Payson Plan Hits All The Political Hot Buttons

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Mayor Kenny Evans

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Mike Vogel

It’s lean.

It’s mean.

It’s a plan.

And no one seems to care.

After a year of peddling surveys few voters bothered to fill out, and in the wake of a much-advertised public hearing, few bothered to attend, the Payson Town Council this week settled on a slimmed down priority list for coming years.

The draft Corporate Strategic Plan will replace two other long-range plans adopted by the previous council majorities. The current council dropped much of the detail in favor of a broader overview, which will be continually updated as circumstances change.

The council’s new approach will leave the mass of detail and timelines to a new business plan, which Town Manager Debra Galbraith will draw up based on the just-adopted strategic plan.

About 15 people attended the Tuesday meeting designed to get public input. But the public offered so few comments that the council canceled a Thursday special meeting, reasoning the town could make some minor changes and call it a plan.

The speakers on Thursday had few complaints.

Several complained that the town’s 911 emergency system cannot pinpoint the location of cell phone callers seeking help in a life-threatening situation. Others focused on whether the town’s insistence to conserve water on landscaping will produce an ugly little town.

However, both of those issues are actually addressed in the current plan and the current town code, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

In the case of emergency calls, the town has in hand a million-dollar state grant to upgrade the 911 system, including a way to pinpoint the location of people on cell phones.

In the case of water-thrifty landscaping, the town code calls for the use of low-water-use native plants off an approved list, but leaves the specifics up to consultations between the developer and both the town’s water department and the design review board — with the council having the final say.

However, Jeanie Langham challenged the council with the enforcement of some of those codes, citing the barren look of public projects like several roundabout and highway frontages. She also touched the sore point of the way in which the town nagged one local bank about a beautiful stretch of grass, shade trees and benches at the entrance to town. When the bank’s well ran dry, the bank decided to rip out the lawn — which inadvertently killed the trees.

Council members agreed the town had been inconsistent about requiring sometimes-expensive landscaping plans in approving private development, but then leaving public spaces like the roundabout barren to save money.

“Sometimes it seems like our laws apply to everyone but us,” said Councilor Mike Vogel.

However, the council concluded that the existing town code and design review process adequately serves to both encourage water conservation and make the town look good.

Other key elements in the Corporate Strategic Plan included in the draft version include:

Water management

Secure water rights: Word that the town last week won a $10.5 million stimulus grant that will pay for about a third of the cost of the Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline has turned the top priority of previous plans into a matter of just cleaning up the details.

Develop water infrastructure: Essentially, figure out how to upgrade the town’s water system — which includes making preparations to add in the Blue Ridge water, provide service to undeveloped areas and upgrade the fire hydrant system, which remains spotty in some of the older areas of town.

Reduce water consumption: Stick to average use of 90 gallons daily, look at ways to use water bills to reward thrifty water use, educate students about conservation and encourage installation of water-saving devices.

Review growth management: The town’s 250-permit-per-year growth management plan was originally based on worries about outstripping the groundwater capacity. With Blue Ridge nearly certain now to double the town’s water supply by 2015, growth management may also have died. However, the plan calls for the town to “review and revise” the plan “as necessary.”

Communications

Develop communication plan: Each department must come up with better ways to communicate with the public. The Internet and e-mail represent a major new way to reach out to voters, in addition to “maintaining and improving” programming on the town’s public access cable TV channel. The council cited the new visitors guide page developed by Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis as a model. The town also hopes to expand the services available by e-mail, including a system that would allow people to download and submit things like building applications and to pay town fees on the Internet.

Environmental protection

Recycling: The plan calls for the continued “exploration” of recycling programs, although the council discussion suggested prospects for a program remain bleak.

Fire protection: The plan encourages neighborhoods to become nationally certified “firewise” communities, a program that encourages thinning and reducing fire risks. The fire department already has an active program to advise people on thinning trees on their lots, but the push for severe thinning often provokes angry homeowner reactions.

Killer weeds: The council added a call for the control of potentially poisonous weeds — like Star Thistle, which can kill horses who eat it. Town crews are already waging a war of attrition on the noxious invader at the rodeo grounds.

Community development

Beautification: The plan calls for the use of stepped up code enforcement to reduce the number of “unsightly” properties, with junkers, weeds and heaps of trash-like stuff. Many of the more than 100 people who filled out a long questionnaire earlier had complaints about such trashy looking front yards.

Affordable housing

Implement the nearly-completed plan to increase the number of homes available the average Payson wage-earner can actually afford. Before the recent 30 percent drop in home prices in most neighborhoods, even workers like teachers, firefighters or cops could not afford a house in Payson. The housing plan calls for more high-density zoning for apartments and multi-family units, plus a more aggressive effort to help connect first-time buyers with various loan and housing assistance programs.

