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Rim Country roadways reopen

It was not a happy New Year for many motorists with a storm dumping nearly half a foot of snow in Payson Monday and eight inches east of Star Valley, forcing officials to close the roadways as they handled many vehicle slide-offs and accidents.

With southbound State Route 87 closed, some motorists camped out in the Walmart parking lot while others who were stuck on the roadway behind the closure tried to stay warm in their vehicles.

On Twitter, one man asked the Arizona Department of Transportation if he would have to sleep in his car on 87 south of Payson.

ADOT reopened southbound Highway 87 by 9 p.m. New Year’s Eve after a two-hour closure due to accidents and snow.

The New Year’s Eve storm dumped an estimated four to six inches of snow in Payson and seven in Pine.

The snow started sticking to roadways around noon on Dec. 31.

By nightfall, the slick roadways caused many accidents as travelers went through Pine, up toward the Rim lakes and southbound on the Beeline Highway.

ADOT responded by closing all roads into and out of Payson by 7 p.m.

Mike Peters, a firefighter and paramedic for the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department, said a car carrying a family of five rolled off the road at mile marker 268.5 — a narrow, steep section of 87 going up to the Mogollon Rim.

“It was a husband, his wife and their three kids — and she was pregnant,” said Peters. “They rolled once. Because of the snow, it was a soft roll.”

Peters said the car was totaled, but no one was seriously injured. Everyone was wearing seatbelts.

The road closures caught travelers by surprise. So many people got stranded in Payson that every hotel room in town filled up — plus all the Airbnb and other short-term rentals. Some people in Payson took in stranded strangers.

White Mountain Independent reporter Bob Martinson found himself stuck in Payson until around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. He took refuge in the Mazatzal Casino until he could get back on the road. He finally arrived at his Tempe destination around 11 p.m.

Donovan Christian, minister at Expedition Church, took in two people. Another 11 stayed with members of his church.

“Nice meeting new people from out of town,” he said in a Roundup Facebook post.

New Year’s Day dawned with side roads covered in inches of snow. ADOT plows worked all night. Payson also dispatched its road crews and improvised plows to clear neighborhood streets.

Lower than normal temperatures will continue to cause challenges for travelers as snow and ice remain on roadways. The forecast calls for cold temperatures tonight, followed by a warming trend into the weekend. The weather service said another winter storm could hit the region on Sunday and Monday.

The National Weather Service issued this travel warning:

If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency.

Call 511 for latest road information.


Michele Nelson / Michele Nelson/Roundup  

Presiding judge of the Gila County courts, Tim Wright, swore in (left to right) Jim Ferris, council member; Tom Morrissey, mayor; Suzy Tubbs-Avakian, council member; and returning council member, Chris Higgins.

2018 Year in Review

From an election to a casino robbery to the 135th celebration of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo, it was a busy year for news in Rim Country.

The Payson Roundup published more than 1,200 stories on, with nearly 2.2 million page views. With coverage including everything from wildfires to Longhorn sports and new businesses, it was tough to pick the top stories. Here is a list of the top headlines from each month.


Headline: Stolen military mines unearthed on Pine property

What happened: The year started off with a bang of sorts with a report that construction crews digging in Pine had uncovered a large stash of stolen military explosives. Some 80 blocks of C4 explosives and nine claymore mines were unearthed while a construction crew was clearing land for a horse corral on a residential property in southeast Pine. Based on codes on the explosives, officials believe they were manufactured in the 1960s around the time of the Vietnam War and had been buried for at least 20 years.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is still offering a $10,000 reward for information regarding the explosives and has so far received no tips.

Headline: Three options for Rumsey Park unveiled

What happened: The town unveiled three possible master plan layouts for Rumsey Park. Each of the plans included a large training center, community center as well as additional fields, parking and possible pool. It represented the first major park revamp in years.


Headline: New Star Valley councilor takes oath

What happened: Ray Armington was sworn in as a Star Valley Town Council member. Armington took Barbara Hartwell’s seat after she was forced to resign. Hartwell had served on the council since 2008. When her rental home in Star Valley sold, she could not find a rental home and had to move to Payson. Moving outside the town limits, Hartwell could no longer serve on the Star Valley council.


