Cable One says it will start construction on an additional, high-speed internet cable in June, a giant step toward speeding up Rim Country’s sluggish internet and eliminating life-threatening, business-crunching outages.
Cable One executives on Wednesday in Payson announced the roughly $14 million plan. The phased construction would connect Payson to Show Low before the end of this year and then finish the loop to Phoenix by the end of 2020.
“It’s our honest intention to start construction in June,” said Cable One General Manager Don Conrad.
The plan will bring a second fiber optic cable to Payson, but won’t replace the existing, much slower cable owned by CenturyLink. The new cable won’t initially connect to the existing CenturyLink line, which has failed repeatedly in recent years — leading to losses for businesses and at least one death.
Cell phone companies, CenturyLink and the separate Suddenlink will have to contract with Cable One once the new connection arrives to provide reliable, redundant, high-speed internet to the whole community. The new cable will have speeds 200 to 1,000 times faster than the current connections, which are based on copper wire rather than fiber optics, officials said.
Cable One also announced it has won a contract under the federal E-Rate program to connect schools and libraries to the new, high-speed trunk line. This will bring the high-capacity cable to communities like Pine, Young and the Tonto Basin, with funding provided by the federal government. Those lines will connect directly to schools and libraries, but not to businesses or homes. However, other companies could contract to then deliver that signal for the “last mile.”
Former Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, now head of the MHA Foundation, said “a solution to this longstanding problem is coming within a few months. So don’t sign a contract to lock yourself into yesterday’s technology,” he urged businesses.
“It’s a good plan and a good step in the right direction,” said Greg Friestad, a former cable company engineer and designer who has worked for the past two years on a committee dedicated to improving broadband service in the region.
He noted that the plan won’t in the short term provide high-speed, redundant internet to Rim Country. Cable One will offer service to businesses along the route of the cable, not to homeowners. Current state law precludes the company from offering service to homeowners and businesses further from the cable now supplied by either CenturyLink or Suddenlink.
Still, the arrival of the cable this year and the extension to Phoenix next year could lay the groundwork for the solution to the region’s internet woes. The full solution will still depend on whether CenturyLink, Suddenlink and cell phone companies like Verizon decide to contract for service from the new cable. CenturyLink would also have to connect its cable coming from Camp Verde to the new line to provide redundant service for the whole area.
The financing of the proposal remains in flux, with backers hoping for additional contributions and grants from the state. However, Cable One General Manager Aimee Pfannenstiel said, “We’re past the ‘whether we’re going to do it or not.’ We’re doing it.”
A still-anonymous donor has pledged up to $5 million to offset perhaps a third of the cost of construction. That guarantee prompted Cable One to move forward with a plan more than two years in the making.
Moreover, Gov. Doug Ducey has asked for $3 million in the current state budget to help rural areas improve broadband service. The Legislature could add additional funds, said Arizona Commerce Authority Senior Vice President Keith Watkins, who attended the session.
“Kudos to everybody for not giving up,” Watkins told the group of about 30 top elected officials and advocates, which included three members of the Payson Council, two members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors, Evans and other officials from MHA Foundation and assorted officials and advocates.
“And thanks to Cable One for being willing to do this,” Watkins added.
Conrad said the project will unfold in three phases.
Phase 1 will string a line mostly on existing Arizona Public Service polls and right of way some 82 miles from Show Low to Payson at an estimated cost of $6 million. This line will bring the 2 gigabyte cable to Payson. It will also help complete a service loop that will prevent the White Mountains from continuing to suffer prolonged outages.
Phase 2 will involve stringing about 8 miles of cable through Payson, at a cost of roughly $70,000 per mile. Cable One will bear the entire cost of that phase, since it will then be able to serve customers in Payson.
