He hasn’t done enough.
And he’s a micromanager.
Sometimes, you just can’t win — especially during an election.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans probably figured he could base his re-election bid on the Blue Ridge pipeline, the town’s brightening economic prospects and landing a job-generating industrial park.
Instead, challenger Randy Roberson has launched a tenacious attack on the incumbent’s economic development efforts. The critique encompasses the effort to keep
one of Payson’s only manufacturing firms from leaving town, ambitious plans to support future development by expanding the town’s water supply, and even Evans’ constant, hands-on efforts to recruit new businesses.
“We will continue to work prudently and diligently with anybody in the community that can step forward and help us protect jobs,” said Evans, noting that he’s spent hundreds of hours helping find a site for an ammunition maker to expand in Payson — an effort that resulted in the current move to annex the Fox Farm and surrounding Forest Service land in Granite Dells. “If through this process someone surfaced with a better site, I’d be thrilled. Tell them to call. This was getting started. We know that if we never started we would never end.”
Evans said that finalizing the deal to nearly triple the town’s long-term water supply through the Blue Ridge pipeline, bring a university to Payson and recruiting an increasing number of new businesses have laid the foundation for the town’s revival.
“You don’t harvest a crop before you plant it,” said Evans, “you’ve got to plant it and cultivate it — then you can start thinking about a harvest. Unfortunately for novices on the outside looking in, they want to measure what you’re harvesting, not what you’re cultivating.”
He said work on the water supply and job-producing businesses like the university and the industrial park have laid a strong foundation for Payson’s growth to a diverse population of 40,000. He said he has generally worked 60 hours a week or more during his whole tenure to lay that groundwork.
“We have so many projects so close to being finished. If we don’t do what we need to do now, in 20 years we’ll be licking our wounds and we’ll still have a population of 15,000. What you say and what you can demonstrate you can do are very often incredibly different things.”
But Roberson said Mayor Evans has tried to micromanage the town and cut too many deals. “I’m just raising questions. I think we need a lot more detail before we start making important decisions. I’ve heard many concerns about the annexation (of the Fox Farm for an industrial park). I’m not opposed to bringing that property into the town limits, but I’m not sure industrial uses are the best use for it.”
The owners of the ammunition manufacturing plant have given Evans personal credit for first bringing them to town and then finding a property to allow them to stay in town. However, Roberson said that’s not really the mayor’s role.
He said the town should help businesses — but that the mayor should refer questions and negotiations to the town staff instead of getting so deeply involved.
“I’m not absolutely convinced it’s the mayor’s job to do this. We have a planning and zoning department. We have various staff in the town of Payson. I don’t think it’s the mayor’s job to be out trying to swing deals. Granted, there are times where questions would be asked of the mayor. I think basically, it’s more a matter of a need for the mayor to refer them to the various town staff. We have too much micromanagement.
“I think the problem isn’t that the mayor saved (the ammunition makers) — the problem is that we didn’t have a system set up to embrace business coming to town.”
The clash in philosophy and approach runs throughout the positions of the contenders on issues of economic development and job growth. The issues have gained urgency at the tail end of an economic downturn that slashed town revenues by 60 percent, laid waste to the once booming construction industry and for years turned the local business climate into an episode of “Survivor.”
The campaign comes amidst signs of a turnaround, including a rush of new businesses, an uptick in the housing market, a rise in town revenues, the start of construction on the Blue Ridge pipeline and progress toward selecting a site for the university.
So here’s a summary of key contrasts on economic development issues:
Roberson has raised fresh questions about Evans’ advocacy for construction of an 80-acre industrial park surrounded by Forest Service land in Granite Dells, a popular recreational area. Star Valley has de-annexed 760 acres of surrounding public land and Payson has already annexed it.
Evans spent a year quietly helping Advanced Tactical Armament Concepts (ATAC), makers of HPR Ammunition, look for a property that would accommodate not just the ammunition maker’s need for a 100,000-square-foot facility with dimension necessary to allow for test firing of ammunition for quality control, but a home for two or three other industrial firms as well.
ATAC has in the past five years expanded from seven to 60 employees and expects it could expand to 100 to 200 in a new location. The other firms could bring the jobs provided by the industrial park to 200 to 400. ATAC asked Evans to sign a confidentiality agreement about its plans for expansion.
ATAC officials in a series of confrontational public hearings said they would have moved to Texas without Evans’ help — and insisted no other industrially zoned property in town would work for them.
However, Roberson said the site has many problems and he’d rather see the facility located at Doll Baby Ranch or on existing industrially zoned property by the airport. In fact, he said ATAC at one point offered to buy two parcels totaling 100 acres near the airport for $1.7 million, before negotiations broke down. He suggested this demonstrated they could have built in town instead of Granite Dells.
“If it’s unacceptable, then why were they offering to buy it? I’m just raising questions. I agree people should be allowed to pursue things they want to pursue. The concerns are how it affects neighboring property owners. I am not opposed to what they want to do. I do think we can find an answer that will work for them. I think we need to have more information up front as we go.”
But Evans said that without intense effort, the town would have lost a crucial source of jobs. “We would have lost the company. Micromanaging is a term of the trade that has been so abused. If they think we’re micromanaging, they’re just lost in the forest. We know we’ve got a lot of new businesses. We know we’ve put the infrastructure in place — all the things that make it possible for the next generation to look at Payson and say, ‘that’s a place I want to go.’”