Headline: Cameron Davis leaving the town

What happened: After 11 years with the town, Payson’s Parks Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis resigned to start his own marketing company. The county later hired him to start a marketing campaign for Gila County, Explore the Wild.

Headline: Knoll Fire grows to 60 acres

What happened: Some 140 firefighters backed by air resources got a blaze on the face of the Rim off Forest Service Road 29 contained. Reportedly, kids playing with firecrackers started The Knoll Fire.


Headline: New mountain bike trail in Rumsey Park

What happened: A new trail for walkers and mountain bikers was unveiled in Rumsey Park. Thanks to volunteer efforts, the trail was built on the water tank hill, zigzagging across the terrain in a one-mile loop.

The trail is suitable for all skill levels and ages.

Headline: Hellsgate proposes working together with Payson

What happened: Hellsgate Fire District Chief John Wisner proposed forming a new fire authority that combines Hellsgate with the Payson Fire Department and Houston Mesa Fire District, allowing the agencies to share resources, but reduce redundant costs.

Headline: Last year for Lorraine Cline Memorial Fund Poker Run

What happened: The sun set on the Lorraine Cline Memorial Fund Poker Run. Laci Sopeland, the granddaughter of Lorraine Cline, started the event 10 years ago to honor her grandmother who died of lung cancer and to raise money for families struggling with cancer in the community. The Memorial Fund used all of the money raised through the Poker Run to support Gila County victims of cancer.

Headline: Star Valley garden opens

What happened: An estimated 150 people turned out for the opening ceremonies of the new Star Valley Community Garden. Located behind the Star Valley Circle K on town property, the garden has 60 enclosed plots for rent, including four with special access for the disabled.

Headline: C.C. Cragin Reservoir nearly empty

What happened: The Coconino National Forest announced the road to the C.C. Cragin Reservoir (formerly Blue Ridge) would close due to critically low water levels. The reservoir was at 22 percent at the end of the winter runoff season when it normally fills to the brim. The news was disturbing for Payson, which has rights to 3,500 acre-feet annually.


Headline: Forest Service closes most forest lands

What happened: Much of the Tonto, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves forests were closed to public entry in the midst of a dangerous fire season. The closure hurt local businesses that rely on the busy summer months to get through the winter.


Headline: 34 teens face sexting charges

What happened: After uncovering a rash of sexting among Payson students, the Payson Police Department referred 34 teens to the probation department for punishment. The teens ranged in age from 14 to 18 and attended Rim Country Middle School and Payson High School. In mid May, Payson High School contacted the Payson Police Department after administrators discovered that explicit images of female students were being shared or traded among students.


Headline: Shots fired at casino, FBI looking for robbery suspects

What happened: The FBI was looking for two “violent casino robbers” who held up the Mazatzal Hotel and Casino. The masked men entered the casino brandishing a long gun and pistols. They fired rounds inside the casino and threatened casino employees. No one was injured. They made off with some $650,000 and were later arrested.

Headline: Man killed at Shoofly Ruins Saturday morning

What happened: Steven Brydie reportedly shot and killed Michael Whitis in a minivan at the Shoofly Ruins while reportedly watching the sunrise. Brydie is set to go to trial for second-degree murder in late 2019.

Headline: District honors donors who raised $200,000 for new playground

What happened: Spearheaded by two determined parents, a communitywide collection of donors raised more than $150,000 to buy and install new, safer playground equipment at Julia Randall Elementary School. The Mogollon Sporting Association and the MHA Foundation each donated $50,000. The district also kicked in $50,000, with additional money coming from the Kiwanis, the Gracie Lee Haught Foundation and others.

Headline: Nuisance bear captured in Tonto Village

What happened: Tonto Village residents grappled with a “rogue” bear that broke down fences to get to and rummage through garbage, find food and water from any source, even hummingbird feeders. Arizona Game and Fish set up a baited live trap for the bear.


