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Council faces tough budget decisions

Broadband advocates on Thursday will try again to convince the Payson Town Council to add $90,000 to next year’s budget to help update the infrastructure for reliable high-speed internet.

The council met last week with a local broadband consortium and representatives of Cable One to discuss the $90,000 annual commitment for the next 10 years they say is necessary to help string a new line to Phoenix to provide a signal loop to prevent future outages. The money would trigger a matching state grant and would help finance an approximately $8 million line from Payson to Phoenix.

The commitment would have a modest impact on a proposed town budget that already has money from growing sales tax revenues that will fund an increase in reserves, a new capital improvement fund, pay raises, big increases in contributions to police and fire pensions, a loan repayment to the town’s water department and other projects.

The council on June 13 will hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. right before the already scheduled budget meeting to discuss adding a $90,000 placeholder line item for broadband. The council voted 4-3 recently to get more information before reconsidering the proposal. Several council members who voted against the original proposal attended the session with the broadband consortium.

Town Manager LaRon Garrett and Town Attorney Hector Figueroa said once the council puts the money in the budget, they could negotiate with Cable One. If the town cannot agree on the terms, the town won’t spend the money. In that case, the money would end up in the “carry-forward” fund.

The quest to solve Rim Country’s broadband issues started five years ago with a local group of business leaders. They worked with several cable providers until Cable One came in with a plan.

During those five years, Rim Country experienced several outages when the line from the Valley and Camp Verde was either accidentally or deliberately cut. Once cut, all service to the area died — no cell phones, no points of sale or access to websites worked.

One man got into an accident when he drove south of town looking for cell service during an outage. Passersby were unable to call for an ambulance from the scene and the man died.

The message from the recent broadband meeting: Rim Country must solve its broadband reliability challenge for the safety and economic viability of the area.

“Today, it is not about capacity, it’s about redundancy and resiliency,” said Nick Robinson, a current broadband consultant and member of the consortium.

He volunteered, along with Mac Feezor and Greg Friestad, to sit with concerned citizens, town councilors and local business owners to explain the need for the town’s support. After years of negotiations, Cable One is the only broadband company to put money on the table to help Rim Country obtain reliable internet service, they said.

“They have offered to do all the engineering,” said Robinson.

They also explained that Cable One has the financing to get a cable from Show Low to Payson. However, Cable One needs help financing the line from Payson to Phoenix.

The town’s contribution would trigger a matching grant from the state.

Kenny Evans said the $2 million the MHA Foundation paid Cable One to bring the cable from Show Low to Payson has a clause allowing for a full refund if all expectations are not met. The line from Show Low would boost speeds for businesses along the highway that connect, but wouldn’t provide a signal loop to prevent outages.

Garrett said he would seek the same arrangement for Payson.

“I guarantee you their performance guarantee will be in the contract,” said Garrett. “But if we have no money appropriated, we cannot negotiate.”

General Fund Budget

The $90,000 may not have a big impact on a general fund budget that has grown to $20 million.

On May 30, Payson Chief Financial Officer Deborah Barber unveiled a spending plan that includes pay raises, more capital spending, bolstered reserves, repayment of a loan from the water department and big increases in contributions for police and fire pensions.

Thanks to the ongoing effects of the boost in sales taxes in 2017-18 and an additional $400,000 rise in property taxes this year the town has additional spending options.

The town’s budgeted general fund operating expenses will stay about the same — increasing just $18,000 to $18.6 million. However, the increase looks a little bigger — a roughly 12 percent increase — when compared to the $16.6 million actually spent in this year.

The town is providing raises to most town workers as well as filling various positions added this year.

The raises will be bigger in some areas due to the conclusions of a recent salary study, comparing Payson to other Arizona towns. The study suggested changes in the salary schedule with raises ranging from as little as $.02 an hour to as high as $8.41 an hour.

The only position added to the upcoming budget is a graphic designer.

Capital fund

The budget team put a high priority on building up, by several million, the town’s long-neglected fiscal reserves.

The budget also includes some $260,000 for a new splash pad in Green Valley Park. Money for that project will come from capital money already set aside for a new fire truck.

The truck will take a year to build and deliver, so the town will use that money for a splash pad and add money for the truck to the 2020-21 budget.

