Council decides $9 monthly average increase necessary to upgrade infrastructure
For the 360 water customers in Star Valley, the rate hike holiday is over. Water rates will jump 40 percent after the town takes over the water company May 1 from Brooke Utilities, the first time in 12 years. The council on Tuesday approved the sharp increase from about an average of about $24 a month to roughly $33 a month to cover the cost of capital improvements. The council agreed the current rates provided enough money to run the system, but not enough to replace aging meters, make emergency repairs or expand the system in the future. “The policy decision is whether you want to acquire debt when something breaks or if you want to put into place rates that will build a fund for when something breaks,” said Town Manager and Attorney Tim Grier.
Some Star Valley residents could soon be saving an average of 20 percent off costly prescription medications after the town signed up for the program last week. The town is working with the National League of Cities to offer free discount prescription drug cards to any area resident. The cards are designed to give residents without health insurance a pharmacy benefit plan or have prescriptions not covered by insurance at a savings. Anyone is eligible for a card since the program has no age, income or existing health coverage or ailments restrictions. The card is accepted at all major pharmacies, including those in Payson.
Star Valley will take another step forward in the purchase of a local water company Tuesday when it is expected the council will vote to set up a checking account for the new department.
With the pending purchase of a 360-hookup water system, Star Valley no longer needs to collect wells to defend its water supply or fight fires. On the heels of the water company transfer, the council Feb. 7 agreed to give back a 200-foot well. The Chris Benjamin family originally gave the town the well in 2007 to help provide fire protection. Since the town did not have the area’s water rights at the time, it could not distribute the water for drinking, but it could have pumped it to fight fires.
The Star Valley Town Council says it’s up to voters to keep spending decisions local and out of the hands of the state in the upcoming election. Star Valley is holding a primary election March 13, with ballots arriving in mailboxes soon. On the ballot are three councilors up for re-election and the Alternative Expenditure Limitation or “home rule” option. Under home rule, the town sets its spending limit, rather than the state for the next four years. Star Valley voters approved home rule in 2008. If home rule passes, Star Valley plans to spend $3.2 million next year. If it fails, the state-imposed limitation would cap spending at $2.6 million, $600,000 under what councilors say is needed to keep Star Valley running.
Halfway through the fiscal year, Star Valley’s budget remains largely on target despite an economy that has sunk most other town budgets. Star Valley, on the other hand, is charging ahead with a nearly million-dollar purchase of a water company in three months. With a little more than $3 million in the bank, the town has enough to buy the water company outright. But not everything is rosy. Town sales tax collections have fallen for the past five years along with photo enforcement fines, according to a year-end financial summary released Tuesday. Photo enforcement, however, is still expected to bring in nearly a million dollars this year. The financial summary shows town revenues have largely held steady for the past few years despite significant cuts in state-shared and sales tax revenues. Town staff said a combination of wise spending and saving has kept the town in the black. Chancy Nutt, town finance administrator, said staff successfully predicted a decrease in state-shared revenue, photo enforcement and city sales tax two years ago. The town adjusted its spending and has since retained a positive cash flow. Nutt cautioned that revenues should continue decreasing due to the lagging economy.
pour at least another $75,000 into start-up costs. With such large expenses on the books, the Star Valley Town Council will get an update on where town finances are at a meeting Tuesday. The 6:30 p.m. meeting will also include discussion on the March 13 home rule election, a proposed water ordinance and ending a well agreement with a family. The town plans to take over the Payson Water Company in Star Valley from Brooke Utilities on May 1 after paying outright for the 360-hookup system.
Star Valley decided to keep a $50 business license fee and also devise an economic development plan to kick-start local businesses at a meeting last week. Council members worried that eliminating the existing fee would make it easy for someone to set up shop, sell whatever they wanted and perhaps undercut established businesses. “I think what we are doing is opening the town up to become the largest park-and-swap in northern Arizona and I don’t want to be a part of that,” said Mayor Bill Rappaport. Councilor George Binney last month suggested the town do away with the fee. Conceding the fee is minimal, Binney, a small-business owner, said he was outraged by the idea of imposing that fee on the very businesses whose sales taxes support the town.