Headline: Payson voters oust Mayor Craig Swartwood embrace Tom Morrissey

What happened: The Payson status quo suffered an upset with newcomer Tom Morrissey unseating incumbent Mayor Craig Swartwood. Swartwood, a longtime resident and Realtor had championed a plan to build a pool, community center, ballparks and ice rinks in Rumsey Park. He also pushed through an increase in the sales tax to pay police and fire pension costs and boost town spending coming out of the recession. Morrissey ran a campaign sharply critical of the council.


Headline: Restoring Payson’s precious history in Main Street

What happened: The long-abandoned 123-year-old Pieper Mansion was in metamorphosis. Geoff and Sandi Wolf purchased the dilapidated property and extensively renovated it. It now sports hand-hewn siding, a metal roof complete with “widow’s walk,” new windows, a staircase to the second level (for storage), and a restored and remodeled interior. Sandi’s great uncle, Walter Lazear, once lived in the house and their family connection to the property inspired them to take on the considerable task of remodeling.


Headline: Payson council member resigns

What happened: Payson Town Council member Rick Croy stunned staff and residents when he offered his immediate resignation, citing health reasons. Croy had served on the council for a decade, first elected in 2008 and then re-elected in 2012 and 2016.

Headline: Plane crash kills two after it crashes into Payson home

What happened: A Phoenix couple was killed after their plane crashed into a Payson home east of the airport. The single-engine Cessna crashed into a home in the 1400 block of North Sunset Drive, off North Easy Street, killing Craig Raymond McEntee, 63, and Marilee Marshall Brusaschetti, 56. They had reportedly taken off from Glendale. A final accident report has not been filed.

Headline: Su Connell dies

What happened: Almost a year after doctors diagnosed her with a brain tumor, Payson Councilor Su Connell passed away. Connell, 76, moved to Payson in 2001 and joined about every board in town. She volunteered with the Mogollon Health Alliance, Tonto Natural Bridge and the Payson Area Advisory Youth Council — to name a few. Plus, she was a Rotarian, Kiwanian, Soroptimist and Optimist.

Headline: Gerardo’s closes doors after 18 years

What happened: Gerardo Moceri closed his Italian restaurant, at 512 N. Beeline Highway, 18 years after opening. He continues to run a successful Italian restaurant in the Sedona area.


Headline: Broadband breakthrough?

What happened: Former Payson Mayor Kenny Evans announced at an economic development roundtable hosted by Gov. Doug Ducey that a private group has put up “millions of dollars” to bring redundant, ultra-high-speed internet to Rim Country. The new line would provide a loop — which means a cut in the existing line or even the second trunk line wouldn’t cause an outage that would take down internet and phone service. Evans declined to identify the group or the provider. He said the two sides are drawing up final details, which could wind up providing redundant internet at least six times the capacity of the current signal within about 18 months.

Headline: Main Street’s first mural completed at Rim Country Flowers

What happened: The first mural on Main Street in years was completed. Minette Hart and Donn Morris, together with volunteers, worked diligently on the project for almost two weeks. The mural is painted on the side wall of Rim Country Flowers at 214 W. Main St., and depicts the Herron Hotel and a view of historic Main Street. The Main Street Merchants Guild, June Dudley, owner of Rim Country Flowers, and Terry Oakley, the building owner approved the design earlier this year.


Headline: Scoops serving its last cones from Sawmill location

What happened: After 10 years in Payson, Scoops Ice Cream and Espresso closed its doors in the Sawmill Crossing, 201 W. Main St., suite H. Owner Chris Higgins will continue to operate mobile Scoops ice cream vending at ASU games.

Headline: Payson Superintendent Greg Wyman leaves district

What happened: After five years, Payson Unified School Superintendent Greg Wyman announced he would leave the district at the end of the school year to take the reins at the J.O. Combs District near Queen Creek. When Wyman came to the district in 2014, he had hoped it would be his last job before retirement, but family concerns drove him to make the change.

Headline: Changing of the guard at Payson Town Hall

What happened: A large crowd showed up to witness the changing of the guard in Payson’s Town Hall as Craig Swartwood and Fred Carpenter stepped down so newcomers Tom Morrissey, Jim Ferris and Suzy Tubbs-Avakian could take their seats. Chris Higgins, re-elected to a second term, will serve for another four years.

The new council unanimously elected Janell Sterner as vice mayor.

