Payson has 54 employees whose salaries and retirement benefits tally more than $75,000 — but the only one it can spare is the fire marshal, according to a budget study committee that reported its findings to the council last week.
Therefore, the committee recommended the town use outside contractors to do fire inspections, lay off Fire Marshal Robert Lockhart, and use the $92,000 it spends on his salary and benefits to bolster the reserves for the budget that the council will adopt next month.
The long list of high-paid town workers didn’t include the cost of medical benefits, said Councilor Michael Hughes. Of the 54 positions costing more than $75,000, 42 are in the police and fire departments. The others include top town managers.
Hughes said laying off the fire marshal would increase the town’s $480,000 projected reserve fund by $92,000. That still won’t come close to the 5 percent standard, which would require reserves of $1.3 million.
The council is struggling with another year of nearly flat tax revenues, but wants to adopt a 3 percent pay raise, increase the number of police officers and fill some other positions. The adopted 2013-14 police department budget would increase by an estimated 20 percent over projected year-end spending in the current budget year. The fire department budget would increase 17 percent.
Hughes said the budget committee concluded the town couldn’t cut front-line certified firefighters without losing a federal grant it used to hire six firefighters to staff the new station. Most of the other high-paid jobs were required by state statute, he said. That left only the fire marshal’s job to cut.
The recommendation prompted a sometimes-tense discussion, much of it centered on claims the council wanted to get rid of Lockhart because he has supposedly proven inflexible and sometimes obstructionist in applying the voluminous town fire code to new businesses. Town hall insiders have, in the past, said that requirements Lockhart imposed — or attempted to impose — significantly delayed approval of an ammunition manufacturing firm, PetSmart, Big Lots and other businesses.
Councilor Fred Carpenter asked, “Don’t we have to have a fire marshal?”
Town Manager Deb Galbraith replied “Someone has to do the duties” but that several certified fire marshals already living in town that did fire inspections on contract elsewhere could do the same thing in Payson.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans took the microphone to say, “There have been rampant rumors” that he and Lockhart had “clashed over many issues and this was a retaliatory way of getting back at him.” Evans then directly addressed Lockhart, sitting somberly in the audience. “Have we ever been in a meeting where we had a clash?” he asked.
“No, sir,” said Lockhart.
“We had one or two meetings” about the ammunition manufacturing firm. But none of those issues have come up between you and I, have they?”
“No, sir,” said Lockhart.
“There’s a rumor we’re trying to dismantle the fire department,” said Evans. “That’s not true. One council member here said he didn’t know anything about this before it came up in the meeting,” continued Evans in reference to statements made by Carpenter in an appearance on the radio. “But that’s the point of the Open Meeting Law. To suggest that somehow we sit in the back room and conspire about what we’re going to do, that’s just hogwash. We bring every idea that we can to the surface. It’s a long process. The fact that we’ve had discussions doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do.”
He said after one of the longest downturns in modern history, the town must make painful cuts. “In the past five months, we’ve had three or four new homes built. Before the downturn, we were building five homes a week.”
Evans then took the unusual step of turning the gavel over to Vice Mayor Hughes so he could make a motion to direct the town manager to report back at the June 4 meeting on the impact of eliminating the fire marshal position and relying on outside contractors to do the necessary fire inspections of new construction.
Only Carpenter voted against the motion.
“I think it’s very ill-advised for us to do that. The big (building) upturn is just around the corner,” which means the town would then need a fire marshal to do inspections of new buildings.