Phase 3 will cost about $8 million to connect Payson to a substation in Phoenix. Cable One hopes to line up all the permits and additional funding for that final stretch between now and the end of the year, so the contractors on Phases 1 and 2 can just keep working. Phase 3 will also cover about 82 miles, but would likely involve a lot of trenching in solid rock or a deal with APS to attach a special line to existing electrical transmission towers. This would represent the most expensive option, but would probably take less time and provide more protection for the cable, according to APS representatives who also attended.
Conrad said it will take the company at least five years to recover its upfront investment, but that the company believes in Payson’s future. “I look at the growth of the community, the economy health of the community and then you go from there. Payson’s a great little community and there’s a lot of upside.”
The company also hopes the state Legislature will adopt new rules for the regulation of internet service. Currently, companies like CenturyLink have a franchise that grants them the right to provide internet service, often with contracts with other companies like Suddenlink to connect individual homes to the trunk line.
A proposed overhaul would allow competing companies to provide service statewide. This could lower service costs in urban areas while providing incentives to upgrade services in underserved rural areas.
The plan still involves a lot of moving parts, permits, financing questions and technological challenges.
But as Payson’s Economic Development Specialist Bobby Davis commented, “We need to get the internet here so we can create better paying jobs and support the economy.”
Mac Feezor, who has worked on the committee lobbying for improved service for the past two years, said “as much as you can ever say something’s a done deal, this is a done deal.”
Sidney Morel, a retired fire chief and fire marshal from the San Diego area, has seen wildfire do astonishing things.
“February 10, 2003 – 47 homes burned in 45 minutes,” he said of the Cedar Fire. Ultimately, more than 2,000 homes burned to a pile of ash.
By the time the 2007 Witch Creek Fire started, numerous San Diego communities had adopted stringent wildland-urban interface (WUI) building codes and enforced Firewise landscaping.
A friend of Morel’s benefited from the changes. He lived in a shelter-in-place community and was able to safely stay home with his three pets during the Witch Creek Fire. They all survived without a scratch. The only home to burn in his community was a remodel — the wood left outside caught on fire.
Now Morel lives in Rim Country and writes fire protection plans. Despite numerous devastating wildfires in Arizona, little has changed when it comes to WUI building codes and Firewise landscaping.
California has done the opposite. As wildfire seasons have increased in length and severity, the state adopted some of the toughest WUI codes anywhere.
“There has been a major campaign as a result of mega fires,” said Morel. “The Santa Ana winds in California add to the threat. Now the fire season is year-round.”
In comparison, only a handful of Arizona communities have adopted WUI building codes — Flagstaff and Prescott for example.
WUI codes have been on the Payson Town Council agenda for the past 10 years, but the council has adopted only a few minor provisions. Firewise vegetation codes remain voluntary and left mostly to homeowners associations. There is no brush pickup in Payson like the unincorporated communities of Pine and East Verde Estates.
Morel said it took awhile for California to get to where it is now on WUI codes — efforts to require fire-adapted building materials in the San Diego area started in the mid-1960s. But the building industry balked at the added costs, he said.
“Then we had the wood shake fires in the ’70s,” he said. “The building industry said, ‘OK, no more wood shake shingles.’”
Some 40 years later, Payson finally got around to a ban on wood shake shingles.
After the Oakland Hills and Laguna Beach fires burned multi-million dollar homes in densely populated areas in the early 1990s, California passed further building codes requiring all new homes to have siding and roofing that can withstand burning for at least an hour.
“You have to have paper-backed insulation between the joist and roof or siding,” said Morel.
Attic vents must have screens small enough to withstand embers.
“If an ember hits a screen a quarter inch or larger, it burns down to the size of a matchstick and gets through to set the attic on fire,” said Morel.
The vents must also have clips to withstand the winds that accompany wildland fires.
Windows must have tinted tripled panes.
Deck materials must withstand fires.
“Every new building has sprinklers ... you want to talk about pushback from the building industry,” said Morel.
Yet he made it clear the codes do not require a homeowner to upgrade an older home.
“The big fear when you start talking about WUI codes is retrofitting,” he said. “It’s only for new construction.”
