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Photo courtesy of the Payson Fire Department/  

A rash of brush fires last week underscored the value of a joint operating agreement.

Michele Nelson / Michele Nelson/Roundup  

Fire crews quickly snuffed out an attic fire at the corner of Mescalero and Caballero in Mesa del Caballo on Sept. 27.

The ins and outs of the fire agreement

Will firefighters get raises? Will any fire stations close? Who will lead the organization? What will happen to firefighters’ pensions?

In this third installment on the proposed creation of the Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority from the Payson, Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire departments, we will dive into the details of the agreement.

Officials will meet Jan. 8 to discuss the merger in a work-study session at Payson’s Town Hall. Hellsgate and Houston Mesa’s fire boards will vote shortly thereafter on whether to sign the joint powers agreement (JPA). The Payson Town Council is tentatively expected to vote on it Jan. 24.

The council and fire board members will work through a draft of the 30-page JPA agreement at the work-study session, which will likely result in changes.

Firefighters from all three organizations have spent months discussing their concerns with Payson Fire Chief David Staub, Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner and the local firefighters union.

Union 4125 Vice President Thorry Smith and full-time Payson firefighter since 2012, said most local firefighters are for the fire authority because it could mean better wages, benefits and more autonomy.

“Firefighters feel they don’t have a voice because town management does not recognize our union. In a fire authority, the workforce opinion and stances are welcomed,” he said.

Here is a brief overview of the key points in the agreement as they stand Dec. 14.

When would the merger occur?

If all parties agree, the fire authority could be operational by July 1.

What is a fire authority?

It is a separate legal entity known as a fire protection district organized under Arizona statute. It will provide the same services currently offered by the fire departments, including fire suppression, emergency medical services, hazardous material response, technical rescues, fire prevention and public safety education.

Where will the fire authority office be?

The principal place of business will be the fire station at 400 W. Main St. in Payson.

What will happen to employees?

All firefighters will become employees of the fire authority as well as administrative personnel like Monica Savage and Angie Lecher. They will no longer be employees of the Town of Payson or Hellsgate. No layoffs or terminations are planned.

What will happen to their pensions?

The fire authority will establish, manage and oversee all pension funds in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.

What about insurance?

The authority will purchase its own insurance.

And payroll?

The authority will provide all management, payroll and human resources services. “The parties understand that to blend the differing benefits packages will entail some modification to the plans in place for all employees; the expectation is that the pay and benefits of all authority employees will be similar based upon but not limited to training, qualifications, certifications, rank and seniority.”

Those Payson firefighters hired before July 1, 2012 will keep their guaranteed retirement health care benefit. And Hellsgate personnel who have a paid-time-off buyback benefit will continue to have that option.

Who will oversee the fire authority?

A six-person board of directors will make up the governing body. That will include two board members from the Hellsgate fire board, one from Houston Mesa’s fire board and three Payson Town Council members. Initial appointments to the fire authority board will be one year. After that, a director will serve two years.

Can a member of the fire authority board be removed?

Yes, by a majority vote of the fire board or city council of the party that appointed that director, with or without cause.

Will board members be paid?

No, it is a volunteer position.

Will fire authority board meetings be open to the public?

Yes, they will hold regularly scheduled meetings.

Who will be the fire chief?

Payson Fire Chief David Staub with John Wisner acting as assistant chief. Wisner is currently the fire chief of Hellsgate.

What about funding?

On a monthly basis, Hellsgate, Payson and Houston Mesa will pay the fire authority to fund service. Hellsgate and Houston Mesa will continue to assess a $3.25 per $100 tax levy and Payson will pay for service by contributing 25.75 percent of its combined gross revenue, which comes from a variety of sources, like the sales tax.

Any debt or bond the authority takes on will be its own and not that of Payson, Hellsgate or Houston Mesa.

What about the fire stations and trucks?

All assets, including property, buildings, furniture, supplies, tools, vehicles, insurance policies, leases and contracts will transfer to the authority and be managed by the board. If an asset has a debt obligation, that debt will transfer to the authority for repayment.

Any of these assets can be modified or replaced as needed and any assets the authority buys will be its own.

All assets will be re-branded Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority.

How long will the agreement last?