Barber in the 2019-20 budget wants to create a separate “capital replacement fund,” to prepare for future capital purchases.

“Our policy requires that we have a program for capital replacement. We have not met that policy,” she said.

This year, Barber wants to put $320,000 left over from a bond issue into the capital fund, however, the town has no identified source of revenue for this fund going forward, said Barber.

Capital spending within the general fund will rise from a year-end total of $735,000 this year to $844,000 next year, which is actually about the same as the budgeted amount for fiscal 2018-19.

Next year’s budget would also transfer out $1.4 million, mostly to repay a water department loan from years ago. That compares to $740,000 in the same category this current year.

Reserve and carry-forward funds

One of the biggest changes this year remains the growth in various reserve and carry-forward funds.

During the recession, the town often kept just a couple hundred thousand dollars in reserve in violation of the town policies. Those policies actually call for keeping enough in reserve to run the town for 90 days.

The new budget comes much closer to that goal. The town will have $1 million in the reserve fund, $1 million in the contingency fund and about $1.8 million in “carry forward” money, which was budgeted, but not spent this year.

That’s still $2.4 million short of Barber’s goal — but millions of dollars ahead of previous budgets.

Council goals

Finally, the council weighed in on its priorities — a splash pad, money to study a new road connecting to Main Street and road maintenance townwide. From those discussions, the council added more than $500,000 to the budget. Barber covered about half of that increase by shifting money from other funds, including roads and the capital fund to buy fire engines.

Those other projects are merely postponed, so they’ll hit the bottom line in future budget years.

The total budget for all funds comes to $39 million, but that includes money the town might not actually receive or spend. It includes the $18 million operating cost of the general fund and the $7 million water department as well as spending by several property-tax-funded improvement districts.

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Main Street to have uniform street lamps

By July 4th, Main Street could have a complete set of street lamps, but not all the town councilors voted in support.

“About five years ago, we started replacing the decorative streetlights,” said Town Manager LaRon Garrett. “We have all but six replaced.”

The last six sit next to Highway 87 near the Sawmill Crossing and “a little south of that,” said Garrett and will cost $18,400. That cost includes one extra light. The money for the lights came from the contingency fund, said Garrett.

After a discussion, the council voted 4-3 to move money from the contingency fund to pay for the new lights and a couple of backups.

Garrett argued that the old lights posed a danger.

“Their mounting base is just a very thin sheet of metal,” said Garrett. “If you hit them hard, they fall over ... a few years ago a high wind tipped two over with their flags on them.”

The addition of the lights spurred questions from the council.

Steve Smith wondered if the town could buy three extra lights instead of just one.

“Is one enough or should we have three?” he said. “There’s no idea if these will remain in stock ... I think with the renewal of Main Street we don’t want to be put in the position of changing out one and then you don’t have matching lights to replace lights.”

Smith estimated it would cost $30,000 to have the six new and three reserve streetlights.

Councilor Jim Ferris didn’t think the lights needed replacing at all.

“I don’t know the number of times I’ve driven up and down Main Street and nothing jumped out at me (to) take away from the enjoyment and beauty of Main Street.”

Councilor Barbara Underwood reminisced on the fundraising done for the original lights.

“You could adopt a light for $1,000,” she said.

Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian asked for clarification on where the lights would be placed.

Vice Mayor Janell Sterner asked for clarification on where the money would come from.

Councilor Chris Higgins spoke in practicalities.

“Forty of these lights were already purchased. That’s roughly like $100,000 at this time,” he said. “So $100,000 has already been put into the lights, we have $18,000 to finish them. One of the things with Main Street and the town is on completing (projects). I don’t see why we wouldn’t do this ... it’s not just an aesthetics issue. They are antiquated to the point of not serving part of their service.”

Garrett agreed.

“They need to be replaced one way or the other,” he said. “The old lights are much more expensive to operate.”

Once Ferris understood the safety issue, he agreed to replace the streetlamps.

“If these are coming to be a public safety concern that changes things,” he said.

Ferris, Higgins, Smith and Underwood voted to replace the streetlights.

Tom Morrissey, Sterner and Tubbs-Avakian voted against the new lights.

