The Payson Town Council refused to commit to a merger between the Payson, Hellsgate and Houston-Mesa fire departments Thursday, saying they need more time.
The council directed town staff to organize town halls to get community input and to gather more data.
The council asked staff to explore a different model for the merger, conduct further financial analysis and look into how much control Payson would have if the merger went forward. Most of the council members said they simply needed more time and information.
Mayor Tom Morrissey feared a loss of control.
“I feel there are inequities — you (Payson) could be better staffed. I can’t do anything about that if this is turned over to another body,” he said.
The Hellsgate and Payson Fire chiefs both strongly support the proposal to merge the three fire departments and worked more than a year on the agreement.
In their plan, the new fire district would fall under the direction of an elected board composed of three Payson council members, two Hellsgate Fire District board members and one board member from Houston-Mesa. The board members from each fire department could veto changes that directly impact that department if needed.
The overwhelming majority of firefighters voted to support the merger.
An outside consulting firm concluded the fire authority would have enough money for at least five years even if it raised salaries and benefits and bought needed equipment. This could all be done without raising taxes in any of the jurisdictions.
The Hellsgate and Houston-Mesa fire boards recently voted to support the merger.
However, the Payson council remained unconvinced.
“I have been on town council for a little over one month. So it is not that I would say I am absolutely against it, I need more time,” said Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian.
Vice Mayor Janell Sterner wanted to hear more from residents.
“I don’t want to rush it — not saying that a year is long enough ... we do need to hold a few more town hall meetings to hear from the citizens,” said Sterner.
She asked staff to schedule a town hall.
Councilor Steve Smith replied, “My concern is that this has been going on for two years. What do you do to make sure everybody understands? Is it going to be the same voices you heard today — or those in the grocery line that don’t know?”
Smith’s comment referred to the public comments made at the beginning of the meeting. Several firefighters spoke in favor of the merger while several residents urged the council to squash the merger.
However, he also had problems with the proposal.
“I still believe there are things in this framework I do not believe in ... I would like to understand how human resources (will work).” he said. “Where are we going to be stationing the firemen and firewomen? How are we going to handle the capital improvement issues? Until I see that and know that, I don’t feel confident this agreement is ready for prime time.”
Councilor Barbara Underwood said she didn’t feel comfortable until everyone, including town staff, was on board.
“The best thing is let (the fire chiefs) work out more details,” she said.
She also supported the idea of town hall meetings.
“You also have to sell this to the community,” Underwood said.
Councilor Jim Ferris said he needed more information on the budget.
“A lot of the numbers are nebulous and in flux,” he said.
Of particular concern to Ferris, the numbers didn’t add up. He said, “they will have better benefits, they will have higher wages, (and) they are taking on more expenses,” but sales taxes could plummet.
“We could have a substantial decrease,” he said.
Councilor Chris Higgins said he supported the firefighters.
“I feel if there are potential losers in this situation, the individuals who run the highest risk are our firefighters,” he said. “I feel that we are in a position and that it would be good to move forward with the (joint powers agreement). And have town staff bringing us more information.”
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Soot-blackened remains of a once-beautiful set of dishes lined up along the edge of a burned home caught Jeffrey Aal’s attention.
“They try to salvage out little china dishes,” he said. “They have to, emotionally. They have to salvage out that emotional connection.”
Aal represents insurance companies in cases of natural disasters. For more than two decades he has inspected almost every town decimated by wildfire in California, including Malibu, Oakland, San Bernardino and recently, Paradise.
He says he has never seen anything like the Paradise disaster.
“Paradise is remarkable ... There was so much heat and wind — nothing would have saved Paradise,” he said.
The rising toll of massive wildfires has caused a crisis in the insurance industry, faced with billions in losses. Companies are increasingly leery about covering wildfire damage for communities like Paradise and Payson, which are surrounded by overgrown, tinder-dry forests. In the end, the insurance companies may force homeowners to Firewise, communities to adopt WUI building codes and the Forest Service to thin forests.
