Payson’S Budget News Brightens

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We were leafing through Payson’s brand-new, 23-page, monthly budget update report, when we thought again — and fondly — of our favorite cliché: That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.

Then we flipped back to the nice chart on the leveling off of sales tax receipts in December and January. Nice mottled gray background, with the monthly data points printed right on the trend line. So pretty.

We have been critical in this space of the Payson Town Council’s long, cross-eyed stumble into financial crisis. For nearly a year, as the once-breathless rise in revenues slowed, paused, trembled, then plunged, the council got not a single monthly — or even quarterly — financial report.

One worthy, but optional, expenditure after another would show up on the agenda. One council member or another might ask, “Do we have money for this?” Upon receiving vague reassurance, the nice, but not necessary, item would win approval. In retrospect, it was like watching Mr. Magoo give driving lessons.

Only much later did the councilors learn that, quite without intending to, they’d spent the two- or three-million-dollar reserve fund built up in the boom times.

Mind you, these budget add-ons mostly served some worthy purpose. Moreover, even if the council had retrenched the first month the trend lines turned ugly, the town still would have faced a rough year.

But the lack of financial information and the council’s curiously passive acceptance of their long drive in the fog seems odd in the rearview mirror.

But that was then. Now is better. Way better.

The monthly reporting format that debuted this week was a thing of beauty, for us budget geeks. Although, it helped that Town Manager Debra Galbraith presented some potentially heartening news in colored charts with spot-on summaries.

Essentially, the frightening plunge in sales tax receipts in September and October leveled off and seems to have stabilized at levels about 10 percent lower than last year. Rim Country seems to be weathering the financial crisis better than many places.

Moreover, the budget tables demonstrated the town has this year held the line on spending across the board. Even the police department — with its vital fixed costs devoted mostly to payroll — has spent only 42 percent of its budget with 58 percent of the fiscal year gone.

The town staff has done a marvelous job of digging in and continuing to offer vital services despite the hard blows and layoffs. Even in the parks department, which suffered huge, and we still think, disproportionate cuts — staff members, volunteers and supporters like Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation have managed to keep things running without canceling a single major program.

No doubt hard choices lie ahead — but now those choices will at least be informed — and timely.

The crisis hasn’t killed us. And it’s looking like it’s made us stronger.

Good job, Payson.

Save a natural wonder

State parks this week became the latest victim of the legislature’s budget roulette — including Tonto Natural Bridge, between Payson and Pine.

The legislature has for years systematically under-funded the state’s precious inheritance of natural wonders, recreation and historical sites that comprise the 27 parks in the system.

But this year, the legislature not only slashed the general fund contribution from about $8 million to $3 million, it also stole about $32 million out of various funds legally earmarked for recreation and park development.

As a result, the already struggling parks system may close one-third of its sites. Tonto Natural Bridge will lose all its part-time and seasonal staff, along with the funds to fix a leaky roof and renovate the historic lodge.

Now, you’ve no doubt helplessly read a lot of these dispiriting budget stories lately and it often seems like there’s not much the average citizen can do.

Not quite true on this story.

Tonto Natural Bridge already relies critically on volunteers to run the gift shop, explain the mysteries of travertine and keep the clueless from wandering off into slippery areas. But now volunteers will determine whether they can keep the park open at all.

So we hope you will lend a hand and give the nice folks at the park a call at (928) 474-4202. Odds are, you’ll get the message machine — since they don’t have anyone to answer the phone. Just leave a message for the volunteer coordinator.

It’ll be tough wandering around a beautiful place with a fascinating history, helping people enjoy one of the state’s most interesting natural wonders. But hey, someone has to do it. And the next time you read a story about some depressing budget cut — you’ll know you at least did something about it.

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