Contact mnelson@payson.com

Special Needs Rodeo in Payson a highlight of high school rodeo season

They rope, they race and they ride.

The Special Needs Rodeo at the Arizona High School Rodeo Association State Finals Rodeo may last only an hour each year, but the memories participants ride away with endure.

“We host dances and all kinds of things, but the rodeo is off the charts and it fills their hearts with joy for weeks to come,” said Lucy Karrys. “It’s so heartfelt because it’s an unusual event.”

Karrys is the coordinator for the Payson Family Special Needs Support Group and has been heavily involved in the Special Needs Rodeo each June since it debuted in Payson some six years ago. The rodeo is held once a year at the AHSRA State Finals Rodeo, which was taken place in Payson for several years.

Karrys said 30 children and adults with special needs participated in this year’s rodeo at Payson Event Center on Thursday morning. That’s a lot more than last year.

“We have four day programs that brought their residents, adult day care or special needs,” Karrys said. “We’re thrilled that our attendance went up from 10 or 15 last year to 30.”

She and AnnDee White, of Queen Creek, who started the event, pushed AHSRA officials to move the event to the morning. It had previously been held at noon. Midday temperatures in June in Payson often approach the upper 80s or low 90s. This year’s rodeo took place at 9 a.m.

“Having it at noon really eliminated so many people who are heat sensitive (or) on heat sensitive meds,” Karrys said. “It’s just wonderful this year.”

A lot happened in the one-hour rodeo.

“It’s controlled chaos, but it’s fun controlled chaos,” White said.

AHSRA cowboys and cowgirls helped the participants with each activity, from goat tying, horse painting, wooden horse barrel racing, wooden horse pole bending and “bull riding,” which consisted of sitting on a barrel as a cowboy manually maneuvers it to simulate bucking.

That’s athlete Logan’s favorite event, although he also enjoyed putting his painted handprint on the two ponies. Logan goes by the nickname “Green Diamond.”

He turned in an eight-second scoring bull ride. His experience riding horses at Dueker Therapeutic Ranch seems to be paying off, although he participates in this rodeo every year.

White started the event as a way to get everyone involved in rodeo.

“We have a lot of rodeo families that have some special needs kids in the family and I just thought this was a way to incorporate them into our program and let them be a part of everything, as well,” White said.

White said the event is just lots of fun for everyone.

“This is the High School Rodeo Association giving back to the communities involved with our rodeos,” she said.

It wouldn’t be possible without the help of the AHSRA cowboys and cowgirls.

“Our high school kids love this event; it’s always the highlight of the whole weekend here for us,” White said. “We started it about seven years ago and are going to keep going with it.”

White said the AHSRA cowboys and cowgirls who volunteer to participate and help make the event possible really enjoy the experience.

“They love this because it gives them an opportunity to give back,” White said. “But it also shows them they need to stay humble and know how blessed they are.

“After this event every year I always get phone calls and texts from the kids and from parents saying how happy they are that their kids are involved in this and that they’re able to show them their skills.”

Helene Lopez traveled from Globe with four members of the Gila Employment and Special Training (GEST) Program.

“We’ve been coming for the past three years I believe, or better, and our members just love it. It’s a beautiful experience and the people here are awesome,” Lopez said.

Troubles at the PUSD bus barn

The Payson Unified School District’s transportation department is in turmoil, with the crash of a bus whose driver was cited for drunk driving, the departure of the transportation manager and a shortage of six drivers for the minimum wage, hard-to-fill job.

The Payson School Board fired bus driver Sherri Sessions during its May 20 meeting in the shadow of a May 15 DUI accident that injured three students. Police say she came around a curve, overcorrected, then fishtailed off the road and into a tree. Several children suffered injuries. Police cited her for driving under the influence after receiving the results of a blood test. She’d been working for the district for about a year.

Her departure leaves the district six drivers short.

Moreover, transportation manager Richard Manning — the husband of the district’s finance director — has left his job.

That leaves the department with no leader.

Unless PUSD finds bus drivers before the start of school, the district will struggle to cover its 11 regular and five special education routes that cover a daunting 1,400 miles every day. The district’s drivers also drive hundreds of miles on field trips every month on top of the regular routes.