“The market will drive it, and we will not like the outcome,” said Aal. “A lot of carriers are starting to require Firewise. They will have a footage requirement. If you’re not Firewised within 30 feet of the home, they won’t insure.”
He said in some places, insurers won’t insure a property if the neighbor’s overgrown yard is within 30 feet of the insured’s home.
He has a cautionary message for people living in the wildland-urban interface: Study the fine print on homeowners insurance, support forest thinning and be prepared to spend years rebuilding what you can.
Aal’s business gives him a look into the slow, costly process of rebuilding after a wildfire.
“We’ve never had a loss where the person had the right amount of coverage for the contents,” he said. “People never think it will happen to them.”
“Every fire I have seen of any significance has started outside of town,” said Aal.
Insurance companies are in the business of making money. States hit with multiple natural disasters have seen the bigger more established insurance companies flee, leaving small or even state-backed insurance in their wake. These companies don’t have the ability to provide what’s really needed to rebuild.
As wildfires increase, insurance companies have made it harder and harder for homeowners to qualify for insurance.
Aal doesn’t have an answer on how to encourage people to clean up their property.
“If you go in and start telling people what to do through ordinances ... we don’t need government overreach to do that,” he said.
Aal feels more comfortable talking about the process as it is.
In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, insurance companies get checks into people’s hands.
“They will bring in these big semis — this is nothing more than a dog and pony show,” said Aal. “They are trying to minimize their loss ... some are doing 50 percent of the contents limit — it just depends. On $200,000, the initial check would be $100,000.
“People go, ‘Oh that’s a lot of money,’ but what does it cost you to live outside your house? There is not enough money for labor and contractors to clean up ... Recognize most all consumers are underinsured.”
People soon realize the initial check doesn’t last long given the need to find housing, replace clothing and fill other immediate needs. The first check goes fast.
“An insurance company comes with various amounts of coverage $500,000 for the home and $350,000 on the contents,” he said. “A total loss insurance claim is well over $1 million. It’s a losing game. I’ve never seen a homeowner coming out ahead.”
Aal suggests people review their homeowners insurance every few years.
“People will come into Payson, buy a house and their insurance policy will renew and renew and they never look at it,” he said. “It will renew at much less ... They shop premium, not policy.”
After a wildfire, only a toxic waste dump remains. With construction materials and household goods made out of plastics, the melted mess seeps into the ground. The toxic compounds contaminate water supplies and soils. There’s a lot more clean up than homeowners realize at a much higher price than they imagine.
As his first order of business, Aal establishes a baseline for the value of the home.
“Photos help and satellite photos from Google street views,” he said. “Since the foundation is still there, then you can walk people through what they had. It is time consuming, (but) you can recreate it.”
But it takes years to get your life back.
Homeowners must get their property cleaned up and cleared out, plans drawn and permits pulled, contractors hired and supplies purchased.
All during that time, the owner has nowhere to live.
Often, it’s just easier to move and start over.
“If we were to lose our infrastructure, how many businesses would close?” he said. “If Payson burns, I will move to Fountain Hills.”
Paradise has so much toxic waste, no one is sure where it will all go. Burned out cars, twisted wrecks of businesses, homes, schools and the hospital will take years to replace — if people will decide to rebuild in Paradise at all.
“They don’t know even now where they will take the debris or remove that debris,” said Aal.
The other problem with Paradise — the fire destroyed the infrastructure.
“It will be a generation or so to rebuild,” he said. “It doesn’t change Paradise will be a nice place to live, but it’s not going to come back as it was.”
Aal would have rather seen what happened in Alpine during the Wallow Fire rather than what happened to Paradise during the Camp Fire. Forest Service contractors had thinned the forest around Alpine, which forced a racing crown fire to drop to the ground, where firefighters could stop it.
In Paradise, however, he said the wind-driven fire didn’t give anyone a chance.
“If the town really wants to get serious about helping, deal with taking things to the dump,” he said. “I’ve lived in towns that do pick up ... on the first of the month put it out on the street and pick it up.”
