The Payson Town Council last week voted unanimously to partner with Star Valley to form a special district to build a college campus.
The culmination of more than two years of effort was shadowed by Gila County’s apparent rejection of Payson’s offer to join the partnership.
“I drove to Globe with a big stack of papers and got grilled for an hour on what our motives are,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “We do not want money. There’s no future obligation. We were just reaching across the gap that has existed between north and south (Gila County).”
Payson had hoped that Gila County and Star Valley would join in setting up a Separate Legal Entity (SLE), which would insulate local taxpayers from any liability in the plan to build a $500 million, 6,000-student, four-year college campus and support facilities — including a convention hotel, research park and solar cell assembly plant.
Payson wants to establish an SLE to buy the 360-acre site from the Forest Service, build the classrooms, lease the facilities to Arizona State University or perhaps another school and then strike up side deals with private companies to build the dorms, a hotel, research park, solar energy generating facilities and other infrastructure.
The SLE would have a governing board that would include elected officials. That board could impose taxes only within the boundaries of the district. If something went terribly wrong with the project, investors could not sue the cities that had established the SLE.
Payson had originally hoped that it could partner with ASU to form the SLE, which would make it easy to share revenues and juggle the various leases and contracts to keep tuition as low as possible for students attending the Payson campus. The town managed to push a law through the Legislature that would remove the current restrictions on letting universities and school districts participate in forming an SLE. However, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the measure, complicating the overall plan.
Payson then turned to Star Valley, which promptly agreed to set up the special district. State law requires at least two towns or counties to establish an SLE.
Evans then journeyed to Globe to win the support of the Gila County Board of Supervisors.
However, the board majority seemed skeptical, said Evans.
“They continued to be hung up on why we needed them — which we don’t. It seemed cavalier for a county supervisor to say ‘this is for northern Gila County and doesn’t affect the south end.’ I see the county as the County of Gila and hoped they would use it to bridge some of the past divisions.”
Historically, Gila County remains politically split between north and south. The most recent census showed that the north county has a little more than half the population and the lion’s share of the assessed valuation, but two of the three county supervisor districts remain dominated by voters in the south county, where the county seat also lies.
A redistricting committee is now meeting to try to hash out new district lines, both for the board of supervisors and for the Gila Community College board. North and south divisions have also complicated that process.
The Payson Town Council listened in bemusement to Evans’ report of a frustrating meeting with the board of supervisors, then approved the formation of the SLE. Last-minute changes in the resolution made Star Valley the legally required partner, but left the door open in case the Gila County supervisors decide to join in the effort.
Evans said participation in the district has no downside for the county, since the county would not have to put up any money or even lend its bonding capacity. The current plan envisions using low-interest, private loans to build the campus and support facilities, which the district would then lease to ASU and various private companies. At the end of that lease period, the SLE would still own all the facilities.
“With a residual value of the facilities at $500 or $600 million, we were offering the county a chance to be a one-third partner at no cost,” said Evans. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me. But not to a brain in the south end of the county I guess,” said Evans. “And I worked 48 hours trying to get calm enough to tone that down.”
Evans said the supervisors seemed concerned that building a four-year campus next door to Gila Community College would drain students away from the community college.
Gila Community College has remained distant from the long and complicated effort to build a college campus in Payson, mostly because key college board members with districts based in the south county have refused to return phone calls or participate in discussions.
In theory, a relatively low-cost college campus could drain students from a nearby community college, since qualified students might prefer to take their freshmen and sophomore classes at the four-year campus instead of at the community college campus.
However, ASU officials say they hope to coordinate their program closely with GCC, so students could take lower division classes at either campus with an assurance all the units from GCC would transfer to the four-year degree. ASU has similar “2 + 2” agreements with many community college campuses in the Valley. In theory, students could keep costs down by taking as many lower division classes as possible at GCC.
Evans said that even if supervisors have concerns about the impact of the campus on GCC, they can best protect the interests of the community college by participating in the formation of the SLE.
“We have no agenda. We’re not trying to steal their ideas. We’re trying to unify this county behind the biggest project to come along in years,” said Evans.