Headline: Bus services for Payson, Star Valley, Mesa del launch

What happened: After working frantically for almost a year, the Payson Senior Center launched the Beeline Bus. Beeline Bus serves the Payson, Star Valley and Mesa del Caballo areas of central Arizona. To learn more, go online to or call 928-474-4876.


FBI photo  

Two former casino employees carried out an armed robbery at the casino last year.

Payson Food Drive short on cash goals

This year’s Payson Area Food Drive has seen donors fill the coffers with food, but cash donations remain well below goal.

So far, the community has donated 20,000 pounds of food toward the 30,000 pound goal, but just $26,655 toward the $50,000 goal.

That puzzles Chuck Proudfoot, who’s heading up the food drive, which ends Feb. 3 on “Souper Bowl Sunday.”

The cash shortfall could cause problems for the food banks, who help on average some 400 local families each week. Families with children now account for a majority of the people who come to the food banks.

“This year the food is up and the money is lagging,” said Proudfoot, who has helped with the food drive since its start in 2009.

Usually, by this time a large cash donation has materialized.

“Most years from some source there is usually a $10,000 donation,” he said.

During a past Realtors’ food drive, one donor provided the cash windfall. Another year, a foundation stepped up with a large donation.

Research indicates a possible reason for the lack of a large cash donation — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The new tax law increased the standard deduction for an individual from $6,500 to $12,000. Couples went from $13,000 to $24,000.

An American Enterprise Institute study predicted this could reduce charitable giving by $17.2 billion — or 4 percent across the country. An estimated 27.3 million taxpayers will stop itemizing deductions because the standard deduction will remove their ability to reduce their tax bill by making deductions.

Proudfoot has faith that someone will come through.

The money the PAFD receives helps Payson buy food from the United Food Bank in the Valley.

The money also helps when the Emergency Food Assistance Program lacks certain nutritional balance.

“There has not been peanut butter for some time,” said Proudfoot. “We usually get the staples of the commodity program.”

Proudfoot said one of the challenges of the commodity program is that it lacks reliability.

“It depends on what happens in a given year,” he said. “It is whatever is overproduced and bought by the government to keep the price down.”

Most recently, Proudfoot said the Emergency Food Assistance Program (or TEFAP as food bank folks call it) has provided berries and frozen chicken.

So the pantry has focused on adding quick meals such as spaghetti sauce, pasta, cereal as well as canned fruits and vegetables. The cash donations make it possible to fill these needs at local grocery stores.

Even there, a national food gleaning operation, Harvest America, helps local food pantries get the best deal.

In the case of the Community Presbyterian Church Food Pantry, Harvest America has partnered them with Safeway.

Proudfoot expressed nothing but gratitude for all Safeway has done for the food pantry.

“Safeway does turkey bucks at $5, $10 and $20, which go towards holiday meals,” he said. “They have done that for three years now thanks to people donating as they checked out of Safeway.”

This year, the turkey bucks bought turkeys with all the fixings for 108 families for Thanksgiving and 109 for Christmas.

Proudfoot said time still remains for an angel donor to step forward.

“We do have another month as we are going through Super Bowl Sunday, the first weekend in February,” he said.

Mail your check to Payson Area Food Drive, P.O. Box 703, Payson, AZ 85547.

PUSD comes through with its own food drive

Before the Christmas holiday break, Payson Unified School District partnered with the Payson Lioness Club to run its own food drive.

Four of the five campuses put out food collection boxes. The four schools competed for a coupon from Big 5 Sporting Goods to purchase sports equipment.

PUSD Food Drive results:

Payson Elementary School: 199 pounds, 181 items

Julia Randall Elementary: 1,494 pounds, 1,245 items

Payson Center for Success: 154 pounds, 110 items

Payson High School: 11 pounds, 14 items

Payson economy booming

Business continued to boom in Payson as the year drew toward a close, according to the town’s November financial report.

The town’s local sales tax receipts jumped 27 percent to $4.2 million for the first five months of the fiscal year from July to November. A chunk of that increase stems from the increase in the town’s sales tax rate — which took effect in August of 2017.

