Payson Tightens Budget

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Idle street crews will keep the parks tidy, firefighters will mostly answer medical calls, town planners will try to keep busy despite empty “in” boxes, recreation programs will rehire seasonal workers — and Payson workers generally will eke out another year.

That’s the picture that emerged from the second of two, long budget hearings, this one focusing on parks, fire, planning, streets and other struggling departments.

Overall, the adopted budget will likely take a huge jump — mostly due to already granted or still hoped-for federal stimulus grants. Many of those grants might not materialize, but the town has to budget the money in case they do.

However, when it comes to town operations supported mostly by the shrunken sales tax revenue, 2009-10 looks like more dining on shoe leather and lighting candles for an economic recovery.

The department heads each offered presentations, mostly highlighting cuts, new efficiencies and budgets slightly lower than even the current, deeply cut totals. The figures are all preliminary, as administrators continue to refine revenue projections, prioritize spending cuts and gather suggestions from the town council. The following preliminary figures were presented at the recent study session.

Tourism: $250,000

One of the few winners in the struggle for money was the tourism department’s ment’s budget for promoting events and luring sweltering Valley residents to the high country all summer. The tourism budget will rise from $230,000 this year to $250,000 in the fiscal year starting in June — up from $140,000 when the department was created in 2007. The increase mostly represents some administrative shuffling as a result of merging tourism and recreation, plus a pay boost for Cameron Davis — who took over the management of the merged departments after the layoff in January of Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester.

Recreation: $552,000

The parks budget should make a frail recovery from the deep cuts made in the current fiscal year, including getting back some of the seasonal workers who the town laid off this year. The budget will drop sharply on paper, but that’s mostly the result of moving the budget for maintaining parks over to the street department. The parks budget will raise fees on most of its recreation programs, leagues and events to make sure that they all cover their own costs — which should provide the money to hire more seasonal staff. The plan calls for the swimming pool to remain open, but stints on the once-ambitious timetable for building a network of hiking and biking trails town officials once hoped to build up into a tourist-luring town amenity.

The town council also asked the staff to undertake a study to figure out whether out-of-town residents ought to pay extra for using town facilities or participating in recreation programs.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans noted that when he looked at his property tax bill, he discovered he’s paying $100 to Payson but $1,200 to Gila County — and suggested the town might approach the county for help in paying the cost for county residents using town facilities.

“We’ve already started those discussions,” said Town Manager Debra Galbraith.

Library: $344,000

The library budget will shrink an added $75,000, leaving the remaining three librarians and three part-timers doing their own cleaning and struggling to keep the doors open. “We’ve reduced down to close to nothing,” said the head librarian. “We would not even have our doors open the days we do” except for money raised by the Friends of the Library.

Ironically, the economic downturn has substantially boosted visits to the library — many by people suddenly unemployed. “We’re seeing people living in their cars — and these are not vagrant people, they have gotten down on their luck.” For many, the library provides a respite and resources.

The town provides about $212,000 and the county library tax supplies the rest of the library’s dwindling budget.

Engineering: $217,000

The town’s street-related engineering budget peaked in 2008 during the town’s brief street-building frenzy in 2007-08, but dropped to $216,000 last year. It will increase just $1,000 this year from last, but that’s still well above the $136,000 budget for 2006-07. That budget line mostly covers expenses assigned to Town Engineer and Public Works Director LaRon Garrett.

Streets: $2.1 million

The streets department has dropped to half the $4.2 million peak in 2007-08. That marked the end of a period of rapid growth in street building that coincided with a building boom that boosted permits from 300 to 400 annually at the peak — and continued for a year or so after the housing market collapsed.

In the current budget, the council canceled several million dollars in street projects. Meanwhile, the state also sharply cut the allocation of federal gas tax-funded projects, which normally account for the bulk of street projects.

As a result, the 18-person department has had only a trickle of new projects. This year, the council cut even the most routine street maintenance, not to mention money for new vehicles and equipment.

The budget cuts have left the street department with so little to do that the street crews have taken over maintaining the town’s parks. This year, Galbraith moved the $500,000 parks maintenance budget over to the street department.

State legislative leaders have warned towns to expect another sharp drop in gas tax money in the upcoming year.

As a result, almost the only street projects slated for the upcoming year will draw state and federal funding — with only minor local money needed as a match.

Projects planned for fiscal 2009-10 include:

— $124,000 for sealing up cracks in existing streets.

— $390,000 for a roundabout on the highway at Airport Road, which represents the town’s 25 percent match for a state-funded project.

— $5,000 to finish the plans for the eventual extension of Mud Springs Road to Highway 260.

— $10,000 to continue buying right of way for the eventual widening and rebuilding of Bonita Street.

— $200,000 in case the residents along Cedar Lane form an improvement district to overhaul the street. Residents would eventually pay the money back.

— $1.5 million to replace septic tanks with hookups to the main sewer system for people living in Rancho de Tonto, near Luke and Airline drives, not far from Payson Elementary School. The residents and the sanitation district would eventually repay the town the money advanced.

Fire Department: $2.8 million

The fire department’s budget would increase significantly, but only if the department manages to land federal grants to hire more firefighters and build a third fire station, operated jointly with the Hellsgate Fire Department, which protects neighboring Star Valley. Currently, the Payson Fire Department operates two stations and has at least seven firefighters on duty around the clock. Keeping seven firefighters on duty at all times requires a total force of about 22, plus a fire marshal, nine on-call, backup firefighters, one secretary and one fire chief. All told, 87 percent of the department’s budget goes to pay salaries — and the fire department as whole accounts for 8 percent of the town budget.

Most of that $2.8 million pays to have firefighters on fire trucks answer emergency medical calls, which constitute 70 percent of the department’s calls overall. In some communities, private ambulance companies take the medical emergency calls. However, medical calls quickly dominate the activity of fire departments in any city that decides to train firefighters as paramedics and emergency medical technicians to take advantage of the distribution of fire stations with round-the-clock staff.

The fire department’s spending has remained remarkably stable for the past five years, despite a growth in population, a construction boom and then a recession that devastated the town’s revenue.

Fire Chief Marty deMasi told the council he can get through another year with only a minimal increase in the operating budget — providing no disasters threaten, like a forest fire in the thick brush and forest at the edge of town. “I’m in the bad day business,” said deMasi, “but as long as we don’t have any of those — we’ll be OK.”

The department has applied for an ambitious list of federal grants, including $3.8 million for a third fire station, $500,000 to remodel the Main Street fire station, $100,000 to hire two or three more firefighters, $150,000 to thin overgrown and fire-prone sections of town and $600,000 for new training facilities.

Not even counting the big federal stimulus grants, the departments wish list budget leaves room to accept and spend some $1.5 million in federal grants — compared to the roughly $45,000 received this year.

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