Twenty-five years with the option of early termination without cause in the next budget year with written notice.

If the authority is disbanded, all assets will be returned to the party they originally came from. Any assets bought by the authority will be liquidated and a proportion paid to the members of the authority.

If the agreement ends, employees will return to the department they were previously employed with and those hired by the authority will be given first opportunity to transfer into Hellsgate or Payson if a position is available.

Can the authority close a fire station?

Yes, but only if there is a majority vote and the representative(s) from the affected area vote yes.

Will firefighters get raises?

Yes. Personnel expenses in the authority are expected to increase around 4 percent each year (in the first five years) to cover cost of living adjustments and merit raises. No new personnel will be hired initially.

What do firefighters think?

Members of the local fire union voted 92 percent in favor of the merger — 100 percent of Hellsgate firefighters are in the union and 95 percent of Payson.

Hellsgate Fire Capt. Rick Heron and Payson firefighter Thorry Smith say the fire authority will mean better service for the public and a better work environment for employees.


Payson police collect $10k for local family

In its fourth year, the community donated a record amount to the Payson Police Department’s Beards on Patrol fundraiser.

Through the month of November, officers grew out their beards (and one female officer her leg hair) to raise money for a family in the community battling cancer.

This year, the police department raised $9,606 for Westyn Wilson, 8, and his family.

“As always, our community is very generous and always comes to support one another especially, when there is a community member in need,” said Police Chief Don Engler in a press release. “The Payson Police Department is honored to have been a small supporter in Westyn’s challenges with his medical condition. Our thoughts and prayers are with Westyn and his entire family. It has been a wonderful experience for the Payson Police Department to get to know Westyn better and we wish him the best.”

“Again, a huge thank you to all of you who contributed to our fundraiser!”

New Payson Mayor seeks to empower then get out of the way

Payson’s new mayor, Tom Morrissey, wants to empower people — but remains leery of what government can actually do.

In his first interview with the Roundup as mayor, Morrissey touched on a laundry list of controversial issues. He suggested he doesn’t like the city manager form of government; questioned whether the fire department should answer medical calls; advocated repealing Payson’s sales tax on food; and expressed skepticism on the merger between the Hellsgate, Payson and Houston Mesa fire districts.

First responder and town employee salaries sit high on his list of concerns, as well as helping the homeless.

He also said repeatedly that government can serve best through transparent communication.

And to help everyone remain grounded, he will hold monthly martial arts classes.

Morrissey inspires confidence with his modulated voice, sincere ideas and well-tailored appearance. Those qualities prompted friends to encourage Morrissey to run for mayor. Backers Jim Muhr, Barbara Buntin, Greg Friestad, Jeffrey Aal and Sharon King gathered enough signatures to put him on the ballot in just two weeks.

“They were with me every step of the way — a real blessing,” he said.

Morrissey’s background includes his work as the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service-District of Arizona, chief of special investigations for the Department of Economic Security and as a small-business owner.

Morrissey said his time as state Republican Party chair gave him political contacts he can put to work for the town. Since his election, he has met with Governor Doug Ducey — twice — and he sees Congressman Paul Gosar often. He knows Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, outgoing Secretary of State Michele Regan and outgoing state House Rep. Brenda Barton. In his most recent meetings with his contacts, he’s focused on the redundant internet issue — an improvement he believes will bring telecommuters and light industry to the town.

“I’ve been working with the consortium for a year,” he said. “I have talked to the governor. It will be brought with private industry ... (but) I am not free to discuss. I signed a non-discloser.”

He has some plans for his first 100 days in office, starting with transparency.

“Within six weeks we will have a first town hall meeting ... at a church,” he said. “We’ll have moderators and written questions. We will answer any and all questions.”

New to the town manager system of government, Morrissey admits he still has a lot to learn.

“I’m getting my arms around what I can do and I have the power to do,” he said.

He sat with LaRon Garrett, the current town manager and learned that all the staff reports to Garrett, while Garrett reports to the town council.

“He comes to me and then the council,” said Morrissey. “I can’t direct anybody in the town government to do anything ... I knew the chain of command — I was inspector general of DES ... My nature is to be involved. Maybe I’m making people nervous because of my style. I’m not trying to take away anybody’s power.”

