The Payson Town Council crossed its fingers, cast one quick worried look over its shoulder at voters and then quietly approved a key engineering contract for the Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline.
The contract with Automation Electric to design the control systems for the pipeline and treatment plant will keep the roughly $30 million project on track to deliver water in 2014 or 2015.
Much of the cost of the engineering contract can be covered with a $10.5 million package of federal grants and loans the town nabbed as part of the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus plan.
The town plans to pay the rest of the cost of the project with a combination of water impact fees imposed on new development and other low-cost federal loans and grants — all secured by bonds based on water sales.
However, lately the deep shadow of an upcoming Home Rule vote has crept over the until-now brisk move to design and build the pipeline, which will run some 14 miles from Washington Park to near Mesa del Caballo along Houston Mesa Road.
Payson voters this week will likely receive in the mail their mail-in ballots for the March vote on both Home Rule and the Payson Town Council elections.
If voters reject the Home Rule proposition, Payson would have to reduce its spending by half or more — and would likely not be able to pay for the Blue Ridge pipeline — even the portion of it financed by federal grants.
Back in 1980, the state’s voters approved a measure intended to slow the growth of government spending by locking towns into that year’s spending totals. The measure included a formula to limit future increases based on a combination of the inflation rate and population growth.
However, the measure didn’t include a provision for changing a town’s spending limit when it took on major new tasks — like Payson’s acquisition of a water department, which now spends more than any other department in town.
The measure did give voters the ability to waive the spending limit every four years — the so-called Home Rule provision. Approval of that provision doesn’t affect tax rates like a normal budget override vote. The town would still collect just as much money — it just couldn’t spend it.
Payson voters have routinely approved Home Rule every four years since 1980.
However, the recession and last year’s defeat of the Payson Unified School District’s normally routine request for a budget override to boost property taxes slightly has Payson officials running scared.
That anxiety turned to near panic recently when Tucson voters defeated their own Home Rule provision, sending a chill of fear through every Home Rule city in the state.
Payson officials have said that if voters here reject Home Rule, the town’s spending limit would provide barely enough money to provide police and fire services — with no money left over for the water department, parks and recreation, administration or other town functions.
Payson officials said it’s unclear how Home Rule would affect the town’s ability to spend the millions of dollars of state and federal grants it receives, but that they suspect the town would be unable to spend that money either.
Still, last week the council decided to go ahead and approve the contract and hope for the best when voters fill out their ballots.