Payson Plan Still Embraces Big Goals

Council works on plan to present to residents that drops time tables and postpones projects while focusing on

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Mayor Kenny Evans

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Mike Vogel

Growth management — dying.

Mountain town — loving it.

Police manpower — shrinking.

Communications — booming.

Streets — deteriorating.

Event center — banished to limbo.

Water pipeline — brimming.

Fire department — expanding.

Those conclusions all sprouted from the town council’s three-hour work-study session on Tuesday that touched on almost every one of Payson’s hot-button issues. The goal of the study session was to pull together a plan for the future which citizens can have a whack at this Tuesday.

Payson Town Manager Debra Galbraith promised to pull together and post on the town’s Web site the welter of suggestions, priorities and revisions council members offered in a comprehensive, sometimes confusing effort to fuse previous long-range town plans.

The town hopes to release the draft of the new “Corporate Strategic Plan” this week, in hopes residents can absorb the details and implications and then offer their own reactions and suggestions at a special town hall meeting slated for March 24.

The council faced the daunting task of combining the strategic plan adopted in 2006 and the Payson Operational Goal Plan, adopted in 2008 — by two different councils.

The current council hopes to come up with an overview fusion of the two previous plans that will set goals — but leave out many of the detailed lists of projects and timelines. Instead, the specifics needed to implement the council’s master plan would show up in a business plan written by the town manager.

Council members labored through the pages of detail included in previous plans, which touched on many issues that have roiled town politics in recent years. That includes the town’s growth management plan, collapsing plans for the event center, long-suffering Main Street, police department manpower and a host of other issues.

The long session was intended to get a new plan into shape to face citizen scrutiny. Residents can add their own suggestions and critique the council’s priorities on Tuesday.

Water Management

The council agreed the landmark deal with the Salt River Project to essentially double the town’s water supply by about 2015 made moot many of the previous goals concerning water.

The old plan centered on the search for additional sources of water, but the town agreed to drop any future groundwater projects in return for its agreement with the Salt River Project to lock up 3,000 acre feet annually from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

However, the council passed lightly over another vital water-connected issue, the town’s 250-unit annual limit on new home construction. Officially, the plan calls for the town to “review and revise growth management policies as needed.”

In the draft of the plan, Walker had noted the council “may want to rescind housing unit annual limits due to water supply.”

A previous council imposed a 250-per-unit limit on new homes to conserve water, but the restriction took effect just ahead of the national housing collapse. The number of unused permits rolls forward each year, which means builders could obtain 500 to 700 permits in a single year without hitting the limit. The town has about 2,000 empty lots — but only about half of them are actually buildable, according to estimates.

The town hopes to finance the $30-million Blue Ridge pipeline with a $7,500-per-unit fee on new construction.

The council left intact the provision calling for a review of the growth limits “as needed.”

The council also left intact the embrace of a water conservation program intended to limit average daily use to between 80 and 90 gallons per person.

Environmental Protection

The council left intact vaguely worded goals to expand recycling programs, which has consistently rated near the top of citizen concerns. Councilors held out little prospect the town could force trash collection companies to recycle trash without charging residents an extra $10 to $20 per month.

Walker said in small towns like Payson, recycling can’t cover its own costs. Leaving recycling as a goal in the plan means the town will be “constantly chasing the goal, knowing it’s going to be unsuccessful because you don’t have the power to enforce it,” said Walker.

Mayor Kenny Evans said the separated recycled trash would have to be trucked to Phoenix for processing, since it takes a population of 100,000 to 150,000 to support a single recycling center.

Still, a survey of about 8,000 existing customers found 80 percent strongly favored a recycling program. So the council agreed to “explore additional opportunities.”

Development and Beautification

The council reiterated its effort to boost tourism — especially along still struggling Main Street.

It also left in limbo most of the specific projects former town councils had put into the capital improvement plan before the recession.

Officially, the plan still calls for more parking and stroller-friendly amenities along Main Street. However, several council members and a consultant’s report have said the town should focus on several short stretches — especially at the Green Valley Park end. The town has established a historic district and the design review committee is working on design standards with a historic flavor.

