Payson Economy Holding Its Own

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Despite three years of turmoil and trauma, Payson’s economy this year has held its own, according to a year-end financial summary released this week.

The summary shows town revenues have held surprisingly steady for the past three years, which is fortunate since the town has absorbed significant cuts in state-shared revenues from income taxes and gasoline taxes.

Moreover, the town has given up on a federal grant for police officers and firefighters, leaving both departments staffed at well below levels envisioned when the council adopted its budget back in June.

Fortunately, spending in most departments remains below projections — cushioning the decline in state-shared revenue.

“At this point in time, we are staying on budget,” concluded finance manager Hope Cribb in a new, quarterly report that pulls together the monthly tracking statistics the town has issued ever since its budget meltdown at the start of the recession in 2009.

The report shows that local sales tax revenues have barely changed since 2009, standing at about $2.6 million for the first six months of the fiscal year in each of the last three years.

The same holds true for revenue from property taxes and local vehicle license taxes that stems mostly from car sales.

Moreover, business license fees have remained virtually unchanged — rebutting the common perception that the number of businesses in town has dwindled significantly.

Taken together, the three-year comparison shows that the local economy has shambled along little changed in the past three years, after tumbling from glorious highs in 2007 and 2008.

One exception to the local economic stall lies in bed tax receipts from hotels, but that probably mostly reflects a sharp increase in the town’s bed tax imposed last year. In the first six months of fiscal 2009, the town collected about $58,000 in bed taxes. In 2011, that total rose to about $94,000.

The town promised hotel owners it would devote the money from the increased bed tax to promoting tourism. The town’s tourism budget for the first six months of the fiscal year totaled $55,000, a little more than half of the money collected through the bed tax.

Water bills produced the other major increase in revenue for the town in the past three years, once again reflecting a rate increase. For the first half of the fiscal year, water revenue has risen by 11 percent since 2009 to $2 million. That increase comes despite a decline in the number of permanent residents.

The report also shows that despite deep cuts in the recreation department’s budget, the amount of money collected in fees to use town facilities has increased sharply. Revenue from fees for the first half of the fiscal year since 2009 have risen a daunting 67 percent to $97,000.

In contrast to the relatively stable local tax collections, most of the money collected by the state and shared with cities has plunged.

For instance, the figures show that shared income tax money has dropped by 35 percent to $645,000 for the first six months of the fiscal year since 2009.

Moreover, shared gas tax revenue dropped by 17 percent to $500,000, money the town relies on to repair and maintain streets.

Moreover, Cribb’s summary report said the town has given up hope for two federal grants — including a $143,000 grant to hire extra police officers and a $353,000 grant to hire more firefighters to staff the town’s just-completed, third fire station. At one time, both grants seemed plausible — but that was before federal budget problems shut off the spigot on additional economic stimulus grants.

As it turns out, the police department has been hit by a series of firings and resignations, leaving the force three officers below the level authorized by the budget in June.

The fire department also remains under budget despite not collecting the hoped for federal grant. The town council decided to go ahead and open the third fire station without the money to hire a full complement of firefighters, in hopes the grant would cover the difference.

Instead, the town has been forced to rely on an expanded force of volunteer firefighters and by reducing the number of firefighters on each truck on some shifts. Studies show that smaller crews take longer to accomplish critical tasks and have a higher rate of firefighter injuries.

The report also includes some tantalizing hints that the dead and buried housing market is starting to show some fitful signs of life.

Development fees stood at $103,000 in the first six months of fiscal 2009, but fell off the cliff and landed at $65,000 the following year. However, in 2011 they rebounded to $190,000 — a more than three-fold increase over last year. Those development fees mostly represent projects still in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, construction-related permits this year rose 56 percent to $97,000.

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