Gary Coon was named the new mayor of Star Valley Thursday, March 14 at a special meeting of the town council. He has served as vice mayor since September 2018.
He fills the seat left vacant by the Feb. 14 death of Ronnie McDaniel.
Coon’s term as mayor expires in 2020, according to Town Manager/Attorney Tim Grier.
The council must now fill Coon’s seat by the April 2, 2019 meeting, Grier said.
The town solicited letters of interest for the mayor’s post in a legal advertisement in the Payson Roundup on Friday, March 8 and in a news story in the Tuesday, March 12 edition.
Resident Ted Durst submitted the only letter, but he did not attend the meeting.
“You should take over the job,” Councilor George Binney told Coon. “Ronnie voted for you to be vice mayor. He believed in you.”
Councilors Sharon Rappaport and Bobby Davis made the nomination, which the council approved unanimously.
“This is a difficult time for the council and staff. We have lost our leader. It will never be the same. It will be my honor to carry on the legacy of Ronnie Mac,” Coon said.
Coon and his wife, Norene, moved to Star Valley in 1997 after he retired from a 37-year career with General Motors along with a tool and die consulting business in Michigan.
“Soon after moving here, I realized Star Valley was about to face many difficult decisions after incorporating. Always enjoying a challenge, I became obsessed with water issues, joined the water coalition and in 2008 was elected to town council,” he said. “I do my homework before a meeting. My philosophy is if I can’t prove it, don’t say it.”
Five years ago, the struggling, fragmented, crisis-ridden fire districts around Show Low faced a big problem and a tough decision.
Should they merge? Should they sacrifice their independence in hopes of improving services?
It turned out great, according to Bryan Savage, Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District chief.
The merged districts not only saved $2 million annually, they improved services, training and facilities, he said.
The experience of the merged districts provides potential answers to many of the questions the Payson Town Council has about the proposed merger of the Payson Fire Department with Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire districts.
Those questions include the financial stability, potential savings and future capital needs posed if Payson forms a joint powers authority (JPA). The Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire district boards have already approved the proposal, but the Payson council asked for more information.
The Payson Town Council will hold a work study about the JPA at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 26 at the Church of the Nazarene off Tyler Parkway. Local fire chiefs will attend along with Chief Robert Biscoe with Arizona Fire and Medical Authority in Maricopa County.
$10 million in savings
Savage said the savings by merging Linden, Show Low and Lakeside fire districts “spread throughout the entire budget.”
The $2 million in annual savings amounts to 17 percent of the $11.5 million budget.
That budget supports:
Timber Mesa provides ambulance service and fire protection for Lakeside, Linden, Show Low, White Mountain Lake, Pinedale-Clay Springs and a portion of Vernon. It also extends to tribal lands along Highway 60.
After the merger, operational costs remained the same, but administrative costs dropped “through a lack of duplication,” said Savage.
No one lost their job because of the merger.
“We reassigned and then through attrition lost others,” said Savage.
The district also saved money on board training.
“Instead of training three boards, we just have the one,” said Savage.
In Payson’s case, the fire boards for Hellsgate and Houston Mesa would remain — with two Hellsgate board members and one Houston Mesa board member serving on the JPA board along with three Payson town council members.
In Timber Mesa, insurance costs decreased.
“Property and causality insurance — we saved almost 30 percent on that line item,” he said.
Bulk purchasing played a part in the savings.
“Instead of one item for one facility, we’re buying for all five facilities,” he said.
Consolidating scheduling allowed for more flexibility in staffing. That resulted in less overtime pay — another savings.
The consultant for the proposed Payson, Hellsgate, Houston Mesa merger predicts the JPA will save money as well.
A new outlook
New uniforms helped create a new identity.
“It’s about an identity,” said Savage.
He said a snafu in the purchasing protocol delayed the purchase of T-shirts for the newly formed fire district.
“They were running around in their previous shirts. If a Linden and a Lakeside guy were sitting next to each other, it would be, “Odd you think that way, maybe it’s because you’re from Lakeside, Linden or Show Low.”
That went away as soon as we got everybody in the same shirt, said Savage. “Had I not lived through it, I would have thought, ‘Man, that’s petty.’”
The merger improved training then streamlined and cut response times. The more rural areas saw an increase in medical support, both from paramedics and from a new ambulance service.
Through districtwide employee meetings, Timber Mesa hammered out daily routines and priorities.
Still, Savage still sees loyalty flare-ups at times.
“Occasionally there is a, ‘there’s a Lakeside way or the Show Low way,’ attitude ... (but) they’re operating under the same procedures and the same chain of command. There is no question of who is coming from where,” he said.
Ambulance service not only improved services provided by Timber Mesa, it added income — up to 15 percent.
Hellsgate also attempted to add ambulance service, but a court denied their application — ruling in favor of the existing, private ambulance company.
Hellsgate Chief John Wisner believes if the JPA forms in Rim Country, a new application to provide ambulance services might succeed.
“If the JPA forms, Rim Country Fire and Medical could possibly carry more weight in the ‘fit and proper’ consideration. This is because the organization would be larger with more resources,” he said. “The JPA could argue the financial assets of the Town of Payson for example. The JPA could (also) argue fit and proper due to (Payson Fire) Chief Staub’s experience successfully leading an organization in the past that operated an ambulance.”
Services provided by Timber Mesa Fire and Medical:
Finding money to pay for facilities and equipment still dogs Timber Mesa.
“We are currently budgeted to add approximately $300,000 per year into financial reserves in order to fund these types of projects in the distant future, however, a number closer to $1 million per year is appropriate to fund the capital needs of the district,” he said.
The state has limited Timber Mesa’s ability to raise taxes to fund its capital needs.