However, the plan drops most of the specifics and timetables featured in previous plans. The council completely deleted reference to collaborating with the YMCA to build a youth-oriented recreation facility — an idea buried by voters late last year. Councilors also avoided commitments to major improvements at the Payson Event Center. Previous plans called for a covered, year-round venue for trade shows and concerts, flanked by a convention hotel.

Those plans were shelved when the recession killed off the proposed convention hotel and the council canceled a consultant’s contract to save money.

Mayor Evans has been negotiating with an international group of investors interested in building a resort convention hotel elsewhere in town, but the credit crisis and collapse of housing construction has apparently put those plans in limbo as well.

The plan still envisions a 36-acre master plan, but Tourism and Economic Development Director Cameron Davis said the master plan has been put on hold.

Police Protection

Police fared better than most town departments in meeting goals set in previous plans, but the current plan offers few major new initiatives.

Police Chief Don Engler reported that despite a hiring and wage freeze that has affected most departments, the police have boosted salaries, reduced vacancies and filled nearly all its authorized slots through the adoption of new pay scales based on training and by hiring people with local roots.

Engler said the department now has 32 officers, one short of the authorized full staffing level. The department will lose one officer to retirement soon, but Engler said he will likely leave those two slots empty, now that the town has lost a contract with neighboring Star Valley to provide policing. Earlier this week the Star Valley council voted to instead contract with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office for police patrols.

The strategic plan also calls for the eventual upgrade of the 911 emergency system, thanks to a nearly $1 million state grant. The proposed new system would create a computerized grid to pinpoint emergency calls, police activity and even the location of cell phone callers.

In addition, the plan includes continued development of a regional emergency communications network, funded mostly with money from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Such a system would allow public safety crews from many different agencies to share a communications channel during regional emergencies, while also remaining in touch with dispatchers at their home base.

Fire Department

Fire Chief Marty deMasi reported some success in meeting previous goals, with some major projects left unfinished.

The town won an upgrade in the fire safety rating used by insurance companies to set homeowner insurance rates — from Class Five to Class Three.

The department has also worked actively with the Forest Service and homeowners to reduce the serious threat a wildfire could go rampaging through town.

The Forest Service has thinned a buffer zone around town and the Payson department has tried to get homeowners to thin trees on thickly forested lots.

However, the town also fell one fire station short of improvements promised several years ago when voters approved a bond issue. The town has applied for federal stimulus funds to finish that third fire station, which would be jointly staffed by Payson and the Hellsgate Fire Department, which provides coverage for Star Valley.

deMasi said the town council canceled planned improvements on the Main Street station and the department has exhausted grant money available to help homeowners too far from existing hydrants to install required sprinkler systems.

That prompted a lively exchange with Councilor Mike Vogel, a former firefighter, about imposing a sprinkler requirement on homeowners because the town lacked an adequate network of fire hydrants.

He said the town ought to install hydrants in uncovered areas every time crews “touch the streets.”

“The homeowners have already paid their taxes,” said Vogel, and had a right to expect fire hydrants close enough to protect their homes.

Communications

The council strongly supported a requirement that each department come up with a specific plan to improve communications with the public. In addition, the council embraced the idea of setting as a top priority the improvement of communications with other government agencies — like Gila County and the Tonto Apache Tribe.

The council generally praised the efforts of the recreation and tourism department to get the word out, thanks largely to a new tourism Web site.

However, the police department’s uneven success in hosting public meetings underscored the difficulty of getting the attention of the public during anything short of a crisis. The police department has held eight, advertised community forums in the past two years on topics ranging from burglaries to hostage negotiations. Only a handful of citizens ever attended those sessions, Engler said.

Councilor Richard Croy suggested the town consider putting up a suggestion box at the curb in front of town hall, but Galbraith said the suggestion box already sitting in the lobby of town hall hasn’t provoked a single suggestion in 18 months.

As if to underscore the issue, just one reporter and 10 town staff members attending the goal-setting session ‚ without a single member of the public in the audience.

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