The Blue Ridge pipeline will die.
So too an ASU campus in Payson.
Mayor Kenny Evans will step aside.
So too will Vice Mayor Mike Vogel.
Street improvements — going.
Millions in federal grants — going.
Third fire station — gone.
After that, come the layoffs and the shutdown of Payson’s parks.
Those are some of the firm predictions about what will happen if voters who this week received their mail-in ballots reject Home Rule, a ballot proposition that gives the town the authority to exceed a 1980 state spending limit. The measure would cut town spending authority from about $47 million to $19 million.
“Might as well just shut the doors and unincorporate, because there’s no way this town could function,” said Vogel.
Evans said he will step down if voters reject Home Rule and that the town would have no chance of convincing ASU to set up a college here if Home Rule fails.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. I would view it as a referendum on the current leadership. We’ve made tremendous efforts to keep moving forward. But if (defeating Home Rule) is what voters want — that’s all right. But I won’t live with it.”
Evans said, “Home Rule was never as much about money as it was about power. We should not give bureaucrats at the capitol power over the amount of money we can spend. It is really about power and political control — let’s keep it at home.”
Currently, Payson anticipates some $47 million in revenue this year, including a $10.5 million federal grant to help build the Blue Ridge pipeline.
If voters reject Home Rule, Payson can spend only $19 million, a number based on town spending in 1980 adjusted for inflation and population growth.
The formula doesn’t take into account that Payson since 1980 has acquired both a water department and a fire department, which cost the town a combined $9 million.
Even if voters elect to impose the draconian spending limits they won’t see any drop in their taxes. The limit applies to spending — not revenue. However, the town council could eventually cut some tax rates as the tax money accumulates in the bank account or it could hold out for the two years the town would have to wait to ask voters again for permission to exceed the spending limit.
In the meantime, Payson would have to give up $10 million to $15 million in state and federal grants, say town officials.
Voters have routinely approved the higher spending limits every four years since 1980. Normally, it’s a ho-hum campaign.
But this year, town officials are terrified at the prospect the recession coupled with voter anger directed at the state and federal government will prompt a taxpayer revolt.
Town officials also worried this week about the potentially confusing ballot the county prepared for voters. The ballot has the council candidates on one side and the Home Rule proposition — in both English and Spanish — with the boxes to check for a yes or no vote hidden inconspicuously at the bottom of the right hand of the page.
Perhaps the only thing more confusing than the ballot to many voters will be the town’s budget, with its complex layering of various funds, which makes it hard to crisply project the impact of imposing a $19 million limit on spending. The spending ceiling would likely rise to $21.5 million over the next three years.
The town council in the past two years has already cut several million dollars out of the town’s general fund and eliminated almost all capital improvements and street projects. In addition, the town has eliminated part timers, effectively cut salaries by up to 15 percent, imposed a hiring freeze, laid off six workers, eliminated overtime and holiday pay, increased employee paid health costs and closed its offices on Fridays.
Currently, the town spends about $14 million on its general fund budget, half of it for police and fire. In addition, the town spends $6 million on the water department, $1.6 million on debt service and $2.1 million in employee health and retirement benefits. Just those functions add up to some $4 million more than the spending limit that would apply if Home Rule fails.
Just to get down below the limit then, the town could have to eliminate parks, tourism, the town attorney, information technology, public works and financial services altogether.
Even that understates the problem — since it leaves out a host of other functions that come out of various funds, which would all be affected by the spending limits.
That’s true even if the money comes mostly from the state and federal government. For instance, the town would probably eliminate the $1 million airport budget, although 90 percent comes from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The town would also likely eliminate some $2.2 million in street funding, which comes from state gas tax money.
The town would likely eliminate the $460,000 budget for the library, although half of that money comes from Gila County.
At the request of the Roundup, town finance officials provided a list of current town spending plans. That list totaled some $43 million, more than twice the $19 million spending limit.
For instance, the police department now spends some $4.5 million annually to maintain a force of 30 officers. Cutting the force in half would save barely $2 million.
The fire department spends $3 million to maintain a force of 21 firefighters and 10 reserve firefighters. Cutting that in half could leave the town protected by a single fire engine with maybe two firefighters during many shifts.
Evans offered another way to think of the cuts, saying the town had some $10 million in fixed “legacy” costs, $10 million in public safety costs, and $10 million for everything else.
“So which piece of the boat do you want to cut off,” to get town spending below $20 million. “People get to choose which part of the sinking ship they want to go down with.”
All four council candidates campaigning for three seats have supported Home Rule and some have made it the most prominent element in their campaign ads.
Former Town Manager Fred Carpenter, hoping to unseat one of the three incumbents seeking re-election, called the provision requiring voters to waive the spending limit every four years “one of the goofiest things ever,” at a recent candidate forum.
He said rejection of Home Rule could require the council to impose “ruthless priorities” and eliminate “all but the most essential services.” Rejecting Home Rule “would not save any taxes, but would shut down libraries and parks. Just think about the quality of life.”
He added that “Payson is already a star in low taxes — less than 5 percent of your property taxes go to the town,” concluded Carpenter.
Vogel, at the same forum, agreed. “It’s much more important for Home Rule to pass than for me to get elected. “I don’t think you can run this town on $19 million,” starting with any hope of building the Blue Ridge pipeline. “There’s absolutely no way we could do any of it and that’s not a scare tactic. That’s a fact.”
Vogel said he’s been heavily involved in trying to recruit new businesses to bolster the sagging regional economy. All those prospects would evaporate, if voters reject Home Rule and the town council has to shut down parks and other amenities and make deep cuts in police and fire protection.
One audience member asked why no one seemed to be in support of a vote against Home Rule. “I haven’t heard a single word” to support a no vote, he said. “What’s the downside?”
“Well,” retorted Vogel, “if you want to destroy the town, then go right ahead.”
“People will say they’ll save taxes, but they won’t,” said Carpenter.
“There’s just nothing being said on the other side,” the man persisted. “I think that’s wrong.”
“Everyone I’ve talked to that says they might vote for it because someone else told them it’ll save them money. And I say, but they’re just lying to you. Maybe when we passed the law 30 years ago, it was a good idea — but it’s just not designed for small, growing communities,” said Carpenter.⑁