Coal In Payson’S Stocking

November sales tax figures reveal more evidence of a slow economic recovery

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The pre-Christmas sales figures weren’t quite a lump of coal in Payson’s stocking — but pretty close.

November sales came in just barely below last year’s dispiriting numbers, and far behind the pre-recession total of 2008, according to Payson’s budget tracking report for November.

So if you’re a glass half empty sort, the figures show few signs that the year-long wallow in the bad economic news will end anytime soon. The figures did offer brief hope back in October, with a sharp rise from the year before. But they slumped again in September and November.

The bleak picture held pretty much across the board, with little change from last year when it comes to revenue from state-shared income tax, state-shared sales taxes, vehicle license fees, building permits or plan review fees.

On the other hand, if you’re a glass half full sort — the figures might offer some comfort. Despite the upturn in the national unemployment rate, the figures give little sign of the shift toward a double-dip recession that has haunted the sleep of economists for the past six months.

All told, Payson’s revenues are running about $320,000 behind the assumptions town planners made when they adopted a $12 million general fund budget back in June. So far this year, the town has spent $469,000 more than it has taken in.

Unfortunately, spending levels have been running a little bit ahead of the budget plan. However, almost all of the over-spending stems from lump sum payments for various things early in the year, like the $24,000 the town contributed to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open and leases on computers and other equipment.

The overall budget also includes about $31 million worth of major new projects, which now look like they’ll never get built. That includes about $21 million in hoped-for federal stimulus projects on which the town has already given up, but which had to go into the budget just in case.

The budget also includes millions of dollars in water and infrastructure projects that might still be built if the town sets up an improvement district near the airport or gets assorted hoped-for state and federal grants.

The town gets most of its money from sales taxes, which remain anemic. The town has collected some $2 million in sales taxes since July, which is about $1,790 less than in 2009. In fact, the recession has rolled sales tax revenues back to levels not seen since 2006 — and left them stuck there for a year.

Unfortunately, none of the town’s other revenue sources have made up for the slow sales.

The town’s revenue from income taxes the state collects and redistributes totals just $625,000 for the year to date, down $204,000 from the same period last year. The state’s distribution of the local share of income taxes generally lags collections by about two years.

That helped the town in the first year of the downturn, with income tax collections still rising when sales tax collections fell off the cliff. However, it also means that income tax revenue will lag a year or two behind the recovery.

The budget envisions tax collections of $6.8 million in sales tax, $1.5 million in income tax, $800,000 in property taxes, $900,000 in vehicle license taxes, $1.4 million in gas tax revenue passed along by the state, $210,000 from a bed tax on hotel rooms and $600,000 for licenses and permits.

The town also collects about $4 million from water customers, but that’s not included in the tally for the general fund.

The report lags a month behind in breaking down the sales tax numbers by category, which can provide a snapshot of how the business community is faring. So the itemized sales tax numbers in the November report actually reflect October sales, which was a much better month.

However, even the October numbers underscore the breadth and depth of the downturn in Rim Country’s tourist and construction-oriented economy.

For instance, the July-October sales tax collections in the pre-recession year of 2007-08 totaled $7.3 million — compared to $2.1 million so far in the current fiscal year.

Since 2007-08, sales taxes from construction fell from $1 million to $122,000, in real estate from $403,000 to $106,000, in accommodations from $313,000 to $116,000 and in retail trade from $3.6 million to $1.1 million.

On the spending side in the general fund, the town’s single biggest expense remains the police department. The police budget of $4.3 million accounts for 36 percent of general fund spending. The fire department budget is $2.6 million, which is about 22 percent of town spending.

Central services, which includes the bulk of the employee benefit costs and other overall expenses, accounts for about $1 million, which is roughly 8 percent of town spending.

The budget for the planning department is about $700,000, about 6 percent of the general fund, although the town has processed only a handful of building permits in the past year.

The town attorney’s office has a budget of $453,000, about the same as the budget for streets and engineering and more than the $353,000 budget for parks and recreation.

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