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Will wet winter yield scary fire season?

Enjoy the wet cool winter?

Brace yourself — fire season’s coming.

And the weeds are a blooming.

So if the spring turns warm and dry and the monsoon takes its time arriving, Arizona could face one of those white-knuckle fire seasons.

“Wet winters can mean very dangerous summers,” Gov. Doug Ducey said last week at a press conference on the upcoming fire season.

Still, it sure beats last year, said Ducey and John Truett, a fire safety officer with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Management, at the press conference. They drew a dramatic contrast between last year’s bone-dry onset of the fire season and this season’s wet, weedy run up to the scary months.

For instance, this year Flagstaff got four times as much precipitation over the winter. Last year, the forest got so dry by April that the Forest Service shut down much of the forest — including most of Rim Country. Officials credited the closures with averting what could have been an awful fire season.

However, the closures seemed to have also resulted in a big drop in Payson’s sales tax receipts for May.

But the historic drought took its toll elsewhere. California suffered its worst year in history, with billions in damage and more than 85 deaths.

This year, the whole region has escaped drought for the first time in years.

But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods when it comes to wildfires.

The thick growth of ground cover due to the rain has delighted wildflower lovers so far this spring — but all those plants will turn to tinder when the temperature rises in April and on into May.

Truett said this year resembles 2005, when lightning after a wet winter touched off the 248,000-acre Cave Creek Fire, third largest in state history — behind the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski.

He urged homeowners to prepare for the season by creating “defensible space” around their homes.

The recent loss of firefighter lives trying to protect unprepared communities like Yarnell has made fire managers much less willing to risk crews to protect structures.

The Payson Ranger District has spent the past decade clearing buffer zones around most Rim Country communities. That includes fresh clearing and pile-burning efforts around Ellison Creek estates this spring. The Forest Service has thinned more than 50,000 acres of buffer zones in Rim Country.

However, Payson relies on purely voluntary efforts to convince homeowners to clear overgrown trees and brush around their homes. Even a distant fire can rain embers down on forested communities like Payson, setting fire to pine-needle-covered roofs and plants close to the side of the house. These ember-caused fires from a nearby wildfire can quickly overwhelm fire departments.

Payson has also not adopted a wildland-urban interface building code to reduce the chance such an ember storm will set the whole town on fire.

Fire officials say last year could have turned into just such a rain of fire, but the forest shutdown likely avoided disaster.

Even so, wildfires charred 156,000 acres of state land in 2018 — compared to 400,000 acres the year before. The Tinder Fire on the Rim burned 13,000 acres and 33 homes — the largest loss of homes in the history of the Coconino Forest.

Fortunately, the mid-term forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center calls for a cool-to-normal spring, when it comes to both rainfall and temperatures. That should push the dangerous fire season back into May and even into June. Once-upon-a time, June was the whole fire season — quickly relieved by the monsoon. During the drought years, the danger extended in to May and even April.

The Fire Center noted relatively low fire activity throughout the West in March, with snowpacks at 130 percent of normal and temperatures 3-10 degrees below average.

The key to the fire season remains how quickly snow melts from the high country. If temperatures rise and snow melts quickly, it extends the fire season.

However, weakening El Niño conditions in the eastern Pacific will most likely keep things cool and wet on into the summer, concluded the center’s forecasters.

The April 1 outlook from the center concluded, “In 2019, an average to cooler than average spring is expected, so melting rates should be near average which could result in a delayed fire season entry in areas that have abundant snowpack.”

Most of the western U.S. has now escaped drought, although Alaska and the forests along the Canadian border remain parched, compared to normal conditions.

The El Niño conditions that usually bring rainfall to the Southwest remain, but they’re fading. “Latest lookout data for the spring and early summer months suggests a higher probability for average to slightly cooler than average conditions across the West, warmer than average conditions in the East.”

The forecast calls for above-average rainfall in the West through July, when the monsoon should ride to the rescue. The forecast says it’s tough to predict the monsoon, but it will probably be slightly delayed this year.

So here’s the wildfire forecast for the next few months:

• “normal” to “below-normal” fire danger through June, with below-average temperatures and above-average rainfall.

• Some signs of a resurgent El Niño pattern could last into the mid-summer months, which probably points to continued low temperatures and increased rainfall.

• Mid to late spring could see moisture drawn into the Southwest for the areas west of the Continental Divide, resulting in below-normal fire danger.

• That same trend could result in more, early lightning storms in Arizona, which would increase the fire danger here in the mid to late spring.


An ambitious plan to transform Payson into an Old West Rodeo tourist destination

Imagine Main Street busy with people shopping, eating and enjoying a new western-themed town square.