In the event of an emergency, Payson has agreed to provide backup water and help to Star Valley. The Star Valley Town Council lauded the agreement Tuesday night, Jan. 17, as the next step in the town’s development and working relationship with Payson. The town plans on May 1 to take over the Payson Water Company in Star Valley from Brooke Utilities. The town will run the 360-hookup system and is in the process of establishing water ordinances and rates. One of the requirements is having water available in an emergency and an operator on duty around the clock. Star Valley does not have the work force or resources, but Payson has agreed to supply both when needed. Earlier this month, the Payson council approved an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) where Payson would pump water to Star Valley and respond to after-hours calls when Star Valley’s water operator is unavailable. Behind the scenes, Payson’s staff has also helped Star Valley work through the technicalities of establishing a water department.
If the separate legal entity formed to bring and build a four-year university campus in Payson were a town, Mike Vogel would surely be its mayor. Vogel serves as the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE board chair and in a “town” that does not yet have any residents, he is one of the only contact points for “town” updates. And right now, the town is working to buy land, work through a mountain of legal paperwork and start designs on a state-of-the-art campus that could one day have more than 6,000 in-town students and another 60,000 online. Vogel explained at Tuesday’s Star Valley council meeting that the SLE is just like any other public entity in Arizona and must file a budget, post notice of its board meetings, buy insurance and once the campus is built, hire everything from police protection to trash service. “We have to set up an identical government to what you have,” he said, referring to Star Valley’s incorporation in 2005.
In its first meeting of the new year, Star Valley has a packed agenda Tuesday. The council will discuss an agreement for a backup water supply with Payson, take a first look at a water ordinance establishing Star Valley’s water company and likely approve a measure that has Payson respond to after-hour water calls. Also on the agenda, the council could appoint a new member to the board tasked with bringing a four-year university to Payson. The 6:30 p.m. meeting is held at the Star Valley Town Hall on East Highway 260. “It is going to be a busy meeting,” said Town Manager and Attorney Tim Grier.
The Payson Town Council last week agreed unanimously to provide water services in an emergency for neighboring Star Valley. The agreement would provide Star Valley backup should a well break down or a water pipe burst, now that Star Valley has entered into the water business by buying out Brooke Utilities. “I don’t think that Star Valley will ever necessarily use it — but they can call Payson as a last resort to provide backup services if they have a break in a water main or a well out of service. It’s like ‘hey, give us a call, we’ll help out,’” said Buzz Walker, Payson’s water director.
With just a few coats of deck lacquer and new landscaping lights left to install, the Star Valley town hall is nearly fully open for business again. In November, construction workers took over the space, ripping out walls and decking to install an office ell, expand a bathroom for handicap accessibility and add a wheelchair lift. The $112,000 project has run smoothly and finished on time, a welcome relief for town staff, who have had to work at plastic-wrapped desks and maneuver around workers streaming in and out, said Town Manager and Attorney Tim Grier.
Every municipality collects taxes, but at least one Star Valley councilor believes the town should do away with a $50 “extortion” levy. Councilor George Binney proposed eliminating the cost to obtain a business license at a recent council meeting. This he said would send the message that Star Valley is a business-friendly town and may in turn attract a few more businesses in what is now a stale economy. But not every councilor was on board for the change. Some felt eliminating the fee may encourage businesses not to register their business with the town and may even attract unwanted enterprises.
As Star Valley’s staff rushes to finish taking over the local water company early next year, the council is busy deciding on a rate structure. The town plans to boost water rates roughly 20 percent. It has been 10 years since some 360 water customers have seen a rate increase under Brooke Utilities, but the private water company also hasn’t maintained and upgraded the system in that time, town officials say. At a recent town meeting, the council stood behind plans to raise rates, claiming the town would offer better customer service and infrastructure. “No one wants to see water rates go up,” said Tim Grier, town manager and attorney. “However, there must be a careful look at rates to determine if existing rates will support the investment that is critical to improve the reliability of the water system.” While the current water system is in good shape and the town has received few customer complaints, the aging system still needs an upgrade, Grier said.