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Payson Schools face daunting repair bills

The Payson Unified School District needs to spend $6.5 million over the next five years to keep its buildings from falling apart, a consultant told a shaken school board on Monday.

Moreover, the district will have to come up with another $7.5 million in the five years after that just to keep roofs from leaking, air conditioners running and carpets from coming apart. The district also needs to change all its door locks and pay for added security measures in a frightening era of school shooters, said Allison Suriano, with a Valley consulting firm that has just concluded a review of the district’s needs.

The maintenance bill for the deteriorating buildings comes to between $1 million and $2 million annually for the next 10 years, according to the survey of every square foot of the four existing campuses of the 2,400-student district.

Currently, the district spends $150,000 to $300,000 annually on maintenance and capital projects — with the cost of a single new school bus running to $170,000, said Superintendent Greg Wyman.

The district’s plight stems from the Arizona Legislature’s refusal to set aside money to make capital improvements and fixes to districts statewide, said Wyman.

“It’s not for lack of trying to maintain our buildings,” said the superintendent. “It’s the lack of dollars from the state. The building renewal plan has been fully funded in only one of the past 15 years. You see that across the state, facilities are failing because the state failed us.”

A coalition of school districts sued the state some 20 years ago, prompting a judge to declare the state’s education funding system unconstitutional due to the reliance on local property taxes. The old system gave property tax rich districts like Scottsdale far more to spend per student than property tax poor districts like Payson.

The Legislature shifted much of the responsibility for school funding to the state, with a system to collect property taxes statewide but then equalize the per-student funding. That new system established the Arizona School Facilities Board, responsible for funding school improvements and repairs.

However, the Legislature then failed to give the School Facilities Board enough money to keep up with the needs of districts throughout the state. The money the SFB did have either went to emergency repairs — like collapsed or leaking roofs — or districts growing so fast they had no where to put students.

Wyman said the capital plan presented by the consultants this week focused on the most urgent maintenance problems involving roofs, air conditioning, heating, transportation and safety. The plan doesn’t include money for things like more classroom space in the elementary schools, where the decision to close Frontier resulted in a jump in class sizes to 30 or more as well as splitting the elementary grades between two campuses. This has increased transportation costs in an already spread-out district.

“You have to be Maricopa right now, with 40 kids in a classroom and desperate, before the SFB will give you money to add classroom space,” said Suriano.

Moreover, the state’s formula includes virtually every square foot of space on campus when determining whether a district needs to add classrooms, said Wyman. That means the square footage of the auditorium, cafeteria, gyms and other buildings all count as possible “classroom” space.

“From the state’s point of view when it comes to capacity, the high school can hold 1,100 kids. It just inflates it beyond reasonable expectations — so they’re going to come back and say ‘you’re not at capacity’ if the district seeks money for classroom facilities,” said Wyman.

The consultants will present the full plan in February, which will then form the basis of a facilities plan for the district. The plan will prioritize the capital money the district can scrape together, in an effort to head off expensive breakdowns — like a damaging roof leak.

The priority list will also put the district in a good position should the state provide more money for capital improvements as Gov. Doug Ducey has promised. The governor added some money for capital improvements in the current fiscal year. This year, the state has an estimated $1 billion surplus, and Gov. Ducey has vowed to again provide money to meet the capital funding formulas that grew out of the long-ago court case.

“Gov. Ducey has a plan over the next five years to fund the building renewal fund, but that money in no way shape or form backfills all the money that wasn’t given to us over the last 15 years,” said Wyman.

Wyman said schools have brought another lawsuit trying to get the state to adequately fund school improvements, but that will likely take years to resolve.

“Let’s say a miracle happens and the courts rule on it and we’re in a position to say ‘OK, what are our priorities and how do we move on it?’”

In the meantime, the facilities plan can also perhaps form the basis of another attempt by the district to seek voter approval of new school bonds. The district will in the next five years or so finish paying off a bond issue used to make improvements at Julia Randall Elementary, Rim Country Middle School, the district offices and elsewhere. However, the state sharply limits school bonding capacity as part of the effort to prevent the development of rich and poor districts when it comes to facilities.

