Lawmakers Again Dump On Towns

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Payson got another heaping dose of bad news this week, courtesy of the Arizona Legislature. Despite three years of living painfully within its means, the Payson council learned Tuesday that it faces a potential $731,000 deficit — thanks in large measure to state sweeps of local funds and soaring state benefit costs.

The council got the bad news in a briefing Tuesday together with a list of potential cuts — all of them painful.

The governor and lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session this week, with a last-minute budget deal that keeps getting worse as we examine the fine print.

Gov. Jan Brewer and the Republican leadership in the Legislature had an extended face off, mostly focused on whether to set aside a mere $500 million surplus or a plump $1.1 billion surplus.

In the end, they more or less split the difference.

Mostly, that means lawmakers won’t ease the impact of wrenching cuts made in the past two years, which have debilitated schools and local government.

Payson briefly thought the budget compromises would restore perhaps $100,000 in reductions of state-shared gas tax, vehicle license and other revenues. But while the details remain unclear, it appears that once again politically potent Maricopa and Pima counties managed to glom onto most of the extra money — leaving struggling rural counties out in the deepening cold.

In addition, Payson must deal with spiraling employee benefit costs. Partly, that’s due to a wrong-headed state Supreme Court decision that locks cities and towns into absorbing the spiraling cost of health benefits for retirees.

Payson spends an incredible $17,000 annually for each of 41 retirees covered by older, lopsided and irresponsible contracts. Moreover, the town in the past two years has been forced to come up with an extra $215,000 to fund already costly pensions for public safety personnel.

So it looks like another year of hard choices and dwindling public services. Clearly, the town can’t afford to fill the vacancies in the police department or adequately staff its brand-new third fire station.

Of course, the frightening rise in pension and health benefit costs might make those vacancies and even contemplated layoffs a necessary evil. So long as those public workers carry with them a costly, but largely hidden benefits costs, the town must think carefully about how many employees it needs.

In the meantime, the dispiriting dilemma makes the Legislature’s smug brag that it cut taxes and balanced the budget ring dreadfully hollow.

Heartless fools live among us

The cruel and criminal act of an arsonist underscored the dangers facing Rim Country as we head into another frighteningly dry spring.

Some reckless fool used an accelerant to light brush on fire at midnight Wednesday in a wooded area near The Home Depot.

Firefighters rushed to the scene and prevented the blaze from spreading, but the incident offered a useful reminder of the dangers we face.

The drought has returned with a vengeance, after two years of nearly normal rain. We’ve had about a third of the normal rainfall since January. Roosevelt Lake has shrunken to two-thirds of its capacity. So has the Blue Ridge Reservoir, on which Rim Country’s water future so desperately depends.

As a result, we seem poised for a re-run of last year’s awful fire summer. The 600,000-acre Wallow Fire in the White Mountains not only set an all-time record, it very nearly consumed Alpine and Springerville.

So we must all pay attention.

Homeowners must keep an eye open for that tell-tale wisp of smoke — and hit 911 immediately. Better yet, homeowners should call the Payson Fire Department for a free firewise inspection — then eliminate the fire dangers posed by thick brush and interlocking tree limbs.

In the meantime, we hope that the town council will move as quickly as possible toward adopting a tough and efficient firewise building code. It simply makes no sense to build any more homes with flammable roofs, overhanging wooden eaves and easily ignited building materials in the middle of a thick forest.

We cannot simply hope our luck holds — not when we know that heartless idiots like this week’s arsonist live among us.

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