Payson recently dropped its impact fees from about $10,000 per house to about $6,500 per house, mostly in response to changes in state law. The town cut the water impact fee from $7,500 per house to about $6,500 per house. Originally, Payson hoped to cover most of the roughly $50 million in Blue Ridge pipeline costs with water impact fees on new construction. Those fees raised nearly $10 million before the collapse of the housing market dried up the flow of money. That money plus nearly $10 million in federal grants and loans covered the first roughly $20 million in pipeline costs. The town still has to finance $30 million in pipeline costs.
Roberson says the town should repeal all the impact fees, which he believes discourage new businesses from locating in Payson.
“I do think that we need to be far more friendly and cooperative with business trying to come to town. We need to look back over the last 20 years and take a look at what we’ve done to inhibit growth. We implemented these development impact fees that have never generated significant revenues. Past administrations implemented them as a deterrent to growth. As such, we have stalled our growth significantly.”
Evans disagreed vehemently, saying that the repeal of the remaining $6,500 per house water impact fee would do nothing to spur growth — but could result in a doubling of town water rates.
“It would be catastrophic. We probably wouldn’t be able to get the funding and if we did get the funding, we’d have to double our water rates.”
He said if the town borrows $30 million to finish the pipeline, the total payback over the course of 30 to 50 years would come to about $60 million. If Payson reaches the build out population of 40,000 envisioned in the general plan, the town will need to add some 10,000 homes. The impact fees on those homes would generate about $60 million — enough to cover the long-term cost of the pipeline. Since the town needs the water to accommodate future growth — the impact fees make sense, he said.
“We know we can add another 17,000, 18,000, 20,000 people and we’re done. Those people will be paying into the system to buy into what is one of the most successfully negotiated water settlement solutions in the entire state of Arizona. So, yes, they ought to pay a premium to come in and enjoy what we have built.”
By contrast, rural competitors for growth throughout Arizona face water shortages and huge costs. Flagstaff has a plan that would cost $3.3 billion and Prescott Valley a $1 billion project. “They continue to hang onto the hope that the federal government or the state government is going to come along and write them a check — but it just isn’t going to happen,” said Evans.
As a result, when competing towns impose growth limits because they’ve run out of water — Payson’s edge will count for far more than the $6,500 per house impact fee, said Evans.
Roberson has tenaciously challenged a key claim the town has made in the past six years: Blue Ridge will provide Payson with enough water to sustain a build out population of 40,000 — a calculation based on building all the available land to the maximum densities allowed by the general plan. The approval of the general plan prepared by consultants and aired in a series of public hearings is also on the ballot for the primary election. The overhaul involves relatively minor changes in proposed land use, with an increase in maximum densities and increased flexibility for major developments involving a variety of uses and densities.
Roberson insists the town has manipulated estimates of the amount of water underground and the amount of water flowing into the water table in an average year, while understating the amount of water drawn out of some wells — particularly the Tower Well in Star Valley.
“I don’t think our water infrastructure can handle 40,000 people, even with the pipeline. Growth is inevitable. We can’t turn our back on that. We have to embrace it and we have to manage it carefully, not only for the economy — but we’ve got to very carefully manage the resources,” said Roberson.
He offered no direct evidence to support the contention that the town has manipulated or distorted its “safe yield” numbers — an estimate of the amount of water that flows into the water table in an average year. He said the response of private wells close to the Tower Well shows that Payson has pumped far more water from that well than it admits.
Consultants and hydrologists have put Payson’s “safe yield” at about 2,400 acre-feet annually. Some 600 acre-feet of that estimate comes from the area from which the Tower Well draws water. The town currently pumps far less than that from the Tower Well, according to water department records.
Currently, the town uses about 1,800 acre-feet annually, which includes use of the Tower Well. However, town records show that well levels have remained stable for the past four or five years, suggesting that even during the drought the 16,000 residents of Payson can use about 1,800 acre-feet without depleting the underground supply.
The Blue Ridge pipeline will eventually deliver an additional 3,000 acre-feet annually. Estimates suggest the town can rely entirely on the Blue Ridge water for nine months of the year and still put about 1,000 acre-feet of Blue Ridge water into the water table annually. In addition, most of the natural rainfall will recharge the water table during the months the pipeline operates.
Evans said, “We currently have 16,000 people using 1,500 acre-feet. If we just use the same amount — 1/10th of an acre-foot per capita per year — we could supply 55,000 people, even if the average water use increases by 25 percent. And all that’s before you ever cut into safe yield.”
Vision of the future
Asked to describe the Payson he envisions in 20 years, Roberson said, “I see the Main Street that we’ve all believed could eventually be here. I see the college becoming a reality. I see our service sector rebounding. I see us becoming much better stewards. I see Payson becoming much more of a tourist destination. I’d love to be able to bring more industry — green industry. We’re actually an ideal location for vineyards. Warm days and cool nights. Payson could still be a destination for wine tasting. Retail outlets. This is not based on hypothesis, but on what other people are successfully doing in other parts of the state.”
Asked the same question, Evans replied, “I see a true 21st century community. I see us with a great mix of senior citizens, but not a Sun City West. We will have a mix of young people who will make the town vibrant and bring the things we want to town to improve the quality of life. We will have a working middle class, which we don’t have today. We can provide the support to have children and grandchildren return to the community and make a decent wage. I see us recruiting and bringing in high-end health care, a plethora of health care providers and telemedicine — so we’ll be exporting medical expertise over the Internet to the intermountain west. I see a community that embraces our diversity and at the same time remembers what makes this nation great — civil discourse without attacking one another because we want a different outcome.”