources department, which prompted the dismissal of its director.

Unfriendly town hall

A survey of 27 local business owners concluded town hall isn’t friendly to businesses or responsive to their needs. The survey by the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation concluded that town officials delay and complicate development and business activity rather than providing useful services.

The Payson council agreed in theory to give the Valley of the Sun YMCA a 30-year lease on five acres of land in Rumsey Park, including Taylor Pool. The deal would have saved the town $140,000 annually, protected existing public swim hours and provided residents with a year-round pool, gym and fitness center. However, a citizens group gathered signatures to force a vote on the proposal.

Thunderstorms trigger fires

A rash of thunderstorms in one weekend triggered 50 small fires along the Rim, the first big thunderstorm surge of what fire officials feared would be a bad fire year. Although above-average rain and snow in the winter provided a good snowpack and filled Roosevelt Lake and other reservoirs — the spring had turned dry. Fire service crews contained all the fires and a wet monsoon period moved in starting in July. As a result, the region had fewer than half as many small fires as last year and no large, structure damaging blazes. Rim Country dodged the flaming bullet for another year.

Brooke Utilities says no to Pine Strawberry board

The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District offered Brooke Utilities $2.1 million for the water companies serving those two towns — an offer the private water company promptly rejected.

A survey shows that 71 percent of Payson workers rate themselves as “excellent” when it comes to dependability, work attitude and personal relations. None rated themselves as poor. Bosses had a different idea. They rated only 2 percent of their employees as excellent and 15 percent as poor.

The deficit-plagued state government took back $171,000 in grants and road funds from Payson and $24,000 from Star Valley which helped balance its wildly unbalanced budget, but deepened Payson’s budding budget crisis. The Arizona League of Cities and Towns promptly sued to prevent the take-backs.

Schools score above average

All three Payson elementary schools scored well above the state average on the AIMS test, intended to measure basic skills. However, sophomores and juniors at the high school barely beat the average and seniors scored below the average in all areas. In math, only 18 percent of seniors met or exceeded the standards — compared to 29 percent statewide.

Star Valley council rejects plan to buy several buildings

In August, Star Valley rejected a plan to buy and fix up several buildings in town to provide a permanent town hall and site for a possible police station, citing the cost, tight town finances and concerns about the cost to rehab the building. The decision to reject town manager Vito Tedeschi’s recommendation started the unraveling of his relationship with the council that led to his abrupt departure later in the year.

Payson’s citizen Design Review Board finishes a year of effort by recommending a detailed set of design standards to make Payson look like a Western, mountain town — with stone and wood finishes on buildings, subdued green and brown colors and a minimum of stucco and red tile roofs. The recommendations touched off months of debate about whether the standards will impose additional delays, costs and frustrations in a market where no one is building anyway. After months of debate and refinement, the council adopts the recommendations virtually without change.

Oldest rodeo rides again

About 6,000 people crowd into town for the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo, with another 1,000 people lining the parade route to watch 71 entries file past — nearly double the number of entries from the year before. Crowd counters noted a 20 percent rise in attendance, although the number of contestants in the rodeo itself declined allegedly due to a drop in total prize money.

Gila Community College reported a 40 percent increase in full time equivalent enrollment, while many other community colleges through the state reported significant declines in enrollment. The rapid rise in class hours for which residents have signed up has bolstered the local college’s struggle to win equal funding. A technicality in the state law requires Gila Community College to operate in a special status, which means it gets about half as much money per student as other colleges in the state.

Pine Strawberry historic ramada comes down

In September, the historic ramada that stood for more than two decades at the old Pine Strawberry Elementary School came down to make room for a new, state-of-the-art structure.

The new round-wood ramada, the first structure of its type in Gila County, showcases what can be done with smaller logs taken from surrounding forests. All the logs were pressure treated to last at least 45 years.

Drug agents found 30 pounds of marijuana bundled and ready for shipment about 10 miles south of Young, near Cherry Creek.

Agents found 4,911 plants from 7 feet to 8 feet tall, with an estimated street value of $7 million. The growing site’s tenders, at the time believed to be Mexican nationals, fled on foot and were not captured.

