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Michele Nelson / National Park Foundation photo 

The beautiful Flagstaff Urban Trails System made the six-mile bike trip effortless to enjoy for the Outdoor Adventure Club riders.

Broadband advocates seek town support

Backers of a plan to bring redundant high speed internet to Rim Country took their case to the Payson Town Council on Thursday, but the council said it needs more information before making a commitment.

For the first time, MHA Foundation President Kenny Evans revealed publicly that the charity has put up $2 million to bring a high-speed trunk line from Show Low to Payson. The goal is to create a system less prone to outages with enough speed and capacity to jump-start economic development in an internet dependent age.

Cable One executives and Evans on Thursday asked the council to commit $90,000 annually for the next 10 years to help Cable One cover the cost of stringing another, high-speed, high-capacity line from Payson to Phoenix. This second line would create a crash-proof system and provide capacity for future growth.

Payson’s contribution would draw a matching contribution from the state, said Evans. Cable One will also approach Gila County for funding.

However, on a 4-3 vote, the council asked Evans and Cable One to come back on June 13 with more details on what the $90,000 annual commitment would cover and how the system would ultimately work.

“It is a little hard (to follow) since we have no documentation,” said Vice Mayor Janell Sterner.

She wondered if the new line would immediately improve service for all Rim Country residents.

Cable One Director and General Manager Dan Conrad could not promise immediate improvements for homeowners now getting service from CenturyLink and Suddenlink. However, businesses contracting directly with Cable One would see a jump in speed and capacity, he said.

The way the new line is currently constructed, it could still go down if it broke between Payson and Show Low.

Another way to provide a loop that prevents outages from a single line break would be for Cable One to connect its new, high-speed line to CenturyLink’s existing line, which comes from Camp Verde.

So far, the two companies haven’t come to an agreement.

In the cable world, providing service to customers is broken into three different phases or “miles.”

The “first mile” connects to the main hub of the internet. The “second mile” brings that signal into town. The “third mile” strings a line to a home or business.

Cable One would provide the second mile of internet service.

But that’s the most expensive link of all, requiring trenches, poles or hardware strung along highways and through canyons for 100 miles or more, he said. To offset the cost, Cable One would offer businesses from Show Low to Payson access, said Conrad. So with an extra $2 million from MHA, the company can afford to string a new line into Payson from the north sometime this year.

However, the high-capacity line down to Phoenix to create a “loop” poses a greater financial challenge. The terrain is rugged and there are no customers along the way to help cover the cost.

That’s why Cable One plans on reaching out to both the Town of Payson and Gila County for financial support to string cable to Phoenix, said Conrad.

“Aerial construction is about a $70,000 cost per mile, underground can be up to $100,000 per mile,” he said, “at minimum, (the line to Phoenix) is an $8 million expense ... if we could get a contribution from the town and county, the state would match that.”

After hearing the presentation, Councilor Barbara Underwood made a motion to support creating a line item placeholder in the upcoming budget. She also had reservations.

“I really feel there are a lot of questions. Who is all putting in money? Where is the money coming from and where are we going?” she said, “(but) I’m OK with tentatively putting it in.”

Mayor Tom Morrissey had a different point of view.

“I don’t feel we have enough information ... I don’t have all the facts and I’d like to have more facts,” he said. “I would like to see us come back next week to satisfy all concerned.”

Councilor Jim Ferris said the council understands the importance of improving broadband.

“We campaigned on how critical it is to have redundant internet,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to have an idea that we don’t understand the critical nature of this.”

In the end, councilors Underwood, Chris Higgins and Steve Smith voted for the budget line item. Morrissey, Sterner, Ferris and Suzy Tubbs-Avakian opposed it.

The council will revisit the issue on June 13 at 3 p.m.

A Payson favorite re-opens in new location after fire

A local favorite is back.

The Mexican restaurant Alfonso’s re-opened on May 23 in the Tonto Plaza behind ERA Realty at 430 S. Beeline Highway, just north of its former location at 510 S. Beeline Highway.

The family owned and operated restaurant had been at 510 S. Beeline for approximately 18 years before a fire in the kitchen on April 20 badly damaged the building and owner Jose Luna was forced to close.

Jose’s son, Israel Luna, is the manager. He said he is happy to be back in business less than five weeks after fire officials said the fire started in an electrical outlet.

The family plans to rebuild Alfonso’s in the original location. The new building will feature a drive-thru window, which was already planned at the old site. It’ll just take some time.

“They gave us a wait time of at least eight months, but I think it may take a little bit longer than that,” Israel said. “We’re looking for bids to tear it down and build it back.”

In the meantime, Alfonso’s is open in the temporary location from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The family says they are adjusting to the new space.

“It’s a smaller location, but it’s just a matter of getting used to it,” Israel said. “We’re making the best of what we’ve got.”

Alfonso’s is a family business with six employees — Israel and his wife, his father and mother, his aunt and his wife’s friend.

“We’re happy to be back for sure,” Israel said. “Payson’s always going to be home for us.”