There’s one thing Aal sees insurance companies can never fix, the emotional loss.
“Half of what I do is console. After you go through it enough times ... It’s mind numbing,” he said, “There is no sentimental insurance.”
From finding love, graduating high school, becoming a volleyball champion and even traveling to Dubai, Payson Community Kids’ middle schoolers put their dreams down on vision boards.
Candy Lidster and Teresa Stanfill, volunteers, are offering this creative class to give the kids an opportunity to consider their goals and envision their future.
Payson Community Kids provides a unique service to local families through its after-school and summer educational programs, meals and additional support.
Offering a safe learning environment for underserved Payson kids who might otherwise be home alone after school, PCK gives the kids a way to develop friendships, explore interests, and engage in a variety of activities that help them grow and develop skills.
The organization has grown every year. Currently, 180 kids are registered, with between 95 and 110 attending each day. They don’t all arrive at the same time, but a visit around 3:30 p.m. is like swimming in a sea of happy, creative, talkative youngsters guided by a team of administrative staff and volunteers.
“This is a happy place, a place to belong,” said Janice Chesser, director of PCK.
PCK will soon add circuit board programming to its lineup of classes, which also include photography, sewing and art. Rim Country Literacy offers programs on Tuesday and Thursday. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the kids receive help with their homework. They also have two Girl Scout troops — Brownie Troop 7347 and Daisy Troop 7447. They alternate their meetings from week to week.
The kids receive snacks every day and dinner on Mondays and Wednesdays. PCK is looking for additional organizations to sponsor one dinner a month on Fridays.
This past Christmas, PCK had an “Adopt-a-Family Program” where kids and siblings under 18 were sponsored for gifts. The goal was helping families “from head to toe,” offering socks, shoes, pants, shirts, jackets and toys.
“Several families declined help, saying they had grandparents or other help. There was no greed, or wants. With everyone’s help we were able to serve 137 children,” said Chesser.
Business sponsors for the outreach included Edward Jones, Payson United Methodist Church, Church for the Nations, St. Philip’s Catholic Church, Payson Orthodontics, Polish Plus, Payson Physical Therapy, Pinon Cafe and Kutting Edge Salon. Several individuals and families also made donations.
PCK had a Christmas party for 150 kids and their families, with Santa and a spaghetti dinner.
A focus of PCK’s is teaching kids how to give back, or pay it forward. Each child who participated in the Christmas outreach was asked to give two hours community service.
Community service projects included yard work, cleaning, bell ringing for the Salvation Army, picking up trash, wrapping gifts, teaching crafts to adults with special needs, running a food drive and volunteering at Powell Place.
Kole Arnstein, a second-grader, chose a food drive for the PCK pantry, and collected more than four shelves worth of canned and packaged food.
“We got a lot of donations, Kole said. “I did a lot of food, mostly canned food. If that all went to one family, they would have a lot of leftovers for a very long time. Most of it was from the dollar store. A lot of it was from Walmart. I’m a great shopper too.”
Building relationships with the families is huge, Chesser said.
They continue to take in items and match them to the needs of PCK kids and, in some cases, pass things on to other organizations to help meet their needs.
As PCK continues to grow, they are always in need of volunteers. Contact Janice Chesser at 928-478-7160.
The Aspire Arizona Foundation honored 104 Payson High School students who took college classes last year — including 67 students who got As doing demanding, college-level work.
Aspire Arizona also honored the people who donated $31,000 to cover dual-credit courses offered by Gila Community College on the high school campus. That includes a $10,000 donation from the Holbrook-Pyle Foundation and other support from the MHA Foundation.
The Thursday morning event filled the dining room at The Rim Club with students, donors, teachers, administrators and community leaders enjoying a deluxe breakfast.
“Just think what it means to these kids and their families to start college as a sophomore — think of the money they can save,” said Aspire Arizona President Tom Slonaker.