The state imposed a property tax cap of $3.25 per $100 of assessed value. Moreover, the district may only increase its tax rate by 5 percent per year.
“Fire districts are subject to a one-size-fits-all tax rate cap that no other taxing entity is subject to,” said Savage, “$3.25 may be an appropriate cap for some agencies, while being wholly insufficient for others.”
Timber Mesa’s capital needs include:
Timber Mesa has started exploring a 20-year, $17 million bond, which would add about $1 million per year to the budget.
The Rim Country JPA could also use bonds as a funding source.
“Yes, the Town of Payson can go out for bonds to meet capital needs. So can Hellsgate or Houston Mesa. Hellsgate and Houston Mesa each have their own bonding authority and the JPA does not change any of this,” said Payson Chief David Staub.
Yet, because JPA revenue would come from sales taxes in Payson and property taxes in the two fire districts, issuing bonds could prove complicated.
In other words, Payson, Hellsgate and Houston Mesa voters would probably have to approve bond issues separately.
“Bonding authority remains with each parent partner,” said Wisner. “The fire authority does not have bonding authority under current statutes.”
However, relying on two different types of taxes could also make the district more stable in the event of a recession or drop in property values.
All in all, Savage has only good things to say about the merger.
“We’re in our fifth year (and) we’ve outperformed projections every year,” he said.
Despite two hours of citizen complaints about the sales tax on food, the Payson Council voted to hold off on making a decision about whether to keep it.
The council listened sympathetically to complaints the sales tax on food hurts the working poor and their children. However, the council balked at repealing a tax that brings $1.8 million annually - most of it estimated to be paid by out-of-towners.
The tax on food bought at the grocery store has filled Payson’s coffers since the town incorporated, accounting for about 20 percent of the total sales tax. The state exempts food from its share of the sales tax on food. But Payson and most of the cities in the state apply their share to groceries as well. Payson gets 3 cents of the 9.6 cent sales tax overall.
Almost everyone who came to the podium opposed the tax on groceries.
At the same time, the speakers recognized losing $1.8 million would punch a huge hole in the town's budget.
Two former Payson Unified School District students spoke of the food insecurity issues they saw and experienced . Both hoped the council would phase out the food tax because it hits the most vulnerable in the town – dependent children.
“As an individual holding a PhD – Payson high school diploma – my experience includes far too much experience with poverty,” said Brooke Kubby, a 2014 PHS graduate and 2018 ASU graduate.
She said 60 percent of her classmates qualified for free and reduced school lunches due to family poverty. "To be surrounded by classmates and peers who struggled with food was one of the most memorable aspects of my high school experience.”
She estimated that a family spending $400 a month on food will pay $12 in taxes to the town. “Which at minimum wage would be about an hour of labor,” said Kubby, “So that’s one less hour to get out of poverty…these little taxes really add up.”
Jacob Chamberlin spoke of food insecurity from personal experience.
“Brooke mentioned the children in our community that suffer from food insecurity, in their household, I was one of those people growing up in this community. At times, the only reason I was eating in a day was either because of free and reduced lunch or because of the kindness of my friends,” he said.
Both suggested the council find a compromise.
“I would like to encourage the council to gradually phase out the tax on food and distribute it in others ways - a higher non-food sales tax, or a higher property tax or a luxury goods tax or down sizing some administrative expenses,” said Kubby.
“If it is within the council’s power to do so - a carbon tax (or) increased property taxes, things that do not disproportionately affect the working poor,” he said.
Darlene Younker, Dave Golembewski, Shirley Dye all asked the council to put the tax to a vote of the residents.
“As you’re considering the food tax, I would ask the council to put this food tax on the next general election,” said Younker.
In its discussion, the council held firm to its responsibility to take care of business.
Suzy Tubbs-Avakian, who has spent years building up the Payson Community Kids after school program, has seen the struggled of many youth in Payson when it comes to getting enough to eat.
“There are senior and families that are just getting by. I know many seniors that are just getting Social Security and they are eating things they should not be eating… we should as a council look into investing in other ideas. Maybe increasing the bed tax or a sin tax,” she said.
Vice-Mayor Janelle Sterner a teacher at the Payson Christian School and president of the Payson Tea Party, struck a balance between recognizing the strain the tax puts on families and the needs of the town.
“It’s hard because it is money coming out of our pocket and the youth that are here,” she said, “How many came to the capital improvement meeting we had? When we don’t educate the public on what the fire and police needs are…also if Parks and Rec doesn’t improve the turf so tournaments come here…we do need to find ways to fund capital needs, there are so many out there,” she said.
Chris Higgens agreed with phasing out the tax to replace it with something else, but he reminded everyone that Payson is only just now coming out the hole the recession created.
“The problem started in the recession. We have $21 million in unrealized revenues,” he said, “A word you both used, Jacob and Brooke, is to have a plan…Let’s look at doing this and reducing this (because) I haven’t heard where the revenue will come from.”
Councilor Barbara Underwood agreed with Higgens.
“It is imperative that we keep the food tax…to continue with our capital needs,” she said.
Councilor Steve Smith reminded the council of its first priority. “Our job is to take care of the town’s needs before we cut revenue…the best thing we have here is people who worked for a water source and waste treatment system. A $50 million decision, but they made it. We still have $40 million in debt to pay (but) we have a plan and we’re making it work. We could be the council that listens to what the people say.”
Smith said he researched what other Arizona towns do without a food tax and discovered only one rural town does not charge a food tax – Camp Verde.
“Their sales tax rate is 10 percent, but they don’t tax any food….they have a higher bed tax,” said Smith.
The council then voted unanimously to keep all taxes the way they are, but to research other streams of revenue.