Over the years, Morel has watched the evolution of California’s preparations for fire carefully, noting the ordinances and laws that helped neighbors enforce codes against neighbors.
“One of the biggest issues, I do everything right for wildfire protection and then embers from my neighbor start my house on fire,” he said.
Neighbor apathy concerns Morel when people start to talk about shelter-in-place.
“Here’s the key: How do I get my neighbor to comply?” he said.
Homeowner associations, town ordnances and education help.
Morel preferred working with cities, because the building inspector could hold residents responsible.
“With an unincorporated district, I have to go through the county or county attorney,” he said.
It’s a commitment to keep communities wildfire ready. Shelter-in-place communities have quarterly inspections to make sure residents meet Firewise landscaping policies.
“HOAs have the inspection and enforcement to make it so you can literally stay in your home,” said Morel.
When Morel served as the fire marshal, HOAs hired him to do their inspections.
Still, the educational component has its ups and downs.
“The most frustrating thing as a fire marshal is to have a Firewise education event and — no one comes,” said Morel.
He would set up a booth at the annual Avocado Festival, but most of the 100,000 visitors were from out of town.
His fire council did it anyway.
Next, the fire council started offering free fire inspections.
“My inspectors would come back from trying to get the message out there discouraged,” he said. “I’d tell them, ‘It’s just getting one person at a time to understand the message.’”
His fire council worked with the local Citizen Emergency Response Team to create support and education programs specific to wildfires.
But the most effective pressure on people came from insurance companies.
As homeowner insurance claims due to natural disasters increased, the industry created the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). The IBHS controlled environments to re-create natural disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes. IBHS then built homes and watched how materials performed.
Morel has participated in the controlled experiments that build a home then subject it to the ember storms created by wildfires. (https://disastersafety.org/)
These controlled experiments have shown that adding fire protection in the valley of roofs staves off spot fires in the leaves and pine needles that collect in those low spots.
“We know that is where debris is held and embers will land,” said Morel. “We require protection ... you have to have a class 8 roof ... for those houses built after 2003.”
Requiring clips and smaller holed screens keep fires from starting in attics.
Building according to WUI code and landscaping to Firewise standards lowers insurance rates. Morel had insurance agents meet him at homes to determine if it had “wildland fire survivability.”
But it’s also the small things that can make a huge difference when a wildfire races through a community.
“Put your trash cans in the garage,” said Morel. “We know it’s these little things that burn the house down.”
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A family often searches for answers after losing a loved one to suicide.
After Kathy Siler’s brother Joseph killed himself when he was 23 she struggled for years, asking herself why he had taken that path and what she could have done to stop him.
“We didn’t know why, it was a strange thing because he was anti-suicide, anti-weapons. He was a sweet, nice guy, an introvert into electronics. Nobody would have guessed he would even think of taking his life.”
That loss, years later, morphed into something — a way for Siler to reach students.
Along with her late husband John, Siler for years has been a person students can turn to when they need help. She says she learned that from John.
John directed the Payson High School drama department’s first performance in 1988, just after the auditorium was built. He continued to lead the theater group, with Kathy, until his death in 2011.
While at the school, Frank T. Feeney, a counselor and coach for the district, offered teachers a suicide awareness course.
After taking the course, John led a group once a week with students.
The first student group was called Concerned Persons of User. Another year it was the Stay Straight Group, for kids who were dedicated to getting off whatever they were doing that was harmful to them.
“John relished those groups. If he hadn’t been a teacher he would have been a counselor.”
Another year, there was a group for students who wanted to discuss self-harm and suicide.
That group eventually put on a play about suicide awareness.
“We’ve always strived to empower the kids through our drama program and they would pick a topic each year,” said Siler. “This year, we did ‘The Addict’ about substance abuse. Every once in a while we all agree on the topic of suicide awareness. Sometimes, it touches the kids deeply.
“Upon occasion John became aware of a student that was planning to take their life, and he was able to directly intervene,” said Siler. “He saved a lot of people. People could talk to him, and many are alive today because of him.”