One of the students honored — Lance Beckner — said the dual-credit program put him on the path to college. A junior now, he hopes to start ASU with perhaps a year of college credit already covered. That will allow him to focus on taking more advanced computer courses, having completed preliminary courses like English 101 and computer maintenance while still in high school. If he attends college, he’ll be the first in his extended family — to the delight of his parents.
“Definitely taking the dual credits got me way more excited. It feels like I’m already in college sort of, and makes me more excited for it,” said Beckner.
That’s the whole point of the program, in a community where the schools have a relatively high dropout rate and low college attendance rate, according to statewide ratings.
The MHA Foundation set up the Aspire Arizona Foundation in 2013 to encourage college attendance by Rim Country students.
This year, Aspire Arizona boosted its support to three classes per student, per semester, compared to one previously. The program now makes it possible for students to start college as sophomores or even juniors. At ASU, tuition costs $10,000 per year and living expenses and books often boost the cost to $25,000 per year. That means families could potentially save $50,000 by taking advantage of the Aspire program.
The foundation is in the midst of a fundraising drive for expanded scholarship support. The MHA Foundation has agreed to match every dollar donated by people in the community.
Kaycee Pugel, who graduated from PHS 10 years ago and got a degree from Northern Arizona University, spoke at the breakfast — urging the A-earning students at the breakfast to take full advantage of the program.
The dual-credit courses will get them ready for the demands of college, said Pugel.
“College classes are tough and you are responsible to show up and study. College professors care, but they are not going to call your mom and dad if you don’t come to class. So have some fun, but be grateful for this opportunity. And rejoice you may not have to take that class again — or pay for it.”
Longhorns basketball and volleyball star Raegan Ashby was one of the students who has accumulated a semester of college credits. She’s headed to Southern Utah University, where she will play volleyball. She wants to become an elementary school teacher. She’s also the first in her family to go to college.
“The dual-enrollment program really jump-started me,” she said.
Beckner said his parents have always wanted him to go to college.
His father’s a carpenter and his mother a nurse. The Aspire Arizona program propped open the door to those family dreams.
“I was really pushed by my teacher to take the dual-enrollment classes,” he said. “I’m going to come out of this with certifications in computer maintenance and networking computers. Next year, I want to take physics and chemistry. My family’s really proud of me — but they know it’s tough.”
While closing the forest last year had a major impact on local businesses, forest managers say it had a huge impact on how much land burned. Or didn’t burn.
In 2018, more than 165,000 acres burned across Arizona, as compared to the previous year, where fires charred nearly 420,000 acres, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management’s Interagency Dispatch Center.
That made it one of the best years in terms of wildfires in Arizona while California suffered the most devastating year in its history.
In May, U.S. Forest Service officials announced they would temporarily close large areas of national forest lands because of extreme wildfire conditions, including the Tonto National Forest.
The forest closure ended July 11, but came at a cost for local businesses, some of which reported a 15 percent drop in sales during what is normally the busiest time of the year as summer visitors stream into town for events and to recreate in the forest.
It was the first time in roughly 10 years that the state put closures into place for recreational use on state-owned and managed lands.
The closures were due to extreme drought conditions and all-time low fuel moistures.
The Department of Forestry says closing both state and federal land as well as implementing fire restrictions earlier helped prevent a disastrous season, which is reflected in end of year wildfire data.
Last year, there were 2,000 fires on private, state, federal, and tribal lands in Arizona. In 2017, there were 2,205 wildfires reported.
Humans started 68 percent of the fires last year.
That is slightly lower than 2017 when 72 percent of Arizona’s fires were human-caused.
Besides the closures, the Department of Forestry credits elevated social media and marketing campaigns, coordination between federal, state and local cooperators, prepositioning of crews in higher risk areas and hazardous fuels reduction work for the decrease in acres burned.
“Shortly after our fire activity died down last summer, we jumped right back into project work to eliminate hazardous fuels around the state,” said State Fire Management Officer John Truett. “We also increased our prescribed burning projects, and have so far burned nearly 6,000 acres of debris piles. Fuels mitigation remains our top priority over the next few months leading up to the time of year we start to see heightened fire activity.”