Happy Town: New Star Valley Councilors Enjoy Short Meeting And A Balanced Town Budget

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Star Valley swore in three new council members and reseated one mayor Tuesday, at a now typically brief, harmonious meeting dominated by good news on the budget.

Long-time community activists and leaders Barbara Hartwell, Gary Coon and George Binney took the oath of office before about 20 people in the Star Valley Baptist Church on Tuesday night alongside Mayor Chuck Heron, who took the oath for his second term.

Councilor Nathalie Stroup watched from the council's desk, having been appointed to fill a vacant seat after placing a close fourth in the election.

The meeting also marked the end of Chris Benjamin's brief term as a fill-in councilor. Benjamin, who played a leading role in the town's incorporation and headed the committee considering water issues, grinned and accepted a plaque thanking him for his four-meeting stint as a town council member.

The new councilors in the course of their first half-hour meeting faced a distinctly more pleasant prospect than their counterparts in neighboring Payson, where the first order of business for the new council was a proposed 15 percent budget cut.

By contrast, Star Valley on Tuesday adopted the final version of its $5.5 million budget, up from the roughly $2.5 million it spent in the current fiscal year. The town dramatically under spent the current adopted budget, mostly by not buying either a privately owned water company or a sewage treatment company as projected.

On the other hand, money coming in this year from grants, taxes and the town's revenue from speeding tickets generated by the town's photo enforcement stations have helped push revenues 15 percent above projections for the current year with a month of the fiscal year and the peak of the traffic ticket season still ahead.

The big projected jump in revenue for fiscal year 2008-2009, which starts in July, relates mostly to traffic tickets issued to people driving through the town on Highway 260. The budget projects nearly $1 million in new revenue from those tickets, and about $800,000 or so in expenses for issuing the tickets and collecting the fines.

Revenue from sales tax and permit fees did run a little behind projections this year, but with relatively few businesses and only a modest number of new homes built annually, Star Valley has never depended on those revenues like Payson, where staffing to handle 300 to 400 in permits annually in the past month has processed about 100 permits. Star Valley's one-man building department issues about 7 permits per month -- 91 total for the year so far.

The town also budgeted up to $800,000 to buy out the Payson Water Company. The town has offered $475,000, which Brooke Utilities has refused. The town is in the process of going to court to condemn the facilities and get a judge to set a price for a forced sale.

Town Manager Vito Tedeschi reported to the newly seated council that with 92 percent of the current fiscal year complete, the town has taken in 115 percent of the projected annual revenue and spent just 48 percent of the adopted budget.

Two members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors -- Tommie Martin and Shirley Dawson -- both attended the swearing in and complimented the council on the progress the town has made in more than two years since incorporation.

Dawson said she was pleased to see the new members on the council who had battled the county often first to increase services to area and then to incorporate.

"I wouldn't say you whined a lot," she joked, "but I heard a lot from you. This is what this country is about -- people saying, ‘that isn't fair and we want to be in charge."

Noting the big increase in spending to $5.5 million she joked "no wonder taxpayers are grumpy, but you're doing wonderful things with it."

Supervisor Martin said "I am just delighted at the progress the town has made and just let us know if there's anything we can do to help you."

None of the new council members made a public comment during the typically brief meeting. Mayor Heron had quipped at the start of the meeting that a five-minute delay to get the sound system working might spoil his recent record for getting the meetings wrapped up in less than half an hour.

Heron read from a prepared statement after taking the same seat for a new term, admonishing the new council members against "micromanagement" which is the "pitfall of leadership."

He said, "when focus in leadership is ill-defined, the smallest details can swirl us around like a feather in the wind. It's impossible to be focused if there's nothing to be focused on."

So he urged the council to articulate a "clear and compelling" vision for the town's future. "Then we will do anything to get there."

He urged each council member to "hold yourself to a higher standard" and to ask whether a given action is right, not just legal. "Remember to serve in the best interests of all the people," he said, and concluded by paraphrasing Barry Goldwater who said "I will not discuss whether legislation is needed until I discover if it is constitutionally permitted."

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