It looked like a small item on the Jan. 10 Payson agenda: A proposal to limit the number of proclamations at each meeting.
But before the dust cleared, the council found itself in a debate about political ideology.
“I don’t know how this was brought onto the agenda,” said Councilor Barbara Underwood. “I look at proclamations as a way to represent all groups in Payson.”
The debate came shortly after the council adopted a proclamation supporting a Women’s March in Payson.
That proclamation could have been banned under the new rules, which proposed limiting proclamations to “historical or cultural events, or events sponsored or co-sponsored by the Town of Payson.”
Underwood said Payson should support community groups. As president of the Payson Unified School District board, Underwood said they take time at every meeting for community recognitions. Underwood said that gives voice to “positive things in our community.”
Councilor Jim Ferris said he supported limiting the number of proclamations. He said he is opposed to proclamations for groups like Amnesty International.
“What I understand their agenda to be, and there is another very recent proclamation, that organization and their agenda to me embraces values that I don’t believe are values of the citizens of Payson and we make the proclamation,” he said. “It seems to carry like we are condoning those values and that agenda — and myself personally, I do not want to be associated with some of those values and those agendas and I don’t want our town council to be used to promote those things.”
A long silence ensued until Councilor Steve Smith spoke.
“I’m reminded that when we sit in these seats, we represent every single person within the Town of Payson whether we believe in their ideology or not.” he said. “I think ... there is value in recognizing the fact that we have citizens participating in our free society doing things. We may not necessarily agree with what they’re doing — personally — but as a member of this council it’s my responsibility to fairly represent every part of the town and every citizen of the town.”
Councilor Chris Higgins said in his four years on the council, the number of proclamations had never seemed overwhelming.
“The people that we present ... are all very appreciative of being recognized by the town. So, maybe you’re doing the town a disservice and the people that are contributing to our community,” he said.
Ferris still disagreed.
“Some of the groups, they all come in and they all do good, but if there is a group and they’re advocating abortion rights, that’s really against my, you know, maybe there are anti-Trump or anti-Obama, it’s very political. Maybe the Wiccans want to come in and they want a witch day. White supremacists can come in and say, you know, ‘I want a proclamation on that.’ The Democrats and the Republicans can come and say, ‘We want our street waving.’ I just think there’s things that are highly charged value-wise (and) politically-wise that I just don’t think we should be some sort of platform for these groups and their proclamations,” Ferris said.
Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian said she had received a proclamation at a meeting during fire safety month in recognition of her Firewise efforts.
She suggested the council amend the item to find “a happy medium.”
Vice-Mayor Janell Sterner wondered whether the proposed policy would allow the council to support things like the first responders prayer breakfast.
She suggested the town list proclamation recipients on the website instead of bringing them to the meeting.
Mayor Tom Morrissey focused on the efficiency of the process.
“My interest would be in efficiency and time-efficiency, not necessarily making a political statement,” he said. “I do agree with things that support our town culture. Maybe we could widen the parameters.”
In the end, the council decided to take no action on the item.
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A scary turnover rate.
A growing fire danger.
A lack of understanding.
The problems besetting fire departments in Rim Country have convinced the overwhelming majority of Payson, Hellsgate and Houston Mesa firefighters to support a merger.
But can they convince the Payson Town Council?
The chiefs, fire association leaders and most rank-and-file firefighters say combining the Hellsgate and Payson fire departments under a joint power authority run by a board composed of Payson councilors and Hellsgate board members would improve staffing and service and eliminate financial waste.
“First and foremost, we see it as a benefit to the community,” said Rick Heron, a captain at the Hellsgate Fire Department and president of Northern Gila County Fire Firefighters Association.
But four of the seven-member Payson Town Council have just started their tenure and now face a critical vote on the JPA on Jan. 24.
“I believe in their hearts they want to change the problem, (but) I don’t think they understand the depth of the problem,” said Heron. “Change is hard and scary. They hate the way things are and they hate the way they could be.”
Heron and Thorry Smith, a Payson fire engineer and vice president of the firefighters association, sat down with the Roundup to talk about the problems the JPA seeks to solve.
Currently, Payson struggles to keep firefighters.
“Payson has 40 percent of its firefighters on probationary status,” said Heron, meaning, almost half of the firefighters are new.
Smith and Heron said captain positions in the Payson Fire Department have gone unfilled because either no one has the necessary experience or they don’t want to tackle the demanding position.