Even if none of that happens, the plan will identify the most critical problems to address with the limited capital budget. That might include safety improvements, like doors that lock from the inside so teachers can keep students safe if there’s an “active shooter” on campus. Those locks would cost about $50,000 per school site.

“If we need $6 million to fix everything but have only got $150,000 to spend, you’re ignoring most of that $6 million. So we’ll have conversations about what the priority is,” concluded Wyman.

Photo courtesy: Wendy Larchick/Keller Williams Arizona Realty 

With a greenhouse, yoga studio and heated workshop, this $1.65 million home on two acres in Chaparral Pines was the most expensive home sold last year in Payson.

Real estate
2018 ends with higher home sales

The Rim Country real estate market continued to show an uptick in 2018 with more buyers than sellers and an influx of California buyers.

Joshua Meacham, associate broker with West USA Realty and a lifelong Rim Country resident, said more than 30 percent of his sales were to California buyers.

“With rising property taxes and cost of living in California, our Rim Country real estate market is destined to continue to see a rise in buyers from California,” he said.

Not all California buyers were looking for investments.

Several residents displaced by wildfires in California bought homes to start over in Rim Country.

Overall, 2018 started strong, but ended with weaker sales as sellers failed to adjust their prices to the market.

Still, 2018 was stronger overall than the year prior with nearly a 10 percent increase in the number of homes sold, according to statistics pulled from FlexMLS.

Associate broker Wendy Larchick, with Keller Williams Arizona Realty, said 2017 ended strong and that carried through to July in 2018.

“However, in August we saw an overall retraction with buyers tending to be more conservative,” she said.

In August, home sales dropped 11 percent and then 22 percent in September. Sales then increased 18 percent in October, but fell again in November and December.

Larchick said this was in part due to a lack of inventory in the “sweet spots” that appeal to most buyers coming to Rim Country.

What are the sweet spots?

• Site-built starter homes under $250,000

• New homes in the $300,000-$400,000 range

• Luxury homes in the $500,000s outside the country clubs and luxury homes under $700,000 in Chaparral Pines and The Rim Club

“There is a very strong demand right now for single-family homes priced under $500,000 in the Payson area. Our biggest issue right now is we don’t have enough homes to sell,” Meacham said.

If sellers priced their home right, they were almost guaranteed a quick sale and this caused a shortage of inventory in these “sweet spots.”

“Our market is moving quickly and if a property is priced and marketed correctly it is going to move including high-end homes,” he said.

Looking forward, Larchick said the overall shift in the financial market, including fluctuations in the stock market and a continued increase in interest rates, should lead to a slow down in buyer demand by mid-year due to uncertainty.

“Pricing a property right (within market range) will be key, buyers will not tolerate what they perceive to be an overpriced home,” she said. “However, thankfully, the buyer’s market should not be so strong for buyer’s to get away with lowball offers, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try!”

On the rental front, there should be an increase in the number of rentals as sellers who are not able to sell their homes decide to rent instead. And as interest rates increase, more renters will be priced out of the market.

In 2018, 758 homes sold in Payson, 66 more than 2017. The median sale price was $249,500, 11 percent higher than the year prior. Homes sold in an average of 116 days.

What to keep in mind

if selling your home

Price your house right from the start, Realtors say.

“We are going to see a transition from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market sometime mid-year,” Larchick said. “This shift will require that sellers price their home within market range as buyers have demonstrated that they have no tolerance for an overpriced home and will skip right over it in favor of negotiating with what they perceive to be a more reasonable seller who has their house priced within the market range.”

Most buyers start their search online, so make sure you home is listed properly, said Meacham.

teeth and tails
Teeth and tails - problem encounters with off-leash dogs

A peaceful walk around Green Valley Park ended for Samantha Wright with a visit to her doctor and medical treatment.

A dog that had lunged for her dog ended up biting her.

The bite broke the skin and Wright started bleeding. The other owner meanwhile, just kept walking. When Payson Police officers arrived, they found the dog did not have immediate proof of up-to-date vaccinations and quarantined it.

The story is all too common for those who walk their dogs — off-leash, out-of-control dogs in town and on the trails.

