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Valley man dies while swimming in Fossil Creek

A Valley man died in Fossil Creek Thursday after swimming into a whirlpool, officials said.

Ronald Hugh Henry, 62, hiked down the Fossil Creek Trail Thursday morning with his co-worker Dale Gregg, 57, also all of the Valley.

The men had never hiked into Fossil together before, but frequently went on outings on their days off, including hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, said Sgt. Dennis Newman with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, who coordinated the recovery.

Gregg later told Newman they were prepared for the hike and arrived safely with enough food and water to make it back out.

They decided to swim in a pool located roughly a mile south of where the trail reaches the creek.

A waterfall tumbles into the travertine creek, making it a popular place for hikers to cool off after hiking the steep trail. On one side of the waterfall is a pool known as the “toilet bowl.” People either jump into the pool from the top or swim into it from below through an opening carved out by the water. Either way, the only way to get out of the pool at this time is to swim out through the opening at the bottom, Newman said.

Gregg told Newman he swam into the bowl and back out. Henry hesitated, Newman said. After getting his courage up, Henry jumped into the water and swam into the bowl. Gregg followed behind him, Newman said.

Once they surfaced in the bowl, Gregg said he asked Henry how he was doing. Henry appeared exhausted and had a look of “panic” on his face, Newman said.

Gregg told Henry to take a deep breath and swim back out, but Henry reportedly could not. Gregg held on to Henry as long as he could, but eventually had to let go and swim out himself, Newman said.

Once he reached the shore, Gregg called for Henry, but got no response.

He hiked up above the waterfall and could see Henry’s body motionless in the pool.

At approximately 11:50 a.m., the Gila County Sheriff’s Office dispatch received a 911 call about a possible drowning. At 12:04 p.m., the sheriff’s office received a second 911 call from Gregg.

Pine-Strawberry Fire responded to the Fossil Springs trailhead.

Newman called the Arizona Department of Public Safety and asked if their Ranger helicopter could drop him and the sheriff’s dive team into the area. Deputy Cole LaBonte swam into the creek and recovered the body along with a member of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue.

This is the sixth death at Fossil Creek in the past four years, said P-S Fire Chief Gary Morris.


Ultramarathon continues to draw a dedicated group of runners

They call it an endurance run for a reason.

Covering 50 miles of some of the most challenging terrain in the area and thousands of feet of elevation change, this isn’t your normal race.

It is far from it. And yet, it attracts die-hard enthusiasts year after year who put their bodies and spirit to the test.

In its 30th year, the Zane Grey 50 drew 128 runners April 27, 106 of which finished.

The winner, a 37-year-old man from Minnesota, finished in eight hours and 38 minutes. Last place came in at 15 hours and 11 minutes.

The runners came from 27 states and three countries.

They started on the top of the Mogollon Rim near Woods Canyon Lake, went down the Rim, took the Highline Trail to the fish hatchery and then went back.

Back when the race started in 1990, just 17 people were brave enough to try the course, which then was badly overgrown with manzanita and poorly marked.

An article in Arizona Highways at the time was the catalyst for the race. It stated it would take a hiker at least three days to traverse the Highline Trail from Pine to the 260 trailhead.

When a group of ultrarunners saw this, they decided to try it in one day with Pat McKenzie founding the run. 

One runner said every year the race is different. Whether that is because the weather is different (they had blizzard like conditions several years ago) or the course has been altered. For the past two years, the race has started on top of the Rim and gone to the fish hatchery and back instead of running the length of the Highline Trail below the Rim.

That is because the Highline Fire damaged the trail from the hatchery west to Myrtle Trail.

Joe Galope, race director, said they will check out that section of trail in the next month or so and if they can, will move the race back to the Highline next year, making it a point to point run once again.

Galope ran the Zane Grey 50 in 1995 and for the past 10 years has acted as the director. Honey Albrecht, manager of Rim Runners, helped talk Galope into running the race after the then-director dropped out at the last minute.

“It is definitely easier to run it than to run it,” he said.

Many of the runners featured in a video about the race say they come back every year, always forgetting how challenging it is until they are back on the course.

One runner said his body hit its breaking point at mile 35 so the next 15 miles were a “death march.”

Galope said the race is known as one of the hardest 50-mile runs in the country.