Transportation

Improve streets and drainage: The plan vaguely promises better streets, but offers few specifics. The ambitious timetables in previous plans got washed out this year like a dirt road across the East Verde this year when the town canceled its whole public works plan. Next year could be worse, according to budget projections.

Implement 2010 street plan: The one bright spot on the street scene remains a grant that will pay for a study of traffic circulation throughout the town and perhaps the potential impact of a highway bypass to let drivers go from the Beeline to Highway 260 south of Payson without driving through town. That study of traffic flow in town also holds the key to controversial issues like the extension of Sherwood Drive to Airport Road.

Recreation and economic vitality

Restart parks plan: Someday, the town will finish the canceled plan to figure out how to provide enough park space and programs. The council also embraced the goal of providing more land for parks. On the other hand, in actual practice, the council recently, almost without discussion, eliminated about half of the park land designated in the just-completed master plan revisions on an airport area land swap with the Forest Service.

Develop event center: Budget woes prompted the town last year to cancel its contract with a consultant to come up with a long-range plan to turn the rodeo grounds into a covered arena that could attract conventions and trade shows. The plan still calls for study of the 36-acre site, but internal debates about the future of the rodeo, the loss of a proposed convention hotel and ongoing money woes has stalled progress. The one bright spot is news of a $1.8-million federal stimulus grant, which will complete the Tonto Apache Tribe’s sewage treatment facility and create a 2-acre lake, year-round stream and about three acres of grassy park on the edge of the event center.

Enhance economic performance: The council’s new priority list does call for the development of an economic plan and continued improvements on Main Street, in hopes of attracting more free-spending tourists. However, the plan also calls for the ultimate development of an industrial park within the Green Valley Redevelopment District. In practice, the effort to revive Main Street was on life support, even before the closure of the Main Street Grille produced an economic code red. A luxury condo project that was supposed to bring more residents and foot traffic still hasn’t broken ground, months after the projected start.

Fire protection and medical services

Develop fire hydrants schedule: The big gaps in fire hydrant coverage prompted one of the few lively exchanges of the two public sessions on the plan, when Vogel argued the town should do a better job of filling in the gaps in the course of street repairs. Neighborhoods built before 1980 have significantly fewer fire hydrants than the newer neighborhoods. Town officials said the town would have to add 200 to 300 new hydrants for all areas to meet the current standards. Currently, the town adds needed hydrants whenever crews do repairs, but that could take decades to reach all areas of town.

Third fire station: The town ran out of bond money before it could build a third fire station promised to voters years ago. The town has now applied for federal stimulus money to build a station in cooperation with the Hellsgate Fire Department, which provides fire protection for Star Valley. Completing that station remains one of the main, specific goals of the new plan.

Police services

Update staffing and salaries: Several of the goals call for competitive pay for officers and dealing with projected vacancies and retirements. Police Chief Don Engler reported that the department is now just one officer short of full, authorized staffing — but will soon have a vacancy due to retirement. He said he could leave those two positions vacant, now that the town no longer contracts with neighboring Star Valley to provide police protection. Meanwhile, hiring officers with local roots has reduced turnover and giving officers pay boosts for additional training and certification has made salaries more competitive, he said.

Joint training facility: Right now, firefighters and police officers often must travel to the Valley for training — an expensive and time-consuming process. Both the police and fire departments want to build a training center in town, perhaps in conjunction with a third fire station. That training center could serve the whole region, but the town doesn’t have the money for it unless it gets federal help.

Emergency communications: The department predicts that a million-dollar state grant will provide a major boost in emergency communications, perhaps by early next year. The town won the grant to serve as a pilot program for a computerized, GPS-based system that will allow emergency dispatchers to pinpoint the location of any cell phone signal, even if the caller can’t speak or provide an address. The system would provide better reception, computerized tracking and record keeping as well.

Airport

Implement master plan: The council’s strategic plan calls vaguely for the implementation of a master plan for development of the airport, now run under contract with the town by a semi-independent airport board. The Airport Authority, run mostly by local airplane owners, saves the town more than $100,000 annually, but the council and the authority have struggled at times to define their relationship. The Federal Aviation Administration has made it clear that the town remains responsible for following federal rules, which has prompted the town to tighten up its contract. The Airport Authority has drawn up a master plan for the future of the airport, but has refused to release the plan, which should come before the council in the next several months.

Reportedly, the Airport Authority wants to turn the small restaurant into something that can attract people from in town who want a table with a view. The plan also envisions a host of businesses that want to have access to the airport and more light industrial development — a chunk of it on airport-owned land — paying rents that would support airport operations.

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