“For the first five months of this fiscal year, sales tax revenue is both over budget to date and above prior year-to-date revenue,” noted chief fiscal officer Deborah Barber.

Other sources of town revenue have also risen, but at a much slower pace.

Money from vehicle license taxes rose $27,000 to $424,000 — a 7 percent rise.

Money from state-shared sales tax collected statewide and doled out based on population rose $42,000 to $564,000 for the five-month period — an 8 percent increase. This suggests even without the increased sales tax rate, Payson’s retail economy is doing better than the statewide trend.

Construction related revenue also rose modestly — up $4,000 to $138,000 a 3 percent increase. However, plan review fees actually dropped by $3,500 to $69,000 — a 5 percent decline. That suggests a slowdown in future building, based on plans being reviewed now.

Money from state gas taxes rose modestly, up $15,000 to $604,000, a roughly 3 percent increase.

On the other hand, the money the state forwarded from income taxes based on population fell, by $16,000 to $783,000 — a decline of 2 percent, which likely stems from ongoing reductions in the income tax rate statewide rather than a problem with the economy.

Overall, Payson’s having a boom year, thanks to both the sales tax increase expected to bring in an extra $3 million and the healthy retail economy.

The town made $600,000 in additional payments to the public safety retirement fund, which was the principle argument advanced for the boost in the sales tax. Sharp drops in the stock market during the recession dramatized the underfunding of the state’s pension system for police officers and firefighters.

Other big-ticket items the town has covered in the current year:

• A $200,000 payment on a $1 million loan from the water department.

• A $1.2 million boost in the reserves for the general fund, after years of having a dangerously small reserve fund. The boost in the town’s reserves was also a major selling point in the sales tax increase. The general fund ending balance now stands at $4.9 million.

• Three fire department positions to help address fuels management and reduce reliance on overtime.

• Transfer of $100,000 to the equipment replacement fund.

•Replacing and updating computers throughout town departments.

Despite the flush of new money from the sales tax increase, the town’s various general fund departments continue to operate under budget.

The town’s $20 million general fund covers the operating costs of most of the town departments. The budget called for spending $7.8 million at this point, but the town’s various departments have actually spent just $6.2 million.

The police department has contributed the most to the savings. The police department has a $6.7 million annual budget, but so far is running about $900,000 under budget. The fire department has a $4.5 million annual budget and is so far running about $400,000 under budget.

The only town department running over budget at this point is information technology, but that’s mostly due to computer purchases and upgrades and new software purchased early in the year.

Other good news

The report made note of several other bits of good news, including grants totaling $700,000 from the federal government to pay for improvements at the airport.

The town also received a $200,000 grant from the state to make improvements to the American Gulch, which runs along Main Street.

Moreover, Payson has also resumed routine maintenance on its streets, thanks to state-shared gas tax as well as money from a countywide sales tax. Payson will spend $350,000 on slurry seal work on the streets in the first half of the fiscal year.

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup  

A youngster tries to hang onto a sheep in the Mutton Bustin’ event at the annual rodeo.

Robbery, accidents and plane crash: Top stories of ’18 on

Top 15 stories from the past year, as ranked by the number of clicks on

1. Shots fired at casino, FBI looking for robbery suspects, July 17

2. Fatal vehicle accident on State Route 87 Saturday morning, north of Pine, May 5

3. Sylvia Allen offers her perspective on the propositions, Sept. 8

4. Plane crashes into Payson home, killing one, Oct. 13

5. Two casino employees arrested for Mazatzal robbery, Aug. 7

6. Driver killed Monday morning, April 24

7. Stolen military mines unearthed on Pine property, Jan. 4

8. Tracks, suspect’s mannerisms lead police to casino robbers, Aug. 10

9. Man dies after striking two vehicles on the Beeline, June 1

10. Man killed at Shoofly Ruins Saturday morning, July 28

11. A Mission of Honor, Feb. 15

12. County attorney will seek first-ever death penalty, Nov. 30

13. Two die in head-on collision on 87, dog survives, May 8

14. Blue Ridge reservoir nearly empty, April 10

15. Multiple wildfires — likely caused by lightning — in the Happy Jack area atop Mogollon Rim, June 13