They have seen runners suffer everything from broken bones to concussions and even passing a kidney stone mid race.

One runner said the beauty of the Rim and the challenge draws people back.

“The area is very beautiful on the Rim,” Galope said. “A third of participants were previous finishers so that is a testament to the what they think of the area despite it being as difficult as it is.”

For Galope, he started running in high school while living in Hawaii. When his dad trained for his first marathon in the mid ’80s, Galope ran with him. Galope completed his first marathon at 16 and moved on to triathlons. He learned about ultrarunning while working at a running store in Arizona. An ultrarun is basically anything longer than a 26.2-mile marathon.

“The appeal is the scenery, the trail and the challenge,” he said. “And the personal accomplishment.”

Galope and his wife Megan planned to tackle the Miwok 100K May 4.

Asked how they prepare, Galope said they try to get in 60-70 training miles a week, although he hasn’t been doing as well as Megan.

In an average year, Galope said he covers some 2,000 miles, going through shoes every 500 miles.

Real estate
Gila County’s a great place to buy a house

Gila County’s a great place to buy a house.

Actually, it ranks No. 2 in Arizona — right behind Apache County, according to a survey by SmartAsset, a financial technology company.

Sounds like great news for Gila County residents.

But wait — there’s fine print.

What makes rural areas like Gila County and Apache County such a great place to invest in a house?

Well, for starters — houses are cheap. The average home price in Gila County is $239,000 — compared to $362,000 in Maricopa County.

That’s probably good. Might explain the steady flow of retirees looking to cash out their higher home values from other areas.

But wait. Here’s the kicker.

Rents are awful.

The average rent in Gila County is $1,198.

Now, that’s still below the $1,661 average in Maricopa County — but the study paid a lot of attention to the relationship between rents and home prices. So in Gila County, the average mortgage may be about the same as the average rent — while in Maricopa County the average mortgage is a lot higher.

So, that’s why Apache County ranked as the best place in the state to invest in a home. The average mortgage payment on a $160,000 home is just $671. By contrast, the average rent is a daunting $1,074. So a homeowner “breaks even” after owning a house for just 2.4 years.

In Gila County, the average mortgage payment is $1,003, while the average rent is $1,198. So it takes 3.1 years to hit that “break even” point, where you’ve made up all the extra costs of buying a house instead of continuing to rent.

On the other hand, rural areas like Navajo County don’t do quite so well. In Navajo County, the average mortgage is $800 and the average rent is $1,147. So it takes 4.3 years for a homebuyer to hit that “break even” point on the average $191,000 home.

In Maricopa County — which ranked fifth out of the 10 counties studied — the average mortgage payment is $1,517 and the average rent is $1,661. So it takes 4.2 years to hit the break even point, the way SmartAsset figures.

Yuma County came in at No. 10. The average mortgage there is $735 for the average $175,000 home. The average rent is $1,242.

Of course, this only works if you have the household income needed to qualify for a mortgage — and then keep up with the payments, not to mention property taxes and home repairs.

The study concluded that for families making at least $100,000, it takes a statewide average of 4.4 years to come out ahead when you buy instead of rent. Statewide, the average mortgage is $1,007 and the average rent is $1,297, while the average home price is $240,000.

The study also compared cities nationally.

They concluded people making $100,000 won’t make money by buying a house unless they live there for 5.7 years.

That compares to 4.1 years in Atlanta, 4 years in Miami, 3.2 years in Dallas and 2.6 years in Detroit.

On the other hand, home buying won’t turn a profit unless they stay in place for 8.8 years in Los Angeles, 14.6 years in San Francisco, 14.9 years in Seattle or 18.2 years in New York.

“Developments like the boom in tech jobs and increased migration to sunny West Coast cities have shifted housing economics towards renting in some parts of the county, while in other areas, like the South and Texas, buying is still usually the better bet,” the study concluded.

So if you live in Gila County, can qualify for a mortgage and plan to stick around for at least 3.1 years, you might want to start house hunting before all the Californians priced out of the housing market move in.

Oh, and if you’re on the town council. Might be time to think about some more apartment zoning.

County faces challenges with its roads

Gila County faces multiple challenges when it comes to maintaining its roads.