After ping-pong court battles, a court ruled that Payson could allow voters to decide on the fate of the town’s proposed YMCA.

When the town and the YMCA reached a near-final agreement after nearly two years of negotiations, a group of citizens formed the Friends of Payson and gathered 1,500 signatures to force an election on the long-term lease of five acres and the existing Taylor Pool for the $5.6 million recreation complex.

Tribe, federal officials agree to one pipeline for Rim Country

An historic meeting of Rim Country tribal and federal officials resulted in an agreement to back a single pipeline carrying water for Payson, a dozen housing developments, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe.

The meeting drew about 28 public officials to intensive negotiations, which assured the U.S. Forest Service that local communities would request only one pipeline, and cleared the way for the Forest Service to start the 18-month process of approving the Blue Ridge pipeline route.

Gila County officials also agreed to front $4 million to supersize the pipe for smaller communities that are still negotiating for water rights, while Payson proceeds with the line large enough for itself and the surrounding communities.

Gas prices take a tumble

After months of rising gas prices, Rim Country residents finally got a break when prices started to drop in October.

Near the end of the month, gas prices plunged some 42 cents in two weeks statewide, although the price of a fill up in Payson remained more than 10 percent above the state average. Statewide, averages fell to a six-month low of $3.02 for regular.

By December, prices had fallen another 59 percent from July in Payson to $1.66.

Grant loss pinches domestic shelter funds

After 15 years of service, Payson’s nonprofit resources for victims of domestic violence reported a $100,000 loss in grant money. Time Out Shelter was forced to do cuts in all areas to make up for the 12 percent drop in budget. Wages were frozen, employee travel to educational conferences stopped and the position of a part-time transitional specialist was eliminated.

School campus to be closed

Payson’s school board decided to close campus for high school freshmen during lunch starting next school year. Based on data that parents support a closed campus and a survey predicted no significant financial impact on local businesses, the board decided to put an end to freshmen leaving campus.

Town lays off top employees

With projected declines in sales tax and other revenue, the Payson Town Council in November needed a way to cut $4.5 million.

The council rejected an alternative proposal that would have borrowed $300,000 from millions of dollars in water department reserves but instead opted to cut personnel, including the parks and recreation director, finance manager, fire marshal, town manager’s assistant, grants manager and two people in the building and planning department. They also cut 120 part-time and seasonal employees, mostly parks and recreation workers, who would not have come onto the payroll until the spring.

Other budget reductions approved by the town council included halting almost all street, building and maintenance projects, eliminating new capital improvements, and cutting nearly $500,000 in supplies and outside contracts for landscaping and janitorial services. Employees would also work 10-hour days and town hall would be closed on Fridays.

Suits filed to take over Brooke Utilities

The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District filed a suit to condemn the water companies serving the two towns and asked the Arizona Corporation Commission to revoke Brooke Utilities’ right to operate the systems.

The water company had already refused two purchase offers from the board, the last for $2.5 million. The PSWID claims the water facilities are decaying and provide inadequate service.

Voters say no to override and YMCA

Voters defeated the budget override to fund Payson schools, leaving officials to deal with a possible $400,000 budget cut next school year.

Voters also voted no on building a YMCA on five acres of land in Rumsey Park.

After a two-year effort to bring the Y to town, voters said no to an agreement that would have converted Taylor Pool into a year-round pool and given teens and children a place to hang out.

Businesses close

Corral West Ranchwear, Quilter’s Outpost and Git a Rope! Trading Company all decided to shut their doors with a worsening economy and lackluster sales in December.

Corral West had been in Payson for more than 25 years when its parent company put 91 nationwide stores up for auction and Boot Barn bought up 21, but 50, including the Payson store, had to close down.

Star Valley finances in good shape

Star Valley’s financial consultant Glenn Smith reported the town’s budget is in good shape, with more than $1 million in the bank. The town could find itself in trouble with state-shared income tax and sales tax revenue expected to decline and photo enforcement tickets dramatically dropping. Smith recommended the town set up a rainy day fund quickly to avoid facing financial problems similar to Payson, which had to lay off employees and cut programs.

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