Israel said there are about 15 Alfonso’s restaurants in Arizona, all run by his aunts, uncles and cousins. They’re named after his paternal grandfather.

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$17 million to bring broadband to Gila schools and libraries

After years of negotiations, Gila County schools and libraries will receive $17 million from the federal E-rate program to bring broadband cable to their locations in Payson, Pine, Tonto Basin, Young, Globe, Hayden-Winkelman, Miami and San Carlos.

“I’m hoping to get all of the funding from the federal government by July 1, (until then) we can’t start construction until July 1,” said Milan Eaton, the Arizona Department of Education state E-rate director. “It’s been a challenge every step of the way.”

The bulk of the money will go to southern Gila County, which has less broadband infrastructure in place than northern Gila County.

This project is separate from the effort by local officials and the MHA Foundation to both increase internet speeds and create a redundant loop to prevent outages in Payson.

Federal grant requirements make it clear the projects for the schools and libraries remain completely separate from the overall effort to bolster broadband.

That said, the E-rate money would pay for the bulk of the construction costs to create an outage-proof system from Show Low to Phoenix, said Eaton.

“E-rate will pay for the trenching and permitting, but only two strands of fiber,” he said.

Cable One has said it will lay a trunk line that can hold hundreds of fibers in order to have enough broadband capacity to serve businesses and expand in the future. Businesses such as Verizon use fiber optics to provide cell phone service to customers, which requires a lot of data. Cable One would like to make sure it lays line that will serve the needs of the community for many years.

E-rate will not pay for that additional fiber, said Eaton.

Eaton worked closely with Gila County Superintendent Roy Sandoval and Deputy County Manager Jacque Sanders to write a grant for the $17 million Gila will receive to build needed technological infrastructure for its schools and libraries.

“We know if we are funded it will bring the high speed cabling within a mile of all the schools in Gila County,” said Sandoval.

The federally funded E-rate program provides discounts to schools and libraries so they can afford internet access and telecommunications. Rural Arizona schools have lagged far behind urban areas in upgrading internet service. Many online classes need far better speeds and capacity than the region’s decades old broadband cabling can provide.

Three years ago, Eaton began pushing to upgrade rural Arizona schools’ access to the internet.

“I knew how hard it was for some schools to do any online classes at all,” said Eaton. “We want a gig at every location.”

Every year, broadband needs increase, said Eaton.

“Bandwidth needs will double every year. And double is an understatement,” he said.

Students need enough broadband to have a Chromebook or computer. On top of that, the district needs enough bandwidth to provide distance learning. Add phones and administrative bandwidth needs and it all adds up real quick, said Eaton.

The trouble with bandwidth for schools started when western states lagged behind eastern states in technological upgrades for education because of low population density, distances between towns and rugged geography. These factors make it prohibitively expensive to lay cable.

Moreover, Arizona had a target on its back as the second most expensive E-rate consumer in the country.

“We’re second to Texas — that puts us in the spotlight,” said Eaton.

Then Arizona had a lucky break.

In 2017, the federal government changed the rules “to allow us ‘special construction’ if the state had a stake in the game,” said Eaton.

With this ace in his pocket, Eaton went to then-Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin to seek state funding. Eaton knew Tobin had a soft spot for the struggles of rural Arizonans because he grew up in rural Arizona.

“I went to the ACC and commissioner Andy Tobin and told him with $10 million we can get $100 million,” said Eaton.

Eaton pitched the idea of using a forgotten tax called the Arizona Universal Service Fund to jump-start funding the state’s $10 million contribution.

“It was 1 cent on residents’ phone bill,” said Eaton.

He suggested upping that tax to 8 cents for a year. This made the fund end up netting $8 million. The two then sold the governor’s office on adding $3 million to the deal to come up with the $11 million.

The E-rate program responded.

Tobin just announced E-rate would give Arizona $127 million to bring broadband to its rural schools and libraries.

Eaton said the extra $27 million came because Arizona rural schools have so many low-income families. E-rate pays more if a school has a certain percentage of its population under the federal poverty level.

“I didn’t expect us to have so many schools in poverty,” he said.

Eaton confirmed Cable One would lay the cable for Gila County schools and libraries.

The lines will come from Show Low to service the north county schools. The cable for south county schools will have cable line from Phoenix.

“Our shortcoming right now is from Phoenix to Payson,” said Eaton.

Cable One agreed to lay a line from Payson to Phoenix, but no one is exactly sure how it will all work out. Fortunately, even without completing the loop to Phoenix, Gila County schools and libraries should still wind up with lightning-fast internet.


Distracted driving law takes effect

Through the end of June, Payson police officers are warning drivers to put away their cell phones while on the road.

That is after the Payson Town Council on April 11 approved a new law that bans drivers from using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel.

The ordinance went into effect on May 11 and while officers can now cite drivers anytime they see them manipulating their cell phone while driving, Police Chief Don Engler said they are giving it 30 days.

During this time, officers are educating drivers about the dangers of distracted driving and issuing warnings.

“The Payson Police Department will enter into a period of time in which contacts will be educational in nature, however, ultimately drivers can and will be cited for a violation of the attached wireless communication device prohibition.”