“They rush to school for paramedics,” said Smith. “I’ve been rushed into being a captain. Now it’s on me to catch up.”
That middle management serves a critical purpose.
“You have a minute to get water on that fire,” said Heron. “You have to get off that truck and get them on the hoses. You have to answer, ‘Where is the fire now? Where is it going?’ Or on a medical case, you have to know, ‘Is he breathing? What are my needs?’ These are quick decisions that are life and death.”
In comparison to Payson’s young staff, Hellsgate’s veteran staff has decades of service. For instance, Heron has served Hellsgate for 25 years.
So what makes the difference?
The two believe it stems from the relationship the firefighters have with management.
“Until real recently, I didn’t know any town council. I can walk into the (Hellsgate) board meetings and get hugs,” said Smith. “With the Town, we’re kind of a department.”
“There is an identified $5.2 million in capital improvements for the Payson Fire Department alone,” said Heron. “Payson’s newest fire truck is 10 years old.”
Hellsgate has just about paid off one of its engines through money it receives fighting wildfires, but then must immediately turn around to purchase a new truck.
Heron said the JPA could solve this problem by moving resources around.
A huge gulf of responsibility lies between the word mutual and automatic, explained Heron.
“What mutual aid is, if I have the resources available I can help,” he said. “Automatic aid means it’s mandatory to respond.”
Right now, Hellsgate and Payson have a mutual aid agreement. It works because leadership works well together.
“If we have a storm rolling in and Payson is extremely busy and we have our own things going on, under a JPA one chief would see all this,” he said. “If he sees Star Valley is closed down ... he can make phone calls to get back up. It will be automatic to come in.”
If leadership changes, that cooperation may diminish.
During the Jan. 8 Payson Council Work Study session, Heron told the story of listening on the radio as Payson firefighters battled a structural fire. He couldn’t help because his chief wouldn’t send units from Hellsgate.
“Do you know how scary that is?” he asked the council.
Smith and Heron said Hellsgate and Payson have already saved money on purchasing equipment by going in together.
“The packs we use to breathe ... we had better purchasing power together and got a better price,” said Smith.
The two said the combined department would find it easier to qualify for grants.
“If you have a larger fire area to protect, the more likely it is to get grants,” he said.
Insurance costs would go down.
“The insurance companies are a lot cheaper on health insurance because we are mandated to work out,” said Heron. “We’ve already got a liability insurance quote (for the JPA) and it came in lower than we thought.”
A say at the table
In a final poignant moment of the interview, Heron said the merger would empower the firefighters to make a long-term investment in their career in Rim Country.
“Once a year we sit and talk about all sorts of issues with the chief. It’s called Meet and Confer,” he said.
The firefighters discuss the budget and what they can do within the confines of the finances. Yet, no firefighter has ever had a seat at the budget table.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a voice? We would have that ability to sit down and to talk about specific fire issues — at least have our voices heard. It helps morale,” said Heron.
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Once heralded as a safe alternative to cigarettes and other tobacco products, e-cigarettes failed to deliver on the promise. Instead, they are a health threat.
“We may be entering a nasty new frontier of addiction in adolescents that have not yet had an issue with addictions,” said Dr. Judith Hunt. “Children can order e-juice online in various flavors (chocolate, cherry, Coca-Cola).”
With e-cigarettes, nicotine goes to the brain in a purer, stronger form than traditional cigarettes, she said.
According to the Center on Addiction, the newest and most popular vaping product, the JUUL, accounts for about 72 percent of the market share of vaping products in the U.S. Produced in multiple flavors, one flavor cartridge contains the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.
Flavors make the products especially appealing to youth.
Vaping is prohibited on school property, but that does not seem to deter students at Payson schools.
“We’ve had about 35 cases in the last four months,” said Payson Police Chief Don Engler. This refers to the number of times school administrators called police when a student was caught with a nicotine or marijuana vaping product at school. Schools typically handle discipline when the product does not contain these substances.
“This is a growing trend not only in Payson, but statewide and nationally. I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us to educate our youth on the dangers of vaping,” Engler said.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Greg Wyman said like all school districts, Payson has seen an uptick in incidents involving vaping.
“This is a violation of our code of conduct and will result in disciplinary action. We follow a progressive discipline model, which means with each additional violation the consequences increase. For a first offense the student will receive a suspension from school. Usually the suspension is five days for a first offense,” he said.
Wyman said he supports changing the law so minors could not purchase vaping products that contain nicotine.