The repair budget has dropped by about 19 percent since 2008. The cost to do the work has risen. And some of the county’s more experienced road personnel are nearing retirement.

Homero Vela, interim assistant county manager, led a board of supervisors work session on the topic April 30.

He explained the county has very little control over the revenue available for roads, including Highway User Revenue Funds (HURF), vehicle license tax and the half-cent transportation excise tax.

“In recent years revenue streams that support road maintenance have shown modest increases. But in the long term, since 2008, the annual total for the three sources of funding for road maintenance has decreased 19 percent. At the same time labor cost and material cost have increased,” Vela said.

The biggest hit to road maintenance funds came after the state diverted HURF.

“Starting in 2009, the state legislators diverted HURF funds to the (Arizona) Department of Public Safety. As much as $200 million in 2012, and $100 million as recently as 2018, have been diverted away from road maintenance on a statewide basis. Even though fund diversion was diminished to $15.5 million in the current fiscal year, the current HURF funding for Gila County is only at 2008 levels,” he said.

Another hit was “self-inflicted.”

In order to win support to continue the half-cent transportation excise tax when it was about to expire a few years ago, the county proposed splitting the revenue with incorporated communities. The excise tax was extended in 2015 and since then the funds are distributed to six towns in Gila County. Gila County receives approximately 50 percent of the funds generated.

Vela told the board of supervisors the vehicle license tax has decreased 1 percent since 2008.

He said the cumulative inflation rate for the same period slightly exceeds 20 percent. Two recent studies show Gila County had a multi-million dollar annual revenue shortfall in its road maintenance budget.

However, budget plans for fiscal year 2019-2020 show almost $7 million in reserves for roads.

Steve Sanders, director of the county’s public works department, explained the amount is mostly a carry forward. He said several years ago county leadership asked the department to keep at least a year’s operating budget in reserve to cover salaries and benefits.

Gila County maintains 750 miles of roads, many within the Tonto National Forest (these include much of the Houston Mesa Road, the Young Road, Colcord Road and Control Road). Over the years, the county has done very little with the paved roads it’s responsible for, Vela said, but a lot has been done with its bridges.

In 2008, the county spent about $12,532 per mile in road maintenance it is now spending just $9,363 per mile — a 25 percent drop.

Vela presented a comparison with other Arizona counties. He said there are five that are close to Gila County in regard to the amount of money spent per mile on maintenance: Apache, $5,893; Santa Cruz, $6,525; Cochise, $6,899; and Mohave, $7,315.

“No county in Arizona has the kind of roads we deal with in regard to topography and materials,” said District One Supervisor Tommie Martin.

The studies’ recommendations: pave the Control and Young roads; construct bridges over Oak and Tonto creeks; rehabilitate other bridges; assess the county’s pavement needs and chip seal, mill and replace roads as needed.

One of the county’s roadway studies, conducted by Kimley Horn, suggested the county chip seal 59 miles of county roads and resurface 49 miles — a total of 109 miles of the county’s 750 miles. The work will be spread out over several years, 2015 to 2024, at a cost of $22.8 million. The annual average cost is estimated to be $2.3 million.

Projects in northern Gila County — the Timber Region — included 33 miles of chip seal and 17 miles resurfaced at a total cost of $8.1 million. Southern Gila County — the Copper Region — included 26 miles of chip seal and 33 miles of resurfacing for $14.7 million.

Based on the studies, Vela suggested the board consider budgeting $1.1 million for annual pavement maintenance activity (crack sealing, patching and chip sealing) and assigning work on a scheduled basis, plus as indicated by seasonal investigation. Additionally, he suggested budgeting $2.3 million for annual pavement restoration (resurfacing).

Expenditure trends for roads indicate:

• Between 2016 and 2019, 54 percent of the budget went to personnel costs; 23 percent was allocated to operating expenses; 9 percent to pavement maintenance; 8 percent for other capital (equipment, fuel, etc.); and 6 percent for pavement reconstruction.

• Proposed allocations for the 2019-20 fiscal year include 42 percent to personnel; 26 percent for capital; 24 percent for operating expenses; 4 percent for pavement maintenance; 4 percent for pavement reconstruction.

Vela said with so little being spent on pavement maintenance it might be wise to reconsider the allocations and he again pointed to the public works reserve of $7 million. He said the board might look at a three- to four-year plan for needed road maintenance using some of the reserve.