So far, most motorists have been receptive to the new law, he said.

And Engler believes they are already seeing a decreased use in cell phones while driving.

“My initial opinion is we have already seen an improvement,” he said. “I am anxious to see what the numbers show” at the end of June.

Streets and roads employees have already posted signs about the new law at the entrances to town.

The law does more than just ban texting while driving. It is also illegal to hold a phone to your ear and have a verbal conversation.

“The only exception being the use of an earpiece, headphone device or device worn on a wrist to conduct voice-based communication,” he said.

Similarly, if a vehicle has a built-in interface it is exempt from the law so long as it requires minimal interactions, such as pressing a button to activate or deactivate. And these devices can “read” texts if they are translated into voice and a driver can send a text if done through voice commands.

You can still use your phone to call 911. And if parked, officers are not going to cite you for texting.

Drivers can be fined up to $149 for a first violation and at least $150, but no more than $250 for a subsequent violation.

While the town’s new cell phone ban is already in effect, the state’s new cell phone law starts Jan. 1, 2021.

In late April, Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2318, which similarly makes it illegal to physically hold or support any cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. The law bars phone conversations and writing, sending and reading text messages, emails, instant messages and internet sites.

The state is the 48th state to ban cell phone use while driving. In states with similar hands-free laws, there has been a 16 percent reduction in traffic fatalities, according to the governor’s office.

Nationally, 9 percent of fatal crashes are attributed to distraction and in 2017 distracted driving killed 3,166 people.

Statewide law enforcement are issuing warnings to drivers caught violating the bill until January 2021, when the law goes into full effect.

When the state law begins, it will replace Payson’s ordinance.

The main difference between the town’s law and the state is that the state law allows drivers to use their phones while at a stoplight (not a stop sign).

Engler said it is always safest to park before using a cell phone.

Teresa McQuerrey / Teresa McQuerrey/Roundup  

The NAPA building next to the Gila County Sheriff’s substation in Payson was purchased in 2014 to expand county facilities to serve northern residents, but it remains vacant.

Tiny houses proposed in Tonto Basin

Tonto Basin’s population could swell by 300 if a proposal to build a slew of “tiny houses” is approved.

Longtime Tonto Basin second-homeowner Mike Middleton and several business partners have dreams of building Roosevelt Lake Cottages, 140 tiny homes, or park model units, on 22 acres just north of the IGA market off Highway 188.

“I’m really excited about this project and I am very proud of it,” said Middleton. “It has been a longtime dream of mine to do a project like this.”

The idea for the project came from visitors to his Tonto Basin home.

“I have friends and family who love to sit on my porch. They would say they’d like to have a set up like mine, but they can’t afford the $100,000 it would take,” he said.

Middleton and his partners want to keep the price for a park model somewhere around $45,000 to $70,000.

The park models, or tiny homes, are less than 400 square feet and “fit in their own category,” said Middleton.

Owners will not own the land their park model sits on. Instead, they will lease.

Middleton and his partners don’t envision more than two people living in a unit full-time.

“Some have a loft for when the grandkids come to visit,” he said.

The specter of a housing development coming to Tonto Basin has some neighbors anxious. There are 1,380 residents in Tonto Basin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Roosevelt Cottages would increase the population by about 20 percent — although the developers envision most of the residents would only live there seasonally.

On a Tonto Basin Facebook community page, several residents expressed concern that a rise in population would stress the infrastructure, bring in lights that could ruin the dark skies, increase traffic and deplete water reserves.

“Water, water, water. That is the issue. Along with other infrastructure,” said one resident.

Middleton understands the water issue. He watched anxiously last year as a drought dried up well after well in Tonto Basin.

“I also experienced the wells going dry,” he said.

He is working closely with Jason Williamson, the owner of the Tonto Basin Water Company. The challenge is to have enough storage capacity to provide water during peak visitation. Already, Middleton has made a portion of his property available to house a water storage tank.

Williamson’s wells are deeper than most private wells. During last year’s drought, when many private shallow wells dried up, Williamson’s wells did not.

For those worried about bright lights, Middleton promised to consider that when picking lighting.

When it comes to traffic, he and his partners have applied for a permit from the Arizona Department of Transportation to provide safe travel for the community.

The project still has many planning hurdles to clear, according to the Gila County Community Development Department.

Already Middleton has had a public meeting with nearby residents. On June 20, he will have a meeting with the Gila County Planning and Zoning Commission to discuss zoning.

Other meetings with the Tonto Basin Fire Department will explore how the added population would affect fire and medical service.

Right now, the property is zoned for general unclassified use. Middleton said he’s going to have to rezone it residential.

On the topic of losing Tonto Basin’s character, Middleton has respect for the unique qualities that make the area such a wonderful place to live and visit.

“My dad took me to Tonto Basin, mostly hunting and fishing,” he said. “I don’t want (the development) to be closed off.”

He plans on building a walking trail around the area, a common area with barbecue, dog park, pickleball courts and enough parking to accommodate tournaments or get-togethers.

“We want to provide affordable retirement and second homes,” he said.

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