Senator Heather Carter (R-Cave Creek) recently introduced a bill to make it harder for teens to buy devices and flavor cartridges containing liquid nicotine. Her proposal, SB 1009, is aimed solely at preventing teen use of vaping devices.
In 2016, 11 percent of high schoolers and 4 percent of middle schoolers reported using e-cigarettes, according to a study by the University of Arizona School of Medicine.
Current state laws prohibit the sale of tobacco products to people under 18. As of Jan. 8, six states — California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine — have raised the tobacco age to 21, together with at least 430 localities including Cottonwood and Douglas.
Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) has introduced HB 2024, which proposes adding vaping to existing laws that prohibit smoking in public areas, including offices, bars, restaurants, stores, theaters and the common areas of hotels and apartments.
“The original Smoke Free Arizona Act was approved by voters in 2006. That means it can be amended only if he can get three-fourths of both the House and the Senate — meaning 45 representatives and 23 senators — to approve,” according to an article by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services.
E-cigarettes use a liquid solution that contains nicotine — the addictive component found in traditional cigarettes. They are battery powered devices that convert liquid nicotine into a mist or vapor, hence the term “vaping,” that the user inhales.
They do not contain carbon monoxide and tar.
“Essentially, e-cigarettes, vapes, e-pens or whatever else you want to call them, have become the training wheels to develop future smokers,” Carter told Capitol Media Services.
The Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has declared youth vaping or e-cigarette use an “epidemic.”
According to the 2017 national Youth Tobacco Survey, 2 million middle school, high school and college students use e-cigarettes.
“Although they do not produce tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals,” writes the Arizona Department of Health Services. “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Also, testing of some e-cigarette products found the vapor to contain known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, as well as potentially toxic metal nanoparticles from the vaporizing mechanism.”
What can parents do? The Arizona Department of Health Services stresses the importance of educating teens about the dangers of e-cigarettes; setting a good example by being smoke-free; and asking for support from health care providers, teachers, faith leaders and other trusted adults.
They encourage supportive, active listening, answering the teen’s questions, explaining the risks of vaping and nicotine addiction and inviting ongoing conversation on the topic. View more tips from the health department at payson.com.
Engler’s tip: Communicate with your children and implement boundaries as a parent. Vaping should not be tolerated.
Efforts to combine three Rim Country fire departments into one moved one step forward Wednesday night.
On Wednesday, the Hellsgate Fire board voted unanimously to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Payson and Houston Mesa fire departments to form the Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority. The Houston Mesa board followed suit Thursday, also voting yes.
It took more than a year of work just to get here. Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner and Payson’s Chief David Staub worked tirelessly together to draw up one of the most ambitious plans in Rim Country fire history.
The joint powers agreement covers everything from how to merge retirement benefits to the fire service model and the transfer of stations and trucks.
Now it is up to the Payson Town Council to decide if the town will sign off on the merger.
Hellsgate’s board agreed the JPA was a long time coming and needed.
Wisner agreed, saying there had been many long nights mulling over the details and talking with firefighters.
“I truly think this is the right thing to do,” he said. If approved, Wisner would become the Authority’s assistant fire chief. He will retire almost a year later — a short stint in the new role, but one Wisner has trained his entire firefighting career for, serving nearly 25 years with Hellsgate.
The benefits of merging Hellsgate, Houston Mesa and Payson are many, the chiefs say.
Primarily, it provides a way for firefighters to work together in a coordinated effort.
“We are interconnected,” Wisner said. “We have to help each other.”
For Hellsgate, who responds whenever the PFD has a house fire, major event or is overrun with calls and needs backup, it means being part of the team. All of the firefighters will work under one directive. One badge. One chief. One fire board.
In a vote of nearly all of the firefighters in Payson and Hellsgate, the vast majority approve of the JPA.
Hellsgate board chair Garah Monnich had only one question to Wisner Wednesday night before voting: why a six-member fire board? She asked if this would lead to stalemates.
Under the current plan, Payson would put three of its town councilors on the Authority fire board; Hellsgate would appoint two from its current fire board and Houston Mesa, one.
Wisner said a six-member board would force the partners to work together. Payson could effectively stop anything from moving forward and vice versa for Hellsgate.
Neither department would have the opportunity to force a decision through, he said.
Also, Payson got three seats because it is the largest contributor financially, followed by Hellsgate and Houston Mesa.
With a 5-0 vote, Hellsgate signaled it is ready to work together.