Incumbent Payson Town Council candidates Ed Blair and Su Connell didn’t disagree on a single issue during their first candidates’ forum, but expressed mutual, passionate support for a four-year college in town and voter approval of Home Rule.
They faced articulate, well-informed and only occasionally confrontational questions from about two-dozen members of the Citizens Awareness Committee at the first of two council candidate forums last week.
Incumbent Vice Mayor Mike Vogel and council challenger Fred Carpenter will face the group this week, in what’s shaping up to be the only candidate forum before the mail-in ballots go out on Feb. 11.
The most spirited exchange of the session was provoked by the vigorous support both Connell and Blair offered for Home Rule, a measure on the ballot that gives the town permission to exceed a stringent spending limit first imposed by voters in 1980.
Voters must approve a higher spending limit every four years. If voters don’t approve the higher limit this year, the town would have to reduce total town spending from about $20 million to less than $14 million.
“We could hardly pay for public safety (police and fire),” said Connell.
“We would have to close this library, parks and recreation. We would have to reduce police and fire and cut the water department. It would delay or threaten bringing a university to town and the Blue Ridge water.”
It would cause a virtual collapse of town services.
“We don’t want another dust bowl in Payson, Arizona,” said Connell.
Blair agreed. “I want to make sure that everyone knows this is not an override,” which would give the town permission to raise taxes. Rejecting Home Rule would not change any tax levels, but would prevent the town from spending money it collects — including even grants like the $10.5-million grant Payson received to help build the $30-million Blue Ridge pipeline.
Blair said Tucson voters stunned city officials recently by rejecting the normally routine extension of Home Rule there.
Blair said he thought voters lumped it together with budget override measures for schools, which would have the effect of raising property taxes.
Payson Unified School District will have such an override proposal on the same ballot as Home Rule, seeking a bump in the property tax rate that would bring in $1.2-million and cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $82 per year.
Blair said Home Rule will not raise Payson taxes. “It’s all about what you can spend.”
But Dan Adams challenged Blair’s statement. “I don’t think what you’re saying is true.”
“It is, Dan,” said Blair. “But let’s talk about it.”
Adams said if the town collected more than it could spend, eventually the town would “send it back to taxpayers.”
“I don’t believe we can,” said Blair.
“Yes, you can,” retorted Adams.
“We would have a limit. We couldn’t spend it,” said Blair.
“You could spend it on something. Don’t give me that,” groused Adams.
Budget experts say the extra revenue from sales, income and property taxes would likely accumulate, since the town would be unable to spend above the limit — based on a formula that allows increases based only on an inflation adjustor and population growth. The formula doesn’t take into account new programs, as when Payson established a water department.
However, the town could presumably reduce its property tax or local sales tax rate to ultimately reduce the amount of money coming in.
The 90-minute council forum mostly illustrated the overlap of Connell’s and Blair’s positions on a wide range of issues.
Connell had originally decided not to run for another term, but changed her mind when the town began serious negotiations with ASU to build a four-year college in town.
A retired business executive who has championed community programs like the Time Out battered women’s shelter and Rim Country Literacy, Connell served uncomfortably through the battles over growth control and the confrontational politics that prevailed during the term of former Mayor Bob Edwards.
Although she rarely clashed with anyone publicly, Connell ended up increasingly aligned with the council dissidents at the end of Edwards’ term.
By contrast, Councilor Ed Blair, a former minister who shows up at almost every community activity and delights in long conversations, constituent service and odd questions, had been one of Edwards’ most stalwart supporters. As it happens, most members of the Citizens Awareness Committee had also been strong supporters of Edwards.
But last week, the forum offered no sign that Connell and Blair had ever disagreed about anything.
Both offered headlong support for a deal with ASU to build a four-year campus in Payson.
“With 90-percent confidence, I believe we will have a university and I hope it is ASU. This college will be the biggest economic benefit that can happen,” Connell said.
She predicted it will boost sales taxes, increase home values and diversify the economy.
“This is the future of our town,” said Connell.
“It is absolutely the biggest thing since sliced bread, apple pie and motherhood.”
Blair agreed. “I’m finding 98 percent of people I talk to are all in favor of this university.”
Blair said the town has some $70 million in pledges to support the plan. He said the impact fees that developers will pay will amount to an extra $2.5 million to build the Blue Ridge pipeline.
One audience member questioned whether the town should finish the Blue Ridge pipeline before approving a big, new water user like the university. Still speculative timetables suggest the university could break ground in two years, but Blue Ridge water won’t arrive for at least four years.
Blair agreed the Blue Ridge water is vital for the long-term development of a campus that will probably start with 1,000 to 1,500 students, but could grow to 6,000.
However, he said the town has enough water now to serve the college in its early stages. The town’s current capacity of about 2,400 acre-feet from its wells could support a population of some 23,000, but the town’s population right now stands at about 17,000.
Responding to another question, Connell said bringing ASU to town could also help resolve problems with Gila Community College, which as a provisional college gets half as much state support and is effectively controlled by Eastern Arizona College in Safford.
“Gila Community College will be used as a feeder college” to the new ASU campus, said Connell.
“There’s going to be a very, very strong linkage. (GCC) has been shortchanged in many ways, but they’ll work hand in hand with ASU.”
Both candidates also strongly supported the construction of a third fire station, despite the current budget concerns.
The town council recently approved contracts to buy a piece of land on the boundary between Payson and Star Valley and build a fire station at about half the cost of a conventional fire station, using bond money approved by the voters in 2003 — supported by a .12 cent boost in the local sales tax. The town council recently renewed a hiring freeze and furloughed all town employees two days a month — including fire fighters.
As a result, the fire department has shifted from three-man to two-man crews on many shifts.
The third fire station could be finished in the fall, but the town doesn’t currently have the money to staff it. Putting one truck with three firefighters in the station would actually require the town to hire nine firefighters to provide coverage 24 hours a day.
However, Blair said the town can pay for three or four of the needed firefighters by cancelling its $188,000 annual payment to neighboring Hellsgate Fire Department to provide mutual aid —especially in the area of the proposed third fire station. The town hopes to get a federal grant to cover the salaries of three or four more firefighters for the first five years.
He said the town could pay the construction costs simply by extending the .12 of a cent surcharge on the sales tax. The town can afford it “because you keep paying .12 of a cent every time you go to the store,” said Blair.
Connell also supported the third fire station, saying it would improve fire protection and response time for medical calls in the Rim Club, Chaparral Pines, the Knolls and other neighborhoods.
She noted “there will be no increase in taxes because of the third fire station because this was passed unanimously by voters in 2003.”
“Nothing ever passed unanimously,” corrected one audience member.
“But it passed,” said Blair.
Perhaps the sharpest criticism the two council incumbents received during the forum came from Jack Jasper, a former member of the Traffic Advisory Board.
He criticized the council for cancelling all major street projects in its desperate and ongoing effort to balance the budget as the recession withered tax revenue.
“The infrastructure of this town has been terrible practically the whole time I’ve been here. Our infrastructure is in failure mode. Some streets in this town have gone 30 years without having a single thing done to them.”
He said the town doesn’t have an adequate infrastructure to even support a four-year college and thousands of students.
“This thing is going to affect a lot of people and the makeup of the town will change. It’s really sick to have the infrastructure of the town like it is now and we’re even going backwards now because of the economic situation.”
But Blair said the town couldn’t do much about deteriorating streets without new development to foot the bill. “We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for someone else to pay for it,” he said.