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One step at a time for new recreation site on east side of town

When a bulldozer started piling up trees off of Mud Springs Road between East Frontier Street and the roundabout on Granite Dells Road earlier this week, neighbors took notice.

“People stop by and ask, ‘Why are you building a prison on this spot?’” said Kenny Evans, president of the MHA Foundation. “When I told them that’s not what we’re building, they said, ‘Well then, it’s going to be a reform school, huh?’”

The project will house neither, said Evans. The site will include a community center and ballfields and possibly an elite sports academy.

For the first phase of build out, Evans said the MHA Foundation is putting in grass football and soccer fields.

The group is going with grass instead of turf with water from the C.C. Cragin about to flow.

The more water this project uses, the less of a chance the Payson Water Department will need to raise water rates, said Evans.

In phase two, the MHA Foundation plans to build a community center based on plans the Town of Payson created for Rumsey Park, said MHA board member Gary Cordell.

“It will be similar. We’ll have an aquatic center and a multi-generational center,” he said.

“It won’t just be a center for seniors,” said Evans, “the whole family will be able to go.”

The foundation plans on funding the ongoing maintenance needs based on “a public-private partnership,” said Evans.

“A community center can’t pay for itself,” he said.

The plan created to upgrade Rumsey Park envisioned selling memberships and other revenue sources to generate at least a million dollars or more.

Other sources of income included leases, tournaments, events, rentals and partnerships with community groups such as Banner Health, the Payson Senior Center, the Town of Payson and a private sports academy.

This new project plans on following that same blueprint.

“We want to have multiple streams of income without going into the pockets of taxpayers,” said Evans.

Building from scratch will remove the challenges the Rumsey Park plan bumped into — upgrading to make everything ADA compliant, moving fields and rebuilding facilities and parking lots.

Building the community center and fields on the east side of town will bring a recreation site to that area of town. So far, they have no parks, said Evans.

Another benefit, the recreation site will provide access to the Payson Area Trails System and the Granite Dells area. The recent Forest Service travel management plan calls for Granite Dells to be non-motorized.

But the MHA Foundation needs some help to complete this first phase.

The foundation has started a Community Center Facility Fund.

“We need about $150,000 to get to the construction phase,” said Evans.

Evans envisions the community center acting as an economic driver for the community.

“The critical elements are infrastructure and quality of life to make a community great,” he said.

When asked when the first phase will be complete, Evans said, “We’ll get this done as quickly as we can, but it’s measured in months.”

Commission orders ‘do over’ for APS rate increase

Arizona Public Service has been having a great year when it comes to the bottom line. But when it comes to public relations — not so much.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has ordered the utility company to file a whole new rate case in October in the wake of customer complaints that the last rate increase cost customers far more than the advertised 4.5 percent — sometimes lots more.

As if that’s not enough, California billionaire Tom Styers continues to bankroll a campaign to attack the utility company for spending $10 million in dark money to elect two of the ACC commissioners who approved the original rate increase. The utility also spent much more than that to defeat a Styers-backed ballot proposition that would have required the utility to get far more of its energy from solar sources.

The election of Democrat Sandra Kennedy and Republican Justin Olson in the last election triggered a change in ACC policies, starting with a requirement that the utility disclose its political spending. Now, the commission has ordered a new rate case, after a six-month review of the effects of the 2017 rate hike.

The commission ordered APS to allow customers to switch plans and detail how much extra money its making from the rate hike. To help customers pick a plan, the commission ordered the company to tell customers whether they’d save money on a different plan at the end of each year. The commission concluded the company’s education and outreach program “was not reasonable and understandable.”

The company estimates that at least half of its customers didn’t pick the cheapest plan based on their energy use patterns.

APS had originally estimated the rate hike would produce $95 million in additional revenue annually, which would boost the average customers’ bills by about 4.5 percent. The new rate structure included an array of different plans intended to shift energy use out of the peak periods. The electrical grid has to meet peak demands, which can make the system inefficient if there’s a huge difference between peak and average demand. APS said a rate structure intended to encourage energy conservation would save customers money in the long run by putting off the need to build more power-generating facilities.

However, the new rate structure produced far more revenue for the company and much higher bills for many customers than projected. In the first three months of 2019, APS reported profits of $167 million. APS rate filings showed that in the first 10 months the rate increase took effect, it generated $128 million in additional revenue. The company originally estimated the rates would bring in an extra $95 million in 12 months, according to a summary based on APS filings posted online by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona.

One survey of a large number of customer bills concluded that bills rose an average of about 15 percent, not the 4.5 percent estimated in the rate hearings. Some customers said their bills doubled.