Under state law, all dogs must be vaccinated for rabies and licensed. An animal control officer can impound and quarantine unvaccinated dogs for between 10 and 120 days at the owner’s expense.

While many understand rabies and licensing requirements, some are confused about local dog-leash laws.

Can you walk your dog without a leash if it is on an e-collar, commonly called a shock collar?

How long can the leash be?

Does a dog have to be leashed if it is on a trail in the forest?

We asked Police Chief Don Engler to help clarify.

The town’s code states that dogs must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet or on an e-collar while in town.

Payson’s off-leash dog park is the exception, where dogs can be off-leash. As well as on “trails leading to the national forest designated in the Payson Area Trails System,” according to town code. But in all cases the dog must be “under control.”

What classifies as under control?

The town code states, in part, “No owner or person in charge of any dog shall permit the dog to bite or cause injury to any livestock, domestic animal, or person engaged in a lawful activity.”

Outside town limits, Gila County’s dog ordinance does not allow for e-collars and requires that dogs be leashed. Both require a dog to be contained by a fence, kennel, vehicle or house if not under direct control of the owner. It is unlawful to chain a dog up in Payson.

The Roundup reached out to its Facebook users for comments on off-leash dogs.

Many commented that they have come across dog owners who allow their dogs to run up to them, cheerfully calling out, “My dog just wants to play,” or “My dog is friendly.” The other dog may not be, or the person might be scared of a confrontation.

“An off-leash large dog at Rumsey Park on Powerline Road wanted to play, but the dog I had didn’t,” wrote Valina Lusk. “People don’t understand that not all dogs want to be approached by other dogs.”

Arizona law has what is termed “strict liability,” which means that an owner is responsible if their dog bites someone or causes damage, whether on private or public property, even in their own backyard, even if on a leash. The only exception is if the dog owner can prove the bite victim provoked the attack.

Among the many benefits of living in Rim Country are the numerous hiking trails, shared by hikers, mountain bikers, horses and off-road vehicles.

“I’m out in the woods with horses often. Most folks with dogs will leash them when they see us,” wrote Myndi Brogdon. “Unfortunately, we are often not seen by people first. Our trail etiquette is to stop and face a barking dog until the owner can catch up and leash them. Dogs will often try to chase a horse. If we stop and face them they don’t chase our horses. We’ve not had any bad outcomes. But it’s good for folks to be aware they may come across other larger animals, horses, llamas, cows, elk, etc. and be prepared for their dog’s reaction.”

Neilee Bolla said she often walks her dogs off-leash when in the forest.

“What I love about Payson is all the space I can hike without running into a bunch of people,” she said. “I enjoy hiking with my dogs off leash, but I always leash them when we see people or 4x4s approaching. Even if people are okay with dogs, I don’t think it’s polite to let your dog run up to everyone they see.”

While training is key, veterinarians say even dogs with excellent recall can pick up the scent of another animal and take off, often with their owner helpless to get them back.

Angus, a German shepherd, went missing for 18 days after he disappeared from a campsite despite his owner training him to stay when off-leash.

Thanks to the volunteer efforts by residents and a Humane Animal Rescue and Trapping Team, Angus was reunited with his owner, but not before he was hit by a car. (See story “Lost in the Forest” on

Angus was one of the lucky ones. Surgery repaired his broken leg and he is home now. Other dogs are never found.

Often, it’s the dogs that pay the price for their owner’s refusal to obey the law.

Some people reported that they don’t take their dogs out anymore because they fear encounters with off-leash or aggressive dogs on the trail.

It only takes one traumatic incident to cause lasting psychological and/or physical harm to a dog or a person.

“I’m off leash a great deal of the time, but I always leash when approaching others,” wrote Jonnie Geen. “I like to consider it as having nice trail manners. But I sure come across folks with their dogs and I cringe at their inappropriate behavior. Good manners are difficult to criticize, leash or no leash. I often hear ‘my dog is friendly’ and then the dog jumps up on me or tries to get after my dogs.”

So if on a trail or at the park, keep your dog on a leash and under control. If you see approaching hikers and/or dogs, it’s a good idea to shorten the leash, ask your dog to sit and wait for others to pass.

