Payson Budget: Half Lurid Fantasy, Half Desperate Penny Pinching

$84-million spending plan hopes for massive federal grants, but reduces staffing to 2002 levels

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The Payson Town Council last week adopted a schizophrenic preliminary budget Thursday — half penny pinching, half lurid fantasy.

The budget totals an eye-popping $83.6 million — roughly $5,000 for every resident of Payson.

But town officials were quick to admit that most of the budget is more a hope than a plan — federal grants the town hopes to get and has to include in the budget just in case.

But when it comes to the $25.5 million for town operations, the budget mostly just holds the line — without this year’s furloughs, but without much new hiring either.

On the revenue side, the budget predicts a huge, $38-million increase in grants. That’s mostly in the hopes that Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick can deliver about $24 million in promised earmarks — including a covered Event Center and money to rebuild four major streets.

But the budget plan assumes little change in most of the town’s tax revenues — based on the assumption that the slow economic recovery will continue to squeeze businesses, and so the town’s tax revenue.

The budget assumes no change in sales tax collections, a small drop in state-shared revenue and a modest $70,000 rise in development fees. The budget also assumes the town council will max out the town’s small, property tax rate — but that will bring in a mere $75,000 more.

The town gets 55 percent of its general fund operating budget from the sales tax, 5 percent from property taxes, 8 percent from vehicle license taxes, 13 percent from income taxes, 5 percent for licenses and permits, 5 percent from charges for services and about 9 percent from other government payments.

On the spending side, most departments will spend another year on a low-calorie diet.

Positions reduced

The total number of town workers could drop from 174 this year to 161 as a result of attrition and retirement buyouts — a 7-percent decline. That will return staffing to 2002 levels. Despite the cuts of the previous several years — this year, town staffing hit an all-time peak.

The projected budget would reduce the number of town workers per 1,000 residents from 11.4 to 9.4 — about the same as in 2004.

The preliminary operations budget devotes 19 percent to police, 12 percent to fire, 31 percent to the water department, 8 percent to public works, 23 percent to general government line employee health insurance and retirement, 3 percent to parks and tourism, 3 percent to community development and 2 percent to the library.

Most departments will have roughly the same number of positions as this year.

Some departments decline

The fire department remains the same at 27, while the payroll in the police department will drop from 49 to 48.

The town attorney’s office will see a 40-percent drop — from 5 to 3, mostly as a result of the retirement of the town attorney. However, the town expects to hire another attorney — continuing the tradition of maintaining a large legal staff for a small town.

The recreation and tourism department will take a hit — going from 11.5 in 2008-09 to 7 next year — a 39-percent drop. However, a portion of that decline is just a paperwork shuffle — since the town moved the parks maintenance staff from the parks budget to public works.

Winners and losers

That could help account for the increase in the public works payroll from 17 in 2008-09 to 21.5 in the upcoming budget — despite the near elimination of road building and even major maintenance in the past two years.

The other big decline in payroll comes in the financial services department, which will go from 7 this year to 3 next year — a whopping 43-percent drop.

Community Development would also decline — from 13 to 11. That’s a 15-percent decline, but comes in a department with hardly any building plans to process. The decline would return staffing to 2004 levels, when the department was handling 200 to 300 permits annually.

Major water projects

The water department would lose one position and drop to 18 — the first change in the total number of workers in that self-funded department since 2004.

On paper, the capital improvements budget makes it look like happy days are here again — and then some.

The $10-million budget for streets and drainage does include $6.3 million to put in infrastructure for the 222-acre Montezuma Castle Land Exchange near the airport — raised by forming an improvement district to tax landowners.

But most of the rest of it is more of a wish list than a spending plan — including hoped-for federal grants totaling $3.2 million for improvements on Mud Springs Road, Bonita Street and Manzanita Drive.

The rest is just rock chips — including $60,000 for an Airport Road roundabout, $45,000 for a crack seal machine and $250,000 for “pavement preservation.”

The water department wants to spend $13 million on capital improvements, including $10 million on the Blue Ridge pipeline that comes from low-cost federal loans and bonds, and $1.8 million in grant money to help the Tonto Apache Tribe finish its sewage treatment plant.

The water budget also includes $200,000 for water lines, $267,000 for vehicles and pumps, $30,000 for radon removal, $53,000 for computer equipment and a $500,000 grant to stabilize the shores of the Green Valley Park lakes.

All told, just the water department’s capital improvements would amount to $755 per resident.

The airport also lined up for the grant sweepstakes — in hopes of bringing several big Federal Aviation Authority grants worth about $3.6 million — with a very small local matching share. Those grants would buy land the town could lease to the airport authority, a widened runway, new signs and an environmental assessment.

The budget also includes $2 million in public safety improvements. That includes $1.2 million in bond money to build a third fire station, $440,000 to build crew quarters for the Main Street station, $287,000 to upgrade the police radio system so it will link more effectively to other agencies and pinpoint the locations of 911 calls, and $143,000 for new police and fire vehicles.

The budget assumes that the general fund will need to get through this year by borrowing $1 million from the water department and start making payments next year.

All told, the town could start the year with $15 million — mostly balances in various special funds like the water department. It would take in $68 million, spend $75 million and end up with $8.4 million.

On paper anyhow. In truth, the bulk of that money may never come — and the town may be left to struggle through another year with little change in its general fund budget, still hoping and praying for a real end to the downturn.

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