Case Of The Dog That Didn’T Bark

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We blew it.

Didn’t mean to: But we did.

And we’ll try to make it up to you.

We’re talking here about the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, a low-key, mostly-overlooked organization crucial to the future of Rim Country.

The sewer district has operated quietly for years, providing wastewater treatment to most of the residents of Payson and surrounding subdivisions.

We haven’t covered them. Not enough reporters. Not enough time. So many other controversial, high-visibility beats. Sewage plants aren’t quite so glamorous as robberies and rollovers.

So we never quite added it to the beat responsibilities of our harried, stretched-thin reporters.

The Sanitary District board went about its business, which included imposing hefty impact fees to get newcomers to contribute to a growing bank account to provide future expansion of the district’s facilities. State law allowed the district to hold cozy, insider elections — that required voters to go down to the district’s office to cast a ballot.

So no one ever ran and the volunteer incumbents met all by themselves over lunch to conduct the public’s business — all properly noticed and above board, but all pretty much overlooked.

Then the recession hit and the building industry locally collapsed, taking the narrowly based economy with it.

We’ve all suffered the consequences for the past four years — falling home prices, rising unemployment, long lines at the food bank, rising struggles among young families, falling town revenues.

Now that we all understand the importance of responsible, sustainable growth, some people have started wondering whether it makes sense for the sanitary district to charge some $5,400 each time a new home hooks up to the system and $24,000 for a restaurant to add seats. Reportedly, several restaurants and other businesses considering setting up shop in Payson have dropped their plans after finding out how much it would cost to hook up to the system.

Mind you, the district has $14 million in the bank, takes in nearly $700,000 more than it spends every year and has no up-to-date figures on the need for expansion.

Fortunately, several candidates opted to run against the incumbents — who seem surprised by the hubbub. But that just proves the system works. No matter what voters decide, the challenge at the polls will force the district to ask the tough questions.

Of course, if we’d done a better job of covering the Northern Gila County Sanitary District these past few years, someone might have asked those questions sooner. We’re on the case now, but we still feel embarrassed. We’re supposed to act as the watchdog, but we got distracted chasing other rabbits. Sorry, guys. But it does make us grateful to our readers, whose subscriptions ensure that we’re still around, to make it up to the community we love.

Hospital a top performer

We’re lucky.

Payson is just a little bit of a town — but we have a medical center with a big reputation.

The Payson Regional Medical Center this week won the eagerly sought-after designation as “top performer” for the second year in a row from The Joint Commission, the independent body that inspects and accredits some 3,400 hospitals and 19,000 medical facilities of all sorts.

The Joint Commission reviewed medical records at 3,400 institutions to see if the doctors and nurses there followed high standards of care in treatment of heart attacks, pneumonia, asthma, strokes and other services.

Only 18 percent of those hospitals this year qualified as “top performers.” Only 7 percent — just 244 — met that high standard two years in a row.

That select rank included the Payson Regional Medical Center in both pneumonia and surgical care. The rankings only apply in categories that include more than 30 cases, which prevents a few unusual cases from affecting the ratings.

Certainly, the 44-bed rural hospital faces challenges common to rural hospitals throughout the country. The small patient base makes it difficult to attract specialists and keep up with the demands of technology. Moreover, people living in rural areas generally face more health challenges, have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of medical insurance. All those challenges apply here, with a worrisome 30 percent of Gila County residents relying on the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System for their coverage and 22 percent have no insurance at all.

That’s a challenge, no doubt. But then, we’re also lucky to have a hospital that ranks among the top performers — no matter what challenges it faces.

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