Rim Country’s economy continued to gain steam at the end of the year, with the exception of the still, sickly building sector.
The improvement mirrored the national trend, with U.S. unemployment dipping to 6.7 percent — although the economy added only 74,000 jobs.
Payson’s monthly financial report documented gains over last year in almost every category, especially the crucial sales tax figures.
Local sales tax revenues rose 6 percent to $2.6 million for the first six months of the town’s fiscal year that started last July. That figure offers the best glimpse of how the local economy is faring.
Other sources of revenue also rose.
The town’s population-based portion of state-shared income tax rose 9 percent to $853,000 for the six-month period. The figure actually reflects income tax receipts from two years ago, since it takes that long for the state to pass along the local share.
State-shared sales taxes also rose 6 percent, to $523,000 for the six-month period. That figure indicates that the local economy has caught up to the statewide recovery, after lagging behind for the past two years.
The vehicle license tax rose less than 2 percent to $5,687, reflecting only marginal improvement in new car sales locally.
The only major decline came in the crucial building permit category, which doesn’t produce much revenue, but does indicate whether the region’s housing slump shows any sign of ending. Building permits actually declined over last year’s anemic performance — down 8 percent to $83,531.
However, a sharp rise in plan review fees indicates that projects have started to flow into the building pipeline. Plan review fees rose a whopping 30 percent to $57,000.
State-collected gas taxes shared with cities and towns also registered a decline, which reflects both lower gas prices and the Legislature’s decision during the recession to divert gas tax money to state agencies. The loss of the HURF money prompted Payson to halt even routine road maintenance and shelve most plans for street improvements. HURF money passed along to the town dropped almost 2 percent to $545,122 for the six-month period.
Interestingly, the town’s water department has taken in more money than expected — another potential portent. The water fund collected $4.8 million in the first six months of the year, compared to projected revenues of $4.3 million. That figure includes all revenues, not just payments by customers.
The report includes a sales tax breakdown that gives additional insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the local economy — although that breakdown focuses on sales in November rather than December.
The figures for the month show a big gain in overall retail trade, but little change for the tourist-oriented businesses like restaurants and motels.
The figures show that the local sales in November jumped 8 percent over November a year ago. That’s the highest total for November since 2010 — the first year included in the tally in the report.
Retail trade jumped 13 percent to $270,000 compared to last November, the best indicator of the overall health of the economy.
Communications and utilities, construction, manufacturing and services also all registered healthy gains over a year ago.
On the other hand, accommodations, restaurants and bars and real estate all remained about the same or declined slightly.
With revenues rising, Payson’s budget remains in relatively good shape.
Overall, the town spent $585,000 more than it took in for the first half of the fiscal year, with revenues of $12.4 million and expenses of $13 million. However, the town covered the shortfall with reserves and money stockpiled for various projects — especially the Blue Ridge pipeline. The town spent $339,000 on the pipeline in December alone, most of it collected previously from impact fees and a federal grant.
Most of the town’s departments remain comfortably under budget, although hiring in the police department and other departments will start to boost the payroll. All told, spending from the General Fund that covers most of the town’s operating expenses is running roughly $800,000 behind budget. If that keeps up, the town will end up spending $300,000 in reserves — but still wind up with about $110,000 to spare at the end of the fiscal year.
The police department remains the most expensive town function, with an annual budget of $4.5 million. However, halfway through the year the department has spent 13 percent less than it had in the budget.
The fire department’s annual budget totals $3.2 million. So far, the department remains about 13 percent under budget. Last year the town council eliminated the fire marshal’s position and delayed replacing retiring Fire Chief Marti deMasi to save money.
Most departments remain below the adopted budget.
One notable exception is the Central Services budget, which covers certain employee benefits — which comes to $1.2 million annually. Spending in Central Services is running about 9 percent ahead of budget. However, Finance Manager Hope Cribb said the apparent over run comes from making a payment on the third quarter liability insurance. The information technology department also went over budget, but that was to make an upfront payment for software and computers, she said.