What’s well trained, under-utilized and can save Payson and Star Valley money at the same time?
Sounds like a trick question — but there’s a simple answer: A building inspector.
The Payson Town Council happily approved a deal with its once-contentious, now cooperative neighbor to provide building inspections and other planning services at a set hourly rate.
Under the terms of the agreement, Payson will provide building inspections; plan review and other services for its neighbor at a flat hourly rate, depending on the level of Payson employee providing the services.
For instance, general employees will cost $50 an hour, building officials $75 an hour and zoning administrators, consultants and engineers $100 an hour.
Star Valley will likely recoup all of those costs through the permit fees it charges.
The agreement will help Payson put to use a planning, building and zoning staff often idled by the lack of building permits for new development. The Payson planning department used to process permits for an average of 200 to 300 homes annually, but in the past few years the total has remained closer to 30 units annually. The new developments that once dominated council agendas have vanished, leading to routine, half-hour council meetings.
The Payson community development department has scaled back some, but retains plenty of extra capacity to handle the relative handful of permits and building inspections in Star Valley.
On the other hand, the occasional construction project in Star Valley doesn’t provide nearly enough work for a full-time building/planning employee there.
The Star Valley council has also approved the agreement, after hearing estimates that the town would save $50,000 or $100,000 annually by contracting out the services rather than relying on added town workers.
Payson council members also professed themselves delighted by the arrangement.
“This just shows that times have changed and we’re all working together,” said Councilor Su Connell.
“I’m delighted with this contract — and the spirit of cooperation between our towns,” said Councilor Ed Blair, who had objected to an initial proposal that featured a $20 hourly rate for most services. Town Manager Debra Galbraith initially suggested the lower rate after calculating the direct salary costs, however, the council directed her to include proportionate benefits and other overhead.
The contract represents the latest turn to cooperation in a relationship that was once distinguished mostly by Star Valley’s concerns about whether Payson’s ownership of the Tower Well threatened Star Valley’s water table.
Concerns about the Tower Well actually galvanized the incorporation of Star Valley in 2005. However, subsequent studies convinced the Star Valley council to shift toward cooperation when it comes to safeguarding the water supply. Star Valley recently bought out the private water company serving a portion of the town. The council also bought three unused Payson wells connected to Star Valley’s water table. Moreover, Payson agreed to connect the Tower Well and its whole water system to Star Valley’s just acquired water system, so that Payson could provide an emergency backup water supply.
Star Valley has relied heavily on relatively low-cost contracts to provide basic public services, since it has a minimal tax base on its own, with no property tax and few sales-tax-producing businesses.
Star Valley contracts with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office for police services and enjoys fire protection through the independent Hellsgate Fire Department, with the cost financed mostly by property tax payments. Star Valley spends about $400,000 annually for police protection — about $200 per resident. Payson spends about $4.7 million on its police department, about $300 per resident.
That actually understates Payson’s cost significantly, since the town’s budget puts many of the benefit costs in a separate category not broken down by department. Typically, benefits add about one-third to the salary cost of a public employee.
Star Valley’s reliance on such contracts has minimized its exposure to future liabilities for pensions and medical costs. The contracts don’t obligate Star Valley taxpayers to provide future benefits. By contrast, Payson pays about $17,000 annually for just the medical benefits provided to each retiree — with firefighters and police officers especially costly since they can generally retire with substantial benefits after 20 years, regardless of their age.