LeeAnn Richards in a comment posted with the rate hearing docket wrote, “This last year was the worst increase I remember. Our bill went up $28. Our bill is now almost S400 a month! Since 2015 our bill has gone up $177 a month from when it was only $223. The only things different in our use of electricity is the addition of two computers and a printer. Recently we had a new roof put on and two new refrigeration units installed. We were told this should reduce our electric bill. I don’t think the customers of APS should pay the bill for increased profits to shareholders, ads on TV, sponsoring TV shows or contributions to political candidates. As a member of the Corporation Commission, I think maybe you have forgotten who it is you are working for.”

Julie Bieganski also filed a comment for the docket.

“In the summer, my electric bill is $600 a month and that’s outrageous. I know we’ve had a couple of homes that have had SRP and they’re three times less than APS. It’s just insane what APS charges. I’ve gone over our billing with APS numerous times, we’re on the 3-8 time frame, by 3 p.m. we make sure the AC goes up and usage is as low as possible. Still we get high bills. What are people supposed to do? Everything is out of whack.”

The Corporation Commission will once again consider the APS rate structure. The ACC gives the power company a monopoly to operate in a certain area, producing about 1.2 million customers in 11 counties, including Gila County. The monopoly is intended to give the company the incentive to make multi-billion-dollar improvements in building and maintaining its infrastructure. In return, the ACC has the authority to limit the company’s profit, based on the dollar value of that infrastructure investment.

So the rate case will once again review the base rate, the cost of capital, the adjustors and the rate design. The staff report on which the commissioners based its order looked at the company’s promised effort to educate consumers so they could pick the cheapest plan based on their past patterns of energy use. The plan relied on customers calling APS and asking for an analysis and consultation. Otherwise, the company automatically switched customers to a plan it deemed provided the most benefits based on their energy use for the past year.

However, the ACC staff concluded “customer education was insufficiently detailed, not adequately personalized and not distributed in a manner to best assist customers in selecting the best rates for their household,” according to a release by the ACC.

The APS public relations office did not return a request for comment prior to press time.

Pederson’s 50-plus years as an educator honored

The Pine-Strawberry School teacher whose personalized license plate reads “Bonaro” has been named the Gila County Teacher of the Year.

The honor was bestowed on Dean Pederson Tuesday, June 18 at the Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting in Payson.

Following the ceremony, a reception was attended by many of those he taught and worked alongside during his 50-plus years in education.

But back to the license plate, what does it mean?

Pederson chuckles each time he is asked that question, but responds with a bit of nostalgia and fond memories of his early teaching years in Page.

As an art teacher, Pederson’s second-graders were completing a drawing assignment while he roamed the room scrutinizing the work over each student’s shoulder.

The assignment, Pederson told the class, was to also have a title that depicted the scene.

He recalls seeing a Navajo girl draw an American West cowboy and a Native American warrior apparently about to be locked in a confrontation.

The warrior was readying himself to fire an arrow at the cowboy.

Pederson looked befuddled at the picture as the young girl explained it. He then asked about the title — “Bonaro.”

“The picture is about a bow and arrow,” the girl explained.

Pederson has never forgotten the girl’s spelling and phonetic reasoning so he carries it on the license plate as a fond memory of things past.

Pederson’s decision to enter public education was undoubtedly influenced by his parents who were both educators. His father was a football coach and athletic director at Northern Arizona University, then Arizona State College at Flagstaff. His mom had certification as an English teacher, but remained at home to raise the children.

“She was strict about (our use of) the English language,” Pederson said. “She’d correct us anytime we said something wrong.”

After graduating from NAU in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree, Pederson morphed into a vagabond of sorts, teaching first in Williams and later Page, the Alaska, Payson and finally Pine-Strawberry. While teaching art and working as a counselor at Payson High, he left the classroom to become the district’s health specialist for tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

During his tenure, he led support groups, formed peer counselors and counseled individual students.

He later left the school district to join Southwest Behavioral Health where he was responsible for prevention services, community outreach and school-based counseling.

From those years, Pederson carries with him a myriad of memories some of which, he says, influence his life.

One in specific involved a teenage girl who visited his PHS office to say she was homeless.

“She and her father were living in a motel, but he left and hadn’t been seen,” recalls Pederson. “Eventually the motel evicted the girl.”

With no place for the girl to live, Pederson was able to get another PHS student to agree to have her family take the teen in until other arrangements could be made.

While the girl waited for arrangements to be finalized Pederson was scheduled to make a presentation at Julia Randall School so he took the teenager along with him and asked her to take a seat in the audience.