Architect Bob Hershberger shared his vision for the square with the Main Street Merchants Guild last week. The message: Payson as Arizona’s Old West Rodeo Town, can be a vibrant tourist destination.

Hershberger, former dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Arizona, helped develop Tempe’s downtown Mill Avenue. He said they faced economic and infrastructure challenges not unlike Payson, albeit on a larger scale. Mill Avenue is now an economic driver for the city and continues to expand.

Hershberger believes Payson could offer something that no other town in Arizona can match.

He believes the town should capitalize on the fact that it is a western town, hosting Arizona’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo. He envisions transforming a section of Main Street into an Old Town Western Square.

The proposal, dependent upon acquiring three vacant lots on the south side of Main Street near McLane, would transform them into an Old Town Square similar to Prescott. It would be surrounded by attractions like an old-fashioned theater featuring western-themed melodramas and an adjoining western-themed bar, a variety of restaurants, bars, an ice cream parlor, coffee shop, fountains and a splash pad for kids. Small western shops would also be included.

Public parking would be added along the north side of the American Gulch park. The plan proposes linking the square to the Payson Event Center with stagecoach rides and other shuttle options.

There would be a streamside park running from Westerly to Green Valley Park.

There would be a recreational path for walking, horseback riding and bicycling and a play pond with a beach for kids. The American Gulch would be stocked with trout.

Hershberger said that Payson is missing out on the revenue that tourist buses bring. With the plan in place, he said Payson would be on the map for bus tours.

Hershberger has already shared his vision with Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey and reported Morrissey said, “It’s the difference between playing chess or checkers. Chess looks at many moves down the way, while checkers looks only at the next immediate move.”

Main Street has a long history of micro projects, yet has lacked a comprehensive vision with adequate funding sources and third party buy in.


Hershberger believes the project can be funded with a combination of grant and private sector funding.

Buses filled with tourists would bring a steady source of revenue on their way to Sedona, the Grand Canyon and parks in southern Utah. Payson would no longer be a financially challenged pass-through community, he said.

Besides the mayor and the Main Street Guild, Hershberger presented his idea to Councilor Jim Ferris and received positive feedback from all.

Minette Hart, guild president, said the group supports the vision, and hopes it moves forward. “That’s how these things begin. Sometimes dreams do come true,” she said.

Hershberger is working to present his idea at a council meeting.


Taking a global approach to Gila County’s Homeless

Gila County remains one of the worst places in the state to wind up homeless when it comes to getting help — or even getting counted.

Malissa Buzan wants to change that.

Buzan, from Gila County Community Services, will now head up Gila County’s effort to offer more help, after the county was criticized by several people for not doing enough for the homeless to qualify for federal funding.

Buzan said she wants to make Gila County Community Services a central clearing house for services, grants and information.

Buzan hopes to move beyond those perceptions by taking a global approach.

“We want to be a repository of information,” she said.

On April 18, Buzan has invited representatives from local behavioral health groups, local officials, law enforcement officers, support organizations and “anybody that would have had at least contact with the homeless” to a brainstorming meeting at Roosevelt Lake.

Buzan hopes to create a new oversight group and share information on the scope of the problem.

“There is already a statewide database,” she said, but Gila County hasn’t qualified for state and federal funds.

The state database lists the number, location and character of the state’s homeless population in a way that can track a population that’s constantly moving.

“They’re so unique. Each one is an individual in how they look at things,” said Buzan.

She blames cuts in mental health funding for many who live on the streets.

She told the story of an elderly homeless man who lives in Globe.

“There is a little guy who is near me. He looks like he’s 90 with a walker. He has a sign that says, ‘Please help veteran,’” said Buzan.

She often dropped a few dollars into his cup until one day, she saw someone dropping him off.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been giving you money — how come it looks like you live somewhere else?’” she said.

He admitted to living in an apartment nearby, but his fixed income only provides enough for him to pay rent.

She asked him to stop by the county’s Community Action Program Office.

“I told him, ‘We can pay your utilities once a year,’” she said.

He’s never come by.

Helping with utilities is just one way the county already provides services to the homeless and those struggling to keep from becoming homeless, but it hasn’t been enough to attract federal funds.

“We just don’t have the numbers to prove the need,” she said.

That’s not to say the county doesn’t actually have the numbers to qualify for funds, it just means the county doesn’t have the ability to document those numbers.

That severely restricts the county’s ability to qualify for federal funding.

“I can tell you that with the coalition that we are trying to build, it will give us extra points (for grants and funding),” she said.

