“We’ve stopped the bleeding,” Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said of the town’s finances before a polite and attentive Citizens Awareness Committee audience.
Evans noted that, as of October, the town had collected $560,000 less in sales and building taxes than its “already conservative” budget had projected. That prompted the layoff of six town employees and all the part-time and seasonal workers. It also prompted the cancellation of all capital projects, including most street maintenance.
“That’s our new traffic calming device,” joked Evans, “let the cracks grow wider, let the potholes slow them down.”
But nearly three months later — the town revenues are running just $570,000 behind projections.
He noted that council members have been serving janitorial stints since the town canceled its contract with an outside company to clean town hall, which also now shuts down on Fridays.
“I clean the toilets and change the paper towels,” he said — “it sets a tone.”
During the fiscal year that ended last July, revenues fell and the town spent all its reserve funds before adopting a $35-million budget in July that reduced spending by 10 percent. The December cuts and layoffs trimmed spending by an additional 27 percent, said Evans.
“It appears we cut the right order of magnitude,” said Evans in a wide-ranging question and answer session before the CAC.
Evans covered a host of topics, starting with the town’s battered and bloody budget. He also made sometimes surprising observations about Main Street, the Forest Service and the Payson rodeo.
On Main Street, Evans said the nearly two-mile length of the street simply doesn’t draw enough traffic to sustain the continuous row of shops envisioned in previous plans.
“If a city the size of Scottsdale has three-eighths of a mile downtown, how in the world can Payson afford to have a mile-and-a-half of Main Street?”
Instead, he said, the town should focus on creating “kernels” of development — by ensuring clusters of businesses develop at certain intersections.
However, he objected to the use of any taxpayer funds to develop private businesses. “It is a gross crime to extort money from the taxpayers to get people to do things they won’t do with their own money. You can pour millions of dollars into the process and the problem that caused those businesses to fail will still be there.”
On the other hand, Evans saw no problem with the investment of taxpayer money to build an ASU satellite campus in Payson. Although plans remain speculative and ASU has not yet said it wants to build a branch campus in Payson, Evans said he’d spent at least 14 hours in meetings in the past week discussing the possibility. ASU is facing huge cuts in this year’s proposed budget, which would likely postpone spending on any new campus. However, Evans noted that ASU could educate students far more cheaply by adding branch campuses than by expanding the main ASU campus.
ASU’s campus would qualify as the seventh largest town in Arizona, based on population. The enrollment is projected to double by 2015, but just buying the downtown Tempe land necessary to accommodate so many students would cost $350 million, said Evans.
“They’ve determined they want to build three remote campuses and Payson is on that list,” said Evans.
A branch campus in Payson for perhaps 1,000 students would immediately become the third or fourth largest employer in Rim Country — and an “economic stabilizer.”
Evans expressed a little more frustration about working with another major government bureaucracy — the U.S. Forest Service, especially when it comes to something as vital and politically charged as getting permission to build a pipeline to deliver 3,000 acre feet annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Evans said it required four years of wheedling to get the Forest Service to formally accept even the letter asking forest officials to accept the plan. Only then can the Forest Service start the necessary environmental studies of the proposed pipeline from Washington Park on the upper East Verde down to Houston Mesa Road. At that point, the water from the reservoir would pass through a treatment plant and then into the town’s water system.
Moreover, several Forest Service officials raised questions about the ownership of the water, which drained off federal land and then passed over federal land in the pipeline, so the town went to newly elected Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who introduced a law making clear the town and the Salt River Project own the water.
The Forest Service finally accepted the letter, but now “it’s hung up at one desk in one Department of Agriculture office” in Phoenix, where the Tonto National Forest is headquartered.
“Does that sound a little strange?” asked Evans, “that the nation’s second largest national forest is headquartered in the one of the largest cities?”
Fortunately, said Evans, Payson has time. Current plans call for delivery of the water sometime between 2015 and 2017.
On the other hand, changes in the organization and lineup for this summer’s 125th running of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo can’t wait, he said.
The town, the chamber of commerce and advocates for the rodeo have been meeting to figure out how to cope with a decline in the participants, prize money and relevance since the rodeo moved from a pine-shaded arena in Rumsey Park to the open site across from the casino. A failed plan to build a convention center and hotel and a canceled consultant’s master plan have left the future of the event center in limbo.
Evans said that backers of the rodeo have agreed the event needs to get back to its roots as a “community rodeo” rather than a professional rodeo, attended by professional cowboys and out-of-town tourists.
“We need to re-energize the old families and get them involved — roll back to our roots.”
He said organizers want to make the rodeo a 10-day event, with as much involvement as possible by local groups and local riders.
“It will be a great parade. It will be the best rodeo — a community rodeo,” he concluded.