For Siler, after her brother died, her father refused to discuss his death.
“This was the most difficult thing for me and my sisters. I felt that he didn’t want to admit there was anything that could go wrong with our family, that we could possibly experience depression or hopelessness — he was in complete denial,” she said.
“When he would hear us talking about suicide, depression, loneliness, or poor self-esteem, he would get extremely angry, yell at us and hit my mother. She wanted to talk about it,” she said. “I’m sure it was something to do with his pride and background. He grew up in a very oppressive Catholic environment that viewed suicide as a mortal sin.”
Since her father refused to talk about Joe, Siler and her sister learned to stuff their feelings.
“Deep down in their hearts I’m sure they cared about us, and now that I’m older, I can begin to understand that,” she said.
No one in the family received counseling to deal with his death.
“They thought that was one of the worst things they could do. Maybe some people don’t know they need help. My father was in denial until the day he died.”
And two years after Joe died, Kathy’s mother died.
“Both parents went into a deep depression. A year after Joe died, my mother’s cancer was discovered. I think the stress of her only son’s death had an effect.”
Struggling to make sense of it all, Siler found a safe environment in her high school drama class.
“Maybe that’s why I latched on to that so quickly and so strongly, because I could express my creativity and not be judged, I could be accepted and celebrated,” she said. “A safe environment is so important to me because I’ve experienced what an unsafe environment can do to children. Kids need to know they are loved, that they have talent and they don’t have to be perfect.”
Kathy said it would have helped a lot if her family had sought counseling.
Today, whenever one of Siler’s students loses a family member or needs help, she often gets an email from the district.
“For example, this kid’s grandmother passed away, let’s give them extra support.”
A shared legacy
Siler’s work helped her manage her grief and depression when John passed.
“Kids are my passion,” she said. “Drama was my passion at first, but now it’s the kids. John gave me that. Teaching is about relationships. When I learned and practiced that I fell in love with education.”
“Every child has a different talent — a gift to be unwrapped.,” said Siler. “They’re not all scholars, geeks, athletes, they can succeed in many areas if they are encouraged.
“I wish that children would be able to experience their first safe environment at home,” said Siler, “but that does not happen with every child for various reasons. It’s up to the community to help create those environments so the child has a place to feel safe and feel that they matter.”
The Payson School Board last week approved a roughly 5 percent employee pay raise, with money set aside for an extra, much-debated 5 percent “merit pay” increase for the district’s 12 administrators.
The raises will cost the district about $1 million when combined with a roughly $265,000 increase in health benefit costs that the district will absorb.
The board also increased pay for the 35 substitute teachers from $80 to $100 per day — or $120 per day for long-term substitutes. At $100 per day, substitutes were barely making minimum wage.
The proposal to set aside $52,000 to pay for an eventual merit pay plan for administrators provoked the most debate at the board meeting, although in the end the board unanimously approved the plan presented by outgoing Superintendent Greg Wyman.
“I think we need more time,” said board member Shane Keith. “I’m not comfortable voting on a performance pay system (for administrators) when we don’t know how it works and how it will be paid out.”
Board president Barbara Underwood also resisted setting aside money for a performance pay plan for administrators prior to the arrival of the new superintendent Stan Rentz in June.
“I’m going to stay strong with my position from the last meeting. I still feel I cannot support the extra 5 percent (for administrators). We’re giving everybody else 5 percent and then give the administrators 10 percent.”
Newly elected board member Jolynn Schinstock said “I don’t want there to be some animosity. Isn’t there something we can do that might make both sides happy? Is there anything we could do that would be more in the middle to compromise? You guys have built this great relationship with administration.”
“With everybody,” interjected Underwood.
“But we’re focusing on the administration right now,” said Schinstock. “We want to make sure we value all of our staff.”
The board ultimately decided to put into the budget the $52,000 for a performance pay increase for administrators, but to wait for the arrival of the new superintendent to settle on the details.
