After six hours of budget hearings, the Payson Town Council finally found a staff recommendation it didn’t like — the proposal to convert the part-time manager of the Payson Event Center into a contract employee without benefits.
The town’s budget committee consisting of two council members and town administrators had proposed making Charlene Hunt, who now works 29 hours a week and receives full benefits into an independent contractor — not entitled to benefits.
However, the council balked at that recommendation last week in its second three-hour budget hearing, which mostly focused on tight budgets for parks and recreation and the fire department, but featured no fresh layoffs of town employees and an easing in the current, informal hiring freeze.
The proposed budget would continue a near freeze on capital improvement projects and street maintenance and probably even cancel grants mostly funded by the state and federal government. Even so, the town would have to gamble on making it through the year with little in reserve, thanks largely to a projected drop in tax revenue from the state.
But in the nearly seven hours of budget hearings last week, only the recommendation to convert the event center manager to a contract position to save an estimated $5,000 provoked extended council discussion — and a split vote.
“Seems to me there are justifiable reasons for converting an employee into a contract labor position,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, “but in all my years, I’ve never done it as a cost-saving measure. We could make the same decision on every single department you have — why not let firefighters be contract labor?”
But Councilor Mike Vogel argued for the change, saying that the town should stop subsidizing the operations of the rodeo grounds.
“This would be the third budget that I’ve brought it up. The event center is a black hole and we keep dumping money and money and money into it — even though the majority of people who use it are not from the town of Payson.”
The event center hosts several rodeos, and other special events. But day in and day out, it mostly serves as a place where Rim Country riders can exercise their horses, compete in local events and barrel races and mingle with other horse people. Many horse owners live outside the town limits, in the larger-acreage properties in Star Valley and in the county territory, town officials said.
Vogel said he wanted to make sure the event center could eventually pay its own way, by charging higher fees to people who use it. He said out of town residents should pay a higher fee — and get in line for all town facilities behind residents who pay town taxes.
“We have to start coming up with a program where we’re not subsidizing the county, because that bottomless pit just keeps getting deeper and deeper every year,” said Vogel.
But the council ultimately voted 6-1 against converting the event center manager’s job to a contract position.
“I think we should leave it alone,” said Councilor Richard Croy, “we have lots of programs that don’t pay their own way. We’ve got a whole building department that’s upside down” since the planning department retains an almost full staff even though applications for new construction have all but vanished in the past two years. “Still, we’re not going to disband it,” concluded Croy.
Councilor Su Connell argued the town must keep supporting the event center, especially in light of the recent controversy caused by the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce’s decision to turn the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo over to the newly formed Rodeo Preservation Alliance, instead of letting the Pro Rodeo Committee continue to run it.
Connell said the rodeo brings 20,000 people to town in the heart of the tourist season. “I hear a lot of people saying we’re trying to get rid of the rodeo and this would be another validation of that.”
After the council voted, Hunt rose to thank the council. She also said she’d held a meeting involving many of the local horse owners who use the event center and they’d agreed to pay higher fees for use of the facilities.
“I understand the budget constraints, but there isn’t a rodeo grounds anywhere that makes money,” she said.
Town Manager Debra Galbraith then said she would work the higher fees into the budget proposal, which should reduce the town’s subsidy of the facility’s operation. An upcoming barrel race that involves about 160 local competitors would bring in about $13,000 under the new fee structure, said Hunt.