Icebergs Everywhere: Budget Sunk

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It was a strange scene.

The outgoing Payson council members made some gracious and glowing observations, supporters cheered, plaques changed hands -- and then three of the people entrusted with direction of the town's financial affairs paddled off into the sunset.

In wake of what followed, it had the feel of the captain of the Titanic hosting a ballroom dance, then climbing into his dingy and rowing off through the gathering icebergs.

Almost immediately, the folks who stuck around for the budget session could hear the ear-splitting screech of ice penetrating steel -- and feel the deck lurch underfoot.

Mayor Kenny Evans and the other newly seated council members then made the gut-wrenching discovery that they're likely to be stressed and harried one-termers, since they're going to have to inflict pain on everyone in town and perfect the enunciation of the word "no."

And granted, it's not Payson's fault that a frenzy of delusional greed caused a national credit meltdown, which smothered the construction market, which triggered a national recession -- and spurred a drop in Payson building permits from the long-term average of 250 to about 100. And it's not Payson's fault that sales tax receipts dropped by more than a million dollars as a result of a recession the town council did nothing to create.

Payson didn't create the problem that now confronts it -- but self-delusion, poor management and political considerations made it much worse than it had to be.

We suspect the roots of the problem lay in some still murky shuffling of the town staff last fall, when the council essentially forced out the town manager and the personnel director close on the heels of the resignation of the finance manager. Having engineered the coup, the council then turned the town overly to the newly hired assistant financial manager -- making her interim town manager, finance manager and personnel director.

From all accounts, Debra Galbreath has been an energetic and forceful town manager. Perhaps no one could have pulled off the task the council handed her -- especially not when operating without a contract in the middle of an election. Reportedly, she inherited an accounting system that made it hard to figure out exactly where the town stood on a month to month basis.

We cannot understand how the upshot of all that could be that the council proved so poorly informed as to the town finances. In most jurisdictions of any size, the governing body gets monthly reports that show what percent of the year's budget has been spent and what percent of the anticipated revenues have been received. That way, a gap between spending and income shows up quickly.

It now turns out that Payson for the past eight or nine months has been spending about $500,000 more than it was taking in.

We just can't think of a reasonable excuse for not putting in place a financial tracking system that would have given the town council and the town staff early warning of this slow-motion disaster. If the council had gone into fiscal emergency mode six months ago, perhaps they would not have spent the entire rainy day fund, spent money on many worthy but non-essential initiatives and not now face this meat-ax plan to impose 10 percent, across-the-board cuts on every department -- as part of the plan to shrink overall spending by 15 percent.

That could mean cutting nearly a million dollars from the fire department budget on top of eliminating overtime. That could mean cutting another million from the police budget, on top of leaving three authorized positions vacant. It could mean devastation for the parks department, which could be forced to shut down the pool, cancel a host of wonderful programs and figure out why it went and made itself dependent on impact fees to pay salaries -- now that all the impact fees have gone away.

In truth, mismanagement and poor communication and an almost willful council decision to look the other way in the furor of the political season, has left the current council without a single attractive option.

We suspect that even if the bilge pumps keep the place afloat, the council will have to jettison all sorts of precious cargo. We're not sure that the town manager's attempts to seal the gash below the waterline without throwing any employees overboard can be sustained. But even if the council gets wonderfully creative, getting through the next year will almost certainly require town residents to do without many needful services and will also sideline many bold and vital initiatives undertaken in the past year.

It didn't have to be this bad.

And we hope that at least one legacy of this budget wreck will be an effective fiscal tracking system and a clear-eyed, sharp-penciled council. Someone has to constantly check the charts, long before you get that wrenching ice-through-steel wakeup call.

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