Found Money Offers Lessons

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Payson received some good budget news — finally.

And ironically enough, the good news underscored just how bad the town’s budget controls had become.

Payson Town Manager Debra Galbraith was rummaging through the fiscal drawers trying to find some loose change to put down on next year’s budget when she came across two reserve funds totaling about $1.1 million dollars. The money had been sitting in these funds for years, vaguely earmarked for future capital spending.

So Galbraith asked around, only to discover the town’s outside auditors had been asking about the purpose of those funds for years.

Evidently, a previous town manager or financial officer had put the money aside as the down payment on a five-year capital spending program — but knowledge of the reserve accounts somehow never got passed along.

That probably stems from the complicated and murky shuffle of top jobs at town hall, when the previous council, after an illegal meeting over lunch, set in motion events that led to the resignation of then-town manager Fred Carpenter. Chief Financial Officer Glen Smith retired at about the same time.

So Galbraith, who had just been hired in the finance department, got promoted to town manager — and also served as finance officer and human resources director as the recession gathered. The town went tooling along, spending its reserves without seeming to realize it due to an inexplicable lack of monthly budget tracking reports.

The town hit the fiscal wall in December, when the town council canceled almost all capital spending, froze hiring and salaries everywhere except the police department, and laid off six full-time employees and about 120 part-timers. Meanwhile, the new chief financial officer didn’t make it past his three-month probationary period.

Fortunately, the monthly reports now provide a trove of information as the council gets ready to prepare next year’s equally challenging budget.

The $1.1 million in found money will provide a vital cushion against additional, deep cuts in state support. Of course, maybe the council wouldn’t have cut so deep if they’d known about the million-dollar stash — but considering how things worked out, it’s probably just as well they made those cuts sooner rather than later.

Mercifully, the monthly report suggests the recession hasn’t taken as big a bite out of the Rim Country economy as it has elsewhere. Sales remain well below last year, but they’ve held relatively steady for the last four months. The real estate sector is even showing some welcome signs of life.

Now, we don’t mean to harp on history.

And we suspect that everyone will this year benefit from the budget chaos that last year hid a million dollars in emergency money in plain sight.

But we also hope the councilors heed the moral of the story. It’s their budget and their responsibility — and we hope they never again lose track of the bottom line.

Polka dots and cannibals

Mystery man eaters. Endangered critters Down Under.

The bold use of polka dots.

The expo for kids in the gifted and talented program at Frontier Elementary School this week featured all that and more: Like hope, for instance.

No doubt, America faces challenges. We’re in the ditch, up to the hubs in mud, squinting into the wind-slanted rain.

But those bright, curious, creative students — not to mention their inspiring teachers and their loving parents — give us ample cause to plan a brighter future.

The youngsters demonstrated that we can indeed produce the next, urgently needed generation of thinkers and risk-takers. The students created a world map with the endangered ecosystems cheerfully color coded and made note of the surprising number of endangered species in Australia, staged performances and showed off dress designs making adroit use of polka dots. One student offered a fascinating presentation on whether the Mohawks earned their name — “man eater.”

The expo ought to once again challenge the school board to ask whether the district is doing enough to fully challenge the best and brightest of its students. The joyful creativity unleashed by these presentations demonstrates how to effectively harness a child’s innate love of learning.

Granted, the board faces grave budget challenges.

Further granted, federal funds delivered with great dangling tangles of string often focus on the learners struggling just to get through school — rather than the children who will excel even without extra help.

Still, we hope the board will keep in mind the need to also fully support the students who excel.

After all, someone’s going to have to do something about those endangered ecosystems — and exploit the full, fashion potential of polka dots.

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