Vela also recommended more work sessions on the topic, one specifically on using in-house resources and finding the most cost effective way to maintain the county’s roads.

New town salary study – same as the old salary study

A consultant’s $25,000 salary study for the Town of Payson revealed a not very surprising result — give everybody raises.

The study concluded the lowest-paid employees should get higher raises compared to employees at the top of the pay scale, the council learned recently.

Payson Town Manager LaRon Garrett’s informal salary study came to the same conclusion two years ago.

The studies compared Payson’s pay to other towns with fewer than 50,000 residents. Neither study included evidence of employee dissatisfaction, such as turnover rates or difficulty in filling empty positions. Roughly one-quarter of the town’s 221 employees have been here long enough to hit the top of the salary schedule.

The consultant did advise against simple, across-the-board increases, since that would only increase the already big gap between people at the bottom of the salary schedule and those at the top.

Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian agreed.

“In going around from department to department and seeing the morale in our town as a whole, it seems to be low and pay seems to be part of that,” she said.

Igor Shegolev of HR Know recommended overhauling the salary structure to slow down salary raises at the top end, while increasing pay at the bottom of the pay scale.

Garrett agreed the 20-year-old compensation structure needs an overhaul.

“It needed to be revamped ... to help us so that the employees would be fairly compensated,” he said.

Shegolev crunched data from numerous sources, including the town’s own salary schedule, the Salary and Benefit Survey of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Statistic Report and others to reach his conclusions.

“There’s certain compensation dysfunctions in the market, not only in your organization,” he said.

He labels one problem “lagging.”

The market has an average wage based on job responsibilities. Shegolev suggested the town isn’t starting employees out at the market average.

“Some employees are underpaid. That may affect organizational retention and turnover,” said Shegolev.

His PowerPoint presentation, however, did not provide an analysis on turnover.

The issue he addressed — inequities — requires paying employees at the market level, setting reasonable limits on the high end of the pay scale, then providing pay raises effectively. These measures could avoid the grumbling about inequities.

“I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I’m overpaid and underworked you need to do something.’ It’s always the other way around,” he said.

But Shegolev cautioned against allowing employees at the top of the pay scale to continue making more money indefinitely. He used General Motors as an example.

“GM got in trouble with the labor and compensation costs,” he said.

The car company hired high school educated workers in the 1960s, trained them for assembly line work and then gave them 4 percent raises every year. Those workers then stayed at the same job for 30 to 40 years.

“When they started that raise (policy), it ended up costing the company a few dollars,” said Shegolev, “but in the late ’90s they were making more than $100,000 ... they were making as much as what engineers were making.”

Now, those assembly line jobs have tremendous value, but the top of the pay scale should have stopped at $80,000, said Shegolev.

To keep the town from descending into that same trap, Shegolev suggested creating “bandwidth” based on the median salary for a particular job.

“The first thing we do is align you to the market point,” he said. “Then we adjust employees to where they should be.”

So, hire an employee below the market rate, then promise them they will reach that market value in a set amount of time if they show they perform well. After reaching that market value, slow down the rate of increase.

“The employee’s pay is expedited to the market medium, (but) we are not suggesting you pay Phoenix market wages,” said Shegolev. “We do recommend you keep that in mind because you may lose your best employees there.”

Shegolev presented a new pay structure based on the grade of the job.

The plan calls for boosting everyone to at least the new minimum for the pay grade to address inequities in the current pay schedule.

However, he said the town shouldn’t adjust the pay of people already at the top of the salary schedule.

This prompted Chief Financial Officer Deborah Barber to say if the town adopted Shegolev’s suggestions, “about 60 employees would not get raises this year” since they’re “at or above their market value.”

Shegolev had an idea for those employees.

“In this case, mature and experienced employees would be left out, maybe give them a courtesy raise. It is more of a gesture ...” he said.

The council did not make any decisions during the meeting, despite a nudge from Garrett.

“We are coming up real quick with the budget presentation ... what we need to know tonight — do we move forward with this type of criteria?” asked Garrett.

Councilor Barbara Underwood said she would “like to see everyone get something.”

Councilor Steve Smith suggested giving more vacation time for people at the top of the scale instead of a pay raise.

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