The group can advocate for the homeless in rural areas.

It’s much easier for Maricopa County to justify receiving federal funds based on economy of scale.

“They say numbers don’t count — but they do count,” said Buzan. “When you have 700 homeless in these metropolitan areas ... it’s why Maricopa County didn’t have to write a grant.”

Once an oversight group wraps its arms around the extent of the problem, Buzan said the county can go after grants and federal money for continuum of care.

“That is another thing we can do as a coalition is to advocate for ourselves,” said Buzan. “I advocate for the rural, low-income communities. It is always a fight to get funding. It is always trying to get information to the newly elected officials.”

For questions or to find out about participating in the April 18 meeting, contact Malissa Buzan at or 928-402-8693.

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Town on target for financial goals

Between a sales tax increase and a growing economy, Payson’s pulling in more tax revenue, according to the town’s latest financial report.

But that doesn’t mean the town’s not strapped, said the town’s Chief Financial Officer Deborah Barber, in her February report summary.

The town continues to put most of the money from the increases into the financially shaky retirement plan for firefighters and police officers and bolstering the desperately thin reserves, she said.

“During the recession and slow recovery we experienced over the past 10 years, the reserves of the town were depleted in order to cover ongoing operating expenses. Now that we are back in a period of recovery (due in part to the .88 percent sales tax increase of 2017), it’s time to re-establish those financial reserves,” Barber said.

“Consequently, a primary focus of the current budget cycle is to continue to shore up the reserves, as well as address neglected capital needs. As you can see from the fund balances listed ... we are not yet in compliance with our financial policies. Although local sales tax revenue continues to come in just slightly over the current budget, it’s far too early to assume we have ‘extra funds,’” she wrote.

When you talk about the sales tax in Payson, you’re talking about 80 percent of what the town uses to cover its expenses — so staying on income estimate targets plays a critical role keeping the town’s doors open.

The February report offers some mixed signals on the direction of the local economy.

On one hand, the report shows continued strong growth in things like the sales tax and the buying cars. However, it also reveals a possible slowdown in the crucial construction sector as well as lower-than-expected revenues from the hotel bed tax.

Fortunately, town spending in the general fund continues below budget, helping to bolster the wafer-thin financial reserves.

Payson’s 15 percent growth in sales tax collections stands at about twice the 7 percent growth in state-shared sales tax revenue, distributed according to population.

This could mean Payson is doing much better than the state or it could mean that the .88 percent increase in its sales tax revenue made a significant difference to Payson’s bottom line.

Another good indicator — people are buying cars — probably about 12 percent more than last year, according to vehicle license tax revenue income.

Those added cars mean more gas sales and the revenue from the state’s Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) reflect that. HURF distribution went up by 6 percent.

Gila County also shares part of the sales tax it collects.

This year, Payson will receive $870,000, which it’s using to build and maintain roads — along with its share of the gas tax.

Either way, Payson has more money to work with and the economy looks to be swinging along.

However, the critical construction sector has stalled in Payson, according to the February report.

The building permit fees collected rose just 1 percent to this point in the fiscal year, while plan review fees actually dropped 7 percent.

So apparently building continues, but the number of projects in the pipeline has dwindled.

Does that reflect the impact of the wet winter on construction plans or are people building less?

The added revenue has allowed the town to add money to its reserves — an extra $1.1 million this year.

The town has so far put $300,000 into the Public Safety Retirement Fund and by the end of June will pay another $300,000.

• The town has also repaid its own water company $200,000 for a loan, leaving a balance of $600,000.

• The fire department added three new positions, including a fuels manager to reduce overtime overruns and address fuels management.

• The technology department replaced and upgraded numerous computers.

• The town also added $100,000 to its capital improvements fund.

• The town added $100,000 to its capital spending.

Overall, the town’s right on target when it comes to both revenue and spending, said Barber.

The sales tax figures show some trends from year to year.

Last year (fiscal year 2017-18), the town collected significantly more in sales tax than the year before, as Payson continued it’s painfully slow recovery from the distant recession.

But this year (fiscal 2018-19), the increase mostly leveled off. Much of the 15 percent increase in collections probably reflects the increase in the town’s sales tax rate, from 2.2 percent to 3 percent.

Collections have bounced around from month to month, compared to last year’s figures.

Starting in September, sales tax has dropped, then significantly increased, then dropped again the next month. October and December had great sales tax revenues, while September, November and January saw significant drops.

School mergers
Senate panel wants to force school district mergers

A bill that could force the Pine, Tonto Basin and Young elementary school districts to merge with Payson has passed out of a key Senate committee.