“Worst case scenario is that you can’t come to an agreement and the $52,000 rolls into the contingency fund for next year,” said Wyman.
The contingency fund in the proposed budget is about $500,000, which is almost nothing for a $14 million operating budget. Meanwhile, the across-the-board increase in pay and benefits costs will force economies in other areas like curriculum, technology, class sizes and transportation.
The raises will range from perhaps $1,000 for the 140 classified employees like janitors and secretaries to about $2,500 for the 121 teachers. Administrators will get about $3,500 from the 5 percent increase in the base rate plus perhaps $3,800 when the merit pay plan kicks in.
The teachers already have a merit pay plan, which adds about $3,500 annually to their salaries. Virtually all of the teachers qualify for the merit pay plan based on meeting their goals. The money comes from a proposition that voters approved years ago and is now effectively built into the base salary. The proposition specifies that the teachers themselves must approve the plan, which has resulted in a system in which almost every teacher qualifies for the merit-based raise.
Arizona teachers have among the lowest salaries and largest class sizes in the nation, but have received steady raises in the past several years. The Legislature last year set aside money for a 12 percent teacher raise, with another 10 percent promised this year. In most districts, the administrators didn’t share in that raise unless they were also teaching.
The increases approved by the Payson School Board last week should ensure Payson remains one of the top paying small, rural school districts in the state, according to an informal salary study conducted by Wyman.
Wyman compared salary schedules in 25 Arizona districts with enrollments ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 students. Payson has 2,400 students.
Overall, Payson ranked 16th out of 27 districts for total classroom spending, about 2.3 percent below the average. The district had the fifth lowest administrative costs, about 2 percent below the average.
The district ranked in the top third for classified staff salaries, roughly $2.25 per hour above the average. In many categories, employees in Payson start lower than in other districts, but advance to a higher maximum over time.
Over the past five years, classified employees have received raises ranging from 18 to 41 percent, according to Wyman’s study.
Teachers have done even better when it comes to raises and top salary ranges.
The entry-level pay for teachers has risen from $32,000 to $40,000 in the last five years. In the past four years, base salaries have risen by 17 percent and the amount included in the performance pay boost has risen 78 percent. So a new teacher at the bottom of the salary schedule will be making 27 percent more than she did four years ago — about $44,000 for a nine-month contract.
Most teachers make much more, since Payson has a high experience level and a higher maximum salary than most districts. In fact, the top pay for Payson teachers is a full 27 percent higher than the average in other districts. The district has the second highest maximum salary among the 25 districts surveyed.
As a result, the average teacher in Payson actually makes $45,893.
The district also ranks in the top third of other rural districts when it comes to salaries for administrators. However, the increase for administrators in the past four years averages just 12 percent, about one-third of the rate of increase for teachers.
Payson administrators come in much closer to the average among the 25 districts. Payson administrators average $82,000, about 6 percent more than in other districts — or $13,895. Payson’s minimum administrative salary is 14 percent above the average and the maximum salary is 11 percent above the average.
However, pay for the high school and one elementary school principal were slightly below the average when compared to other districts.
The new superintendent will have to quickly devise a way to set goals for administrators and figure out if they qualify for merit pay increases. He’ll face a variety of viewpoints on the board.
Keith wanted to reduce the base pay increase and put more money into the performance pay plan, arguing it would boost performance.
Underwood worried about what the community would think about a big increase for administrators, already averaging $82,000 in salary. She expressed concern the argument about administrator salaries could undercut voter support for a budget override, which needs approval by the end of the year. If voters reject the override, the district would have to cut its budget by about $1.4 million.
But they both ultimately went along with the three relative newcomers on the board.
Board member Joanne Conlin said, “I say the $52,000 goes into the budget to save the money, but when we do our performance plan it may not be $52,000. It may be $30,000. But we can’t do more than $52,000.”
Wyman urged the board to start working on the performance pay plan for administrators now, rather than waiting for Rentz to arrive in June.