Payson has unusually high transportation costs, even compared to other rural districts, according to the Arizona auditor general’s annual report on school spending.

Payson spends $3.90 per mile driven, which compares to $3.03 for other “peer” districts and $4.05 statewide.

The district’s costs amount to $1,501 per student, compared to $1,225 for peer districts and $1.301 for the state average. That puts Payson 23 percent above the state average on a per-rider basis. This prompted the auditor general to put the district in the “very high” transportation cost category.

The district has also struggled with its aging fleet of school buses, many of them with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. The old buses break down frequently, forcing the district to constantly shuffle vehicles and send out backup buses to get kids to school. Sometimes, the district fleet suffers multiple breakdowns on the same day.

The problem is made worse by the lack of neighborhood schools in the district. Students attend classes on four different campuses between kindergarten and graduation, shifting frequently. This means they often have to travel across town to get to school. Families with several children will often find them all traveling to different campuses, which would make the loss of bus service a morning and afternoon nightmare for many families.

However, the shortage of bus drivers afflicts most districts in the state, said Superintendent Greg Wyman.

The low unemployment rate makes it hard to find minimum wage workers for a demanding job that requires a commercial driver’s license. Drivers work a difficult split shift, with only nine months of time on the clock per year. That makes it hard for the district to compete with better-paying, private commercial trucking operations.

Moreover, issues involving student discipline on the buses and the heavy responsibility of the job have contributed to turnover, say bus drivers who spoke to the Roundup.

The district’s decision to shift the decision on what to do about behavior problems from the transportation department to the school principals hasn’t worked out as planned, say some former drivers. The shift often resulted in no response at all after an incident on a bus, say some former drivers.

However, the bus driver shortage mostly connects to salaries and working conditions, said Wyman.

PUSD pays drivers just a few cents more than the $12 minimum wage.

“There are a lot of jobs out there that get more money with less responsibility,” he said. “Driving a bus is difficult ... it takes a special person with special talents.”

Wyman drove a UPS truck one time in his life, so he understands “there is a lot to just driving (a commercial vehicle) on the road every day.”

When a driver trans ports children, the bus turns into “a moving classroom,” said Wyman.

Just like a classroom, the driver expects certain behaviors. If those aren’t met, the driver gets involved with discipline.

“We have cameras and it’s multiple cameras on all levels,” said Wyman. “Even then, if we have an incident on the bus we will pull the tapes and review it ... the same can be done with a driver.”

Then there are the hours.

“It’s a split schedule,” said Wyman. “It takes two to three hours in the morning to run routes, then a gap of a couple of hours and then another two to three hours in the afternoon.”

Add to that, driving a school bus is a nine-month a year job. Summers are off.

One bonus? Drivers driving 30 hours per week for nine months qualify for health benefits.

“Drivers received medical, dental and vision benefits,” said Wyman.

Wyman sees a lot of applicants in the 60 to 65 age range for two reasons; one the Payson area population is 60 percent aged 55 and above and two, many of those folks have to wait until they are old enough for Social Security and Medicare to retire.

“You are trying to fill in the financial gap and medical coverage until you hit the correct age,” he said.

Applicants must also pay for their own commercial driver’s license — an added hurdle.

The district does train drivers, said Wyman.

“If you came in today and said, ‘I want to drive,’ the process to get you trained is at least a month,” said Wyman. “We have in-classroom as well as behind-the-wheel-training. The class training may have simulation. Then someone will ride with you for awhile until you’re ready to run a route.”

Each bus driver has a designated morning and afternoon route. Routes go as far south as Jake’s Corner and Gisela and as far north as East Verde Estates.

Other tests include lifting a certain amount of weight and passing a drug test. Continuing education for all school staff includes sexual harassment and other laws. Bus drivers also have annual driving training.

Wyman said if a driver has an accident, the law requires the district to administer a blood test immediately.

“We take (the samples) to an independent group,” he said.

From there, the “transportation laws say you can lose your CDL or get fired,” said Wyman.

Unless the district finds more drivers, it might curtail routes. “Technically, we only legally need to transport special needs kids,” said Wyman.

“If you don’t have enough drivers, you’re going to have to start making some hard decisions,” he said. “We keep the bus driver job open all the time because of the turnover.”