HB 2139 would by July of 2024 force the consolidation of some 200 elementary and high school districts statewide. It would require small counties like Gila County to contain no more than three school districts.

Right now, Gila County has eight school districts — including four in the north.

Bill sponsor Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, claims the state could save $500 million on duplications and administrative costs by consolidating the hundreds of small elementary and separate high school districts statewide — most of them in rural areas like Payson.

However, Gila County Superintendent of Schools Roy Sandoval said the bill is “a poorly researched, poorly conceived, coercive idea that strips parents and rural communities and parents of local control while promising big dollar savings without providing any real details.”

The measure must still win approval of the full Senate and the House of Representatives, plus a signature by the governor.

In previous years, two other efforts to force widespread school district mergers both ran into sustained opposition by rural schools and never made it through the Legislature.

Still, the measure could force sweeping changes if it passes.

Sandoval said the bill would likely result in the creation of a single school district in northern Gila County.

Currently, Young, Tonto Basin and Pine-Strawberry all have elementary school districts with 100 students or less. Graduates then transfer to Payson High School, since Payson has a 2,400-student, K-12 unified district.

The state’s formula gives small school districts an enormous financial boost, to compensate for economies of scale and higher overhead costs.

The small districts get some $24,000 to $28,000 per student in total funding, according to the Arizona auditor general’s annual report on school spending.

Payson gets more like $9,000 per student.

The small districts all have their own administrators, school board and administrative staff. Most also have much higher than normal costs for transportation and facilities.

The students also often get higher test scores, thanks in part to small classes, lots of teacher contact and higher average teacher salaries. Pine and Tonto Basin are both A-rated districts. Young and Payson are both B-rated.

Sandoval noted that in south county, the Globe, Miami, San Carlos and Winkelman districts would have to consolidate into one or perhaps two districts.

“If this were to pass, Payson, Pine, Tonto Basin and Young would be consolidated in the north,” said Sandoval. “The governing boards would be dissolved and one board would be formed. Presumably, there would be an election for the new ‘Northern Gila County School District.’ Since Payson is the population center, let’s assume the district office will be in Payson. Let’s also assume that because of that, it has the majority vote on the new board. Now let’s say you live in Tonto (35 minutes from Payson), Pine or Young (1 hour 20 minutes from Payson), if you have a problem or want to engage in what the district is doing, take part in the budget process or attend a governing board meeting, you must travel to Payson. You will have very little say in textbook adoption, curriculum adoption, district constituent committees, etc. In practical application, you have been cut out of having significant input. You have lost local control,” Sandoval concluded.

If adopted, HB 2139 could force the wholesale changes without so much as a vote.

Smaller counties could only have three districts, larger counties with five supervisors could only have seven districts. Maricopa County could have no more than 20.

The bill would provide extra money for up to three years for districts that provide their own plan. Otherwise, the state would impose the terms of the merger.

Fillmore said the measure will save an estimated $500 million out of the $7.8 billion spent by the state’s public school districts, according to an account by Capitol Media Services. Fillmore calculated the potential savings on his own.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the measure on a 6-3 vote. The measure would require districts to annually calculate the saving of a merger. It’s unclear whether the merged districts would lose all of the money they had previously collected from the small schools funding formula, which gives Pine three or four times as much money per student as Payson.

SB 2139 specifies that if the 200 non-unified districts don’t come up with a consolidation or merger plan by June 30, 2022, the county schools superintendent would have to come up with a plan which would be imposed “without an election.”

Fillmore told Capitol Times the plan is in part a response to voter demands that lawmakers increase funding for one of the worst-funded public school systems in the country.

“When people said to me that schools should have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money. What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely,” Fillmore told Capitol Media Services.

He said he would favor allocating 25 percent of the savings for teacher pay raises.

Previous state efforts to force the merger of the small, non-unified districts have floundered. In 2001, a Senate panel approved a bill to create an independent commission to consolidate the 200 districts into 90. That died without a Senate vote. In 2006, the Legislature created a School District Redistricting Commission designed to at least force voters in small districts to vote on a merger. That failed to produce any real results.

Sandoval said HB 2139 doesn’t consider the costs and benefits of mergers and urged voters to express their opposition.

“My advice is pick up your cell phone right now and call the following people to voice your opposition to HB 2139: Senators Sylvia Allen 602-926-5409, Paul Boyer 602-926-4173, and Kate McGee Brophy 602-926-4486,” said Sandoval.


Contributed photo  

Malissa Buzan, director of Gila County Community Services, is creating a group to tackle homeless issues in Gila County. The group will hold its first meeting April 18 at Roosevelt Lake.