To sort of quote Mark Twain: Rumors of the budgetary death of Payson are greatly exaggerated.
An effort to prepare for an upcoming budget study session by developing an economic “worst-case scenario” has spawned a week of rumors the council may soon shut down all the town’s recreation programs, lay off all the part-time staff and resort to other draconian cuts.
“Because the economy’s in such a mess, there’s a general disposition to add to the rumor mill,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “The real challenge of that is that it creates added anxiety on the part of our staff and on the part of the people with whom we do business.”
A series of conversations involving Town Manager Debra Galbraith and department heads combined with the coincidental overhaul of many personnel and organizational regulations, spurred a week of frightening rumors among town staff.
The most-often repeated rumor had the town council shutting down all the recreation programs and laying off all of the part-time workers who keep things like the town’s booming after-school sports leagues functioning. Participation in the town’s recreational programs has jumped almost 40 percent in the past two years. Much of that
increase generates fees.
Evans said the council has asked for three contingency plans — one for an added 17 percent decline in revenues, one for a 25 percent decline — and one for an even deeper “worst case” decline lasting for several years should the country slip into a full-fledged depression. The council asked Galbraith to present that range of impacts at a Nov. 15 budget study session.
“We’re not projecting that revenues are going to be down 17 or 33 percent or that we’re going to have a depression, we just want want to be prepared in the unlikely event that does happen,” said Evans.
The whole chain of contingency planning that fanned the rumor wildfires started several weeks ago when the council got a budget update showing that sales taxes were lagging behind the projections on which the budget adopted in July was based.
The continued slowdown in taxes and building permit fees combined with slow payments from the state had caused a cash flow problem.
Overall, the town budget planners had counted on $7 million in sales taxes for the year, but income for the first few months had lagged about $300,000 behind expectations.
Evans said the town currently has about 10 vacant positions, most of them in the police and fire departments. At the moment, those positions remain frozen. The police department is about 10 percent below its authorized strength, although major crimes have fallen significantly this year despite the vacancies.
The town has so far avoided layoffs, even in the planning and zoning department — where the normal average of 250 permits has shrunk to about 50 for the year so far. The director of planning and community development resigned under pressure several months ago and has not been replaced.
Evans said so far all of the discussions amount to fiscal disaster planning scenarios, with no layoffs or program shutdowns up for a council vote. Even if the council does decide to further cut programs or staffing, the discussion and vote would not come before December or January.
“Of course, if you’d asked me three weeks ago if the bank run by the Kuwaiti government would lose a trillion dollars over the weekend, I’d have said that’s impossible. I would guess that ultimately everything would be on the table if we end up with the worst-case scenario and have an extended depression in this country — but in terms of what the staff has been asked — no, we aren’t planning to cut recreation programs. That’s being driven by the rumor mill.”
He did say the council will review spending in every department.
“Every single position is being put under a microscope. There is nothing that the council has directed the staff to take off the table — and that probably is fueling some of the speculation in terms of the rampant rumor mill because we didn’t say ‘don’t touch this, or don’t touch that’ — so they think we are telling them ‘do touch this and that.’”