Revealing Tale Of Two Cities

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Payson’s going broke.

Star Valley’s rolling in dough.

Wow. What a difference.

That difference went on vivid display this week, with budget hearings in both towns.

Four years into the downturn that seems never ending, Star Valley’s in great shape. The town this year substantially increased its already hefty reserves, thanks to under-budget projects, tight spending control and an unwillingness to add employees. The town’s general fund totals about $2.8 million — with a total spending cap of about $7.1 million, including assorted grants the town may not actually get and assorted capital projects. The town’s reserve fund actually grew from $2.6 million to about $2.8 million — even after paying cash for a water company. Mind you, Star Valley has managed this remarkable feat although it has barely any local sales taxes, the mainstay of neighboring Payson’s budget. Star Valley continues to rely heavily on nearly $800,000 annually from tickets issued by the speeding cameras on the highway, but not even the steady decline in revenues from that source has dented the reserves.

By contrast, Payson continues to struggle with painful choices — including the council’s apparent insistence on eliminating the fire marshal’s job and relying instead on private contractors to do building and code inspections. The town’s spending cap stands at about $32 million. The general fund budget hovers near $13 million, with a reserve fund below $400,000 — less than the 5 percent reserve prudence would dictate.

Payson spent years carefully controlling expenditures, with wage and hiring freezes — waiting for the economy to turn. Lately, it seems that hope got the better of caution. The town has been on something of a hiring binge — adding six firefighters with the help of a temporary federal grant, building a third fire station it doesn’t actually need and moving to fill half a dozen vacancies on the police department, although crime rates continue to fall. We suspect the tantalizing promise of a university campus and the commercial turnaround it may spark got the better of the council’s long caution.

The ambition and optimism that has sustained Payson now feels like over reaching — at least in the short term. We certainly hope the forever-just-around-the-corner deal on a university finally comes through. Perhaps business growth will finally kick in to support the town’s ambitions. But even if it does, we hope Payson will consider whether it can continue to rely so heavily on expensive, benefit-heavy, full-time public employees to deliver all its services. Payson might do well to study the results of Star Valley’s much more cautious approach, with a reliance on the county sheriff’s office for police protection and the independent Hellsgate Fire Department’s core of volunteers for fire protection. Heck, Star Valley’s even contracting with Payson for building inspections.

Payson now pays about $600,000 annually to provide lifetime health care for retired town workers. Maybe it’s time to consider another approach.

Payson has long looked down on Star Valley’s clannish attitude and miserly approach to town services — but the tables seem to have turned in this odd tale of two cities.

Ding dong the witch is dead

Joy has fallen upon Munchkin land. The spinning house came down atop Brooke Utilities. Oh, frabuous day.

All right. Granted: That’s mixing fairy tales.

But after years of suffering through Brooke Utilities’ inaction, lame excuses and miserable customer service — it’s hard not to feel hopeful at word the company has sold its Rim Country operations to Colorado-based Pivotal Utilities.

Granted, we don’t know much about Pivotal, beyond the discovery that owner Jason Williamson doesn’t have time to talk about the sale until next week. The company operates a slew of small water and sewage treatment facilities in Arizona and elsewhere. That list of systems now includes the water company serving East Verde Estates, Mesa del Caballo, Whispering Pines, Geronimo Estates and elsewhere.

We can only pray that Mr. Williamson is prepared to invest in Brooke’s failing, undersized systems so he can adequately serve those communities. The Arizona Corporation Commission grants the company a monopoly on water sales in the communities it serves. Brooke treated that monopoly as grant to rip off customers, confident in the corporation commission’s indifference and inertia. The company’s refusal to develop the water supply blighted Pine and Strawberry for a decade — and continues to afflict every community it serves.

We earnestly hope Mr. Williamson takes a different view of his responsibilities and stands willing to invest in the future of the people he serves.

But while we wait for the next chapter in the story — let the Munchkins dance.

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