At a crucial moment, the federal government shutdown has stalled Payson’s effort to buy 240 acres of Forest Service land for an Arizona State University campus.
“Short of this stupid halting of all government work,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, “we had an agreement and were in the process of drafting a request for qualifications for private appraisers. We could make up a lot of time if we could get that out on the street.”
He said he hopes the Forest Service will quickly move forward once the government resumes operations. The White House and Congress had the first face-to-face negotiations in more than a week on Thursday in hopes of ending the impasse.
Fortunately, Payson’s construction of the Blue Ridge pipeline has continued because the Forest Service decided the project was vital to public health and safety, which allowed the work to continue. On the same theory, Congress’ gym and heated pool has continued to operate.
“They’re determining that the nature of the pipeline requires them to ensure public health and safety by ensuring the work’s done correctly. There’s ongoing supervision by the Forest Service. That allows us to keep the pipeline construction functioning. Unfortunately, we can’t make that same health and public safety argument with the college.”
As a result, work continues on the $2 million portion of the pipeline that connects the existing water system to the place where the pipeline will eventually deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water annually to the mesa near the Mesa del Caballo subdivision. That pipeline will also allow Mesa del to connect to the Payson water system next summer to avoid another year of water-hauling charges.
The effort to buy land from the Forest Service, however, has gotten caught in the refusal of the House to adopt a budgetary continuing resolution unless President Obama agrees to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act.
Congress and the Senate haven’t actually agreed on a budget in six years, but have kept the government running with stopgap continuing resolutions.
The effort to get an appraisal so the Rim Country Educational Alliance could buy the land for a 6,000-student campus has proven more time-consuming than anticipated, like almost everything else about the long-suffering project considered vital to the economic future of the region.
When the government shutdown hit, college backers and the Forest Service had just worked out a red-tape snarl that had delayed a crucial appraisal of the land, said Evans.
For some weeks, the Alliance found itself stuck in a maddening Catch 22. Forest Service regulations normally would require a certified Forest Service appraiser to set a value on the land, which is especially important since the Forest Service has approved the direct sale of the land to the Alliance based on the appraisal.
Turns out, the only certified Forest Service appraiser in the Southwestern region recently retired — along with several other people in that office who might have stepped in to do the appraisal.
The Alliance offered to pay extra to fly in a certified appraiser from another region, but Forest Service regulations forbid an appraiser in one region from doing appraisals in other regions.
The Forest Service initially said the project would have to wait until it could hire a new appraiser for the region, although Tonto Forest officials remain strongly supportive of the project.
Eventually, someone reportedly discovered language in the Forest Service regulations that in certain circumstances would allow the Forest Service to contract with private appraisers. However, that requires the Forest Service to put together a “request for qualifications” from appraisers who want to bid on the job.
That request for qualifications was nearly drafted when the shutdown sent all “non-essential” federal workers home.
Evans said the Alliance has had several high-level talks with Arizona State University officials. He said ASU remains committed to the project and hopes to hold the first classes on the first phase of the campus in the fall of 2015.
“We’ve had high-level discussions. They continue to be supportive and understanding — but until we get the land we can’t take the next step. Until we have a whole lot more definitive declaration about when we’ll have title to the land we can’t finalize an agreement with ASU. We’ve just had so dang many boulders rolled down the road in front of us we have to get a lot more definitive about the timeline.”
In the meantime, the impasse in Washington has stalled progress in Payson.
“The bigger issue is the government shutdown — everything is on hold, including the appraisal. I talk almost daily with Angie (Elam, head Payson ranger.) They’re at a standstill until they get authorization from Congress to move forward,” said Evans.