At the conclusion of his presentation about how one teacher can positively affect students’ lives, the girl raised her hand to speak.

She told of being a student at her previous school that was hosting a father-daughter dance. Because her father wasn’t around, she didn’t believe she was eligible to go to the dance.

However, a PE teacher learned of the situation and stepped up to ask the girl if he could take her to the dance as her father.

Pederson remembers that as the girl told the story, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.”

As a result of the P.E. teacher’s compassion, the girl set a goal to make straight As in all her class and go on to college.

“That’s my way of thanking him,” the girl told the audience.

Pederson remembers the girl’s speech as one of the most powerful he ever heard.

Looking back, Pederson recalls his years at Southwest as rewarding, but stressful and demanding.

“I was around when babies were delivered, children overdosed, some ran away, others to the hospital ... I was a surrogate parent.”

Today, Pederson is officially retired, but continues to teach K-8 physical education at the P-S School where on any given day he can be seen tying the shoelaces of first-graders who haven’t yet learned to do so.

Although he’s certainly paid his educational dues, he has no plans of stepping aside anytime soon.

“I guess (teaching) is in my blood,” he says.

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup 

Jeremy Ulmer with some of his hunting trophies.

Wildfire season turns dangerous

The 50,494-acre Woodbury Fire continued to grow all week, with nearly 900 firefighters deployed to keep it from consuming scattered communities on the outskirts of the blaze.

Smoke drifted through the Tonto Basin, leaving a gray smear on satellite images most of the way to the Utah border. The fire was listed as 41 percent contained — although no longer an immediate threat to the communities of Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and Queen Valley. However, crews were bracing for critical fire weather Thursday and had issued a “set” notice for portions of Tonto Basin. This is the middle step in the “Ready, Set, Go” wildland fire action plan.

The National Park Service on Tuesday announced the indefinite closure of Tonto National Monument in the Tonto Basin as the fire moved toward Reavis Ranch in the Superstitions, still some 10 miles from the Tonto Basin itself.

Firefighters closed most of the Apache Trail between Roosevelt Lake and Apache Junction, although Roosevelt Lake itself remained accessible, along with the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake. Forest Service campgrounds east of Roosevelt Dam were closed Thursday.

The Tonto National Forest had already imposed fire restrictions, including a ban on almost all use of outdoor fires outside of firepits in established campgrounds as well as spark-producing activities like shooting. The restrictions underscore the now-dangerous condition of fuels throughout the region, as well as the strain on firefighters mobilized to fight the Woodbury Fire. That fire started on June 8 and spread rapidly through the lower-elevation chaparral and the now-dry grass nurtured by a wet winter.

Fortunately, other fires scattered throughout the state have already been largely contained, thanks to the earlier cool, wet conditions in the high country and aggressive management, which included setting thousands of acres of backfires.

The 16,790-acre Coldwater Fire that started on May 30 about four miles from Clints Well, is 90 percent contained. That fire helped thin the overgrown watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, Payson’s future water supply.

Firefighters also managed to contain the 7,470-acre Mountain Fire near Horseshoe Reservoir.

That leaves the still growing and unpredictable Woodbury Fire the biggest problem in the state.

Crews used helicopters to drop incendiary devices to start backfires this week to prevent the continued spread of the fire toward the popular Reavis Ranch area as well as habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl.

Heli-rappellers and Hotshot crews also dropped into Hewitt Ridge on June 8 to undertake burnout operations to keep the fire from moving toward vulnerable areas. The goal is to establish a continuous line to prevent the fire from spreading southwest toward state and private lands, as well as several communities.

On the fire’s north flank, retardant and water drops as well as heavy equipment were deployed to protect structures along State Highway 88. Crews are also working to protect regional power lines.

The weather that allowed the Forest Service to manage wildfires and even undertake prescribed burns in May have now given way to dry, dangerous conditions — which will last until the arrival of the monsoon.

The Woodbury Fire has grown even more intense as it has moved into brush, pinyons and junipers in higher elevations, turned to tinder by triple-digit temperatures.

Fortunately, winds have remained relatively mild — blowing at 8-10 miles an hour.

Crews hope they can use prevailing winds to set backfires to trap the fire within a charred perimeter. However, worsening fire weather leading into the weekend could kick the fire into ravenous growth again. The heat will dry out the air and kick up strong winds in the lower two miles of the atmosphere, raising the possibility of violent fire behavior as it moves into the thicker fuels at higher elevations, according to the daily summary of fire activity posted on InciWeb, the fire federal reporting and management website.