Morrissey does have strong opinions about the job of firefighters.

“I am looking at the mission of the firefighters,” he said, “95 percent of the activities of firefighters is medical, (but) their mission is to prevent damage and fight fires.”

Morrissey said he would rather see an ambulance always respond to a medical call rather than having just a fire truck respond to a medical call.

“Firemen should go to accidents and extractions,” he said. “The ambulance has to go anyway to medical calls, why send as a response both all the time?”

Instead, Morrissey said he’d like to see Payson firefighters focus on education and removing brush from Payson properties.

“For firemen, their mission should be Firewising, education and assisting in the Firewising,” he said.

He’s definitely not sure about the merger of the Payson, Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire districts.

“I’m not totally convinced that’s the way to go,” he said. “If that totally happens ... we would have no say. It becomes an entity of itself.”

A recent Roundup article outlined the plan for leadership on the fire authority board. Three Payson council members would balance the two Hellsgate fire board members and one Houston Mesa fire board member.

What Morrissey’s sure about regarding first responders — raising their salaries.

“My job is to get them the resources they need,” said Morrissey. “What happens is we bring people on as firemen, they get the experience and work for a bit and then leave. We need to keep them here.”

One final issue he wishes to address — the homeless population.

“It just touches my heart,” said Morrissey. “I’ve always felt a connection to the homeless.”

Morrissey said removing or at least re-evaluating the food sales tax could help those struggling because a food tax disproportionately burdens the poor.

“It’s a cruel tax,” he said.

He said he’s already speaking with the churches in town to see how they help — and he has another idea — enterprise business zones based on what he’s seen in Kingston, N.Y. where his daughter lives.

“Kingston has an enterprise zone,” he said. “The old Jack Kemp thing ... he had a program called enterprise zone. They would give tax benefits to black businessmen — everything followed suit. I am looking at that type of approach.”

But he’s not sure Main Street is the place to focus.

“We have four town centers, the 87/260 corner, Highway 260 east and 87 north,” he said. “We have to be realistic. I want to see Main Street flourish ... I want to get information out to the town, but let’s think this through.”

Circling back to his martial arts, Morrissey will launch a class to teach qigong, that helps to tap into the vital energy of the body and a basic martial arts technique that’s “a great self-defense for women.”

“I’m offering classes in martial arts (beginning) Friday evenings starting Jan. 4 in the Rim Country Health community room, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.,” said Morrissey.

Wrapping up the interview, Morrissey said building a relationship with his town constituents will take time and trust, so he had a suggestion.

“Don’t necessarily listen to my words, watch my actions,” he said.

Storms fail to banish drought

Despite a closely-spaced pair of storms this week, confidence in this year’s prediction of a wet, El Niño winter has started to fray.

A storm system moved through Rim Country on Christmas Day and a second storm system is expected to bring some rain and snow to the region today.

The forecast called for only a chance of snow today in Payson, but as much as 6 inches on the Rim.

The storms have punctuated a dry fall. Last year’s bone-dry winter created dangerous wildfire conditions and failed to even fill the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, prompting Salt River Project to hold off on water releases into the East Verde for the first time in more than a decade.

The reservoir so far has refilled to roughly 45 percent, despite a decent monsoon. Previously, even in relatively dry winters, the reservoir has filled early in the spring runoff. Roosevelt Lake stands at just 40 percent full, with the reservoirs on the Verde River at 30 percent full.

Currently, the Salt River Project system of reservoirs holds just 47 percent of its capacity, compared to 61 percent a year ago at this time.

The Salt River at Roosevelt this week before the storms arrived was carrying 60 percent of its normal flow, Tonto Creek 57 percent and the Verde River about 84 percent.

The National Weather Service this week concluded, “despite the oceanic observations supporting El Niño, the atmospheric conditions through November 2018 remain consistent” with a normal or perhaps just above-normal winter. The NWS put the odds of a normal winter at 70 to 80 percent.

However, in recent years the link between El Niño and a wet Arizona winter has grown weaker, perhaps because the long-term warming trend has made the movement of the jet stream more unpredictable.

Still, the forecasters concluded Arizona will likely have both a warmer-than-normal winter and a wetter-than-normal winter.

Jeannie Herford photo  

Tom Morrissey