Strike one for homeless program

Homeless advocate Doug Stewart thought he had finally figured out how to shelter the homeless this winter so they didn’t have to spend it shivering in the woods.

He enlisted the mayor’s support.

He found a location.

He even had the resources to offer shelter and food for at least a portion of Rim Country’s growing homeless population.

Then things got complicated.

Stewart came to the Jan. 10 Payson Town Council meeting to give an update on his efforts to put together services and shelter for the homeless, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) resources. Each year, HUD does a homeless count at the end of January. With the information gathered, it distributes resources.

The sticking point came when Stewart tried to find a place to put a shelter, which would draw people in from the woods for the head count.

A local church had offered a spot, but then the neighbors objected.

“We had a plot of land, but that fell through,” Stewart told the council, “but we have another spot in mind.”

The setback didn’t phase Stewart.

“It takes two or three cracks at it before it all comes together,” he said. “Really, this is just a six-week program to see what we have.”

He has another property in mind, but said most residents would prefer to have a homeless shelter in a remote area.

“Everybody is afraid of change. They say we want to help, but not in my backyard,” said Stewart. “They always want you to do it in a place that is inaccessible.”

He then reminded the council that many of the homeless don’t have vehicles, but do need services.

“They still have to eat and use facilities,” he said.

Program challenges

Stewart was working with the homeless, but then broke his foot, which slowed him down.

“We’ve gone on three years with Doug,” said Police Chief Don Engler. “Until his injury, he contributed countless hours all on volunteer time — especially with individuals. He has driven people hundreds of miles to get them back to family.”

The injury kept Stewart from going out into the woods to find homeless camps, but his injury has not dampened his commitment.

Stewart joined with Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey to seek solutions to Rim Country’s homeless issue. He explained to the council that until Gila County collects data on its homeless population, it cannot qualify for the HUD Continuum of Care program.

“We’re the only county in Arizona that doesn’t have contingency housing,” said Stewart.

Other counties in the state have housing available for those who find themselves homeless, but the problem continues to grow.

A recent Arizona Republic article said homeless housing programs do not have enough resources. Wait times for emergency housing have extended into the two-year range. At the same time, a HUD study found a 10 percent increase in Arizonans suffering from homelessness this past year.

Stewart’s most recent plan would use military tents owned by the town as temporary housing during the winter months.

Local churches and clubs would provide meals.

Stewart said this temporary program would allow for an official count of the homeless in the area — a first step toward qualifying for aid grants and expedited access to food stamps.

“We have no data on the homeless,” said Stewart. “No one collects it. Gila County doesn’t collect it.”

In comparison, Stewart sings the praises of Yavapai County.

“They have housing for the homeless who have just come out of jail,” he said. “Yavapai has their stuff together.”

Yavapai has HUD housing and seeks to aid those homeless struggling with mental illness.

But in Gila County, the homeless have few alternatives.

“I see them in local coffee shops and grocery lines all the time,” he said. “If we don’t start somewhere, I feel Payson and other rural communities will have a serious problem that will cost the town a lot of money.”

Council concerns

The council had some pointed questions about the program.

“I’m wondering if we can do something to help their rate of criminal activity,” said Councilor Jim Ferris. “Why would they want to be in Payson when the weather is more cold?”

Stewart explained his program would offer a controlled environment that would keep trash out of the forest and intoxicated individuals from roaming the streets.

He’s also noted many of the homeless get stuck in Payson because of the court system.

“You’re from another area, now you have a case ... and you’re trapped here with no services,” he said.

He took one homeless man to Flagstaff for emergency housing and resources, but soon found himself driving the man back and forth to Payson for court appearances.

Councilor Barbara Underwood had concerns about liability issues for the property owners.

“We are going to ask them to sign a waiver of liability,” said Stewart.

Morrissey praised Stewart for his efforts.

“This is a problem. We have different views on the homeless and the homeless situation. At the root of this is they are human beings. I always say, what would Christ do?” he said. “I thank you and the team, in some areas this is not a popular thing, (but) you’re probably saving lives.”

Contact the reporter at