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Health
Rattlesnake aversion training keeps dogs, handlers safe

If you’re not crazy about your job, imagine having to get up each morning and handle live rattlesnakes.

This is Cody Will’s life. He has used his passion for snakes to create a thriving business that keeps people and their pets safe.

Cody and his wife Kate Will recently came to the Humane Society of Central Arizona with three live rattlesnakes, a shed skin and audio equipment.

The Wills’ business, Rattlesnake Ready, LLC, teaches dogs to be aware of snakes at home and out on the trail — to know how they look, smell and sound.

All of the snakes the couple brought up were muzzled with surgical tape that Cody says does not harm the snakes. He has the unenviable task of applying and removing the masks on days they train — which from spring to fall is pretty much every day.

“It’s not something you can practice,” said Cody. “You have to get it right first time.”

Training the dogs was simple enough. They received a shock when they got too close to a snake, shed skin or rattle.

A single rattlesnake bite injects enough venom into a dog’s bloodstream that it can cause severe pain, swelling, asphyxiation and even death. A bite area is prone to infection and can lead to permanent internal or external scarring. It can take months for the dog to heal, veterinary experts say.

“A few minutes can be the difference between life and death or losing a limb,” said Cody. “Even for very large animals, just a few drops of snake venom can have a devastating systemic effect that may end up being lethal.”

Mojave rattlesnakes are unique in that their venom is both hemotoxic (destroys red blood cells, causes organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage), and neurologic (destroys nerve tissue, can cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles and suffocation).

Imagine a bite while out on the trail, far from a veterinarian. A dog will be lucky to survive the drive from Payson to the closest 24-hour emergency clinic in Mesa, experts say.

Even when the dog gets to the vet in time, it will need at least one vial of antivenin (maybe more) at $600 a vial plus veterinary fees including pain medications, fluids, antibiotics, blood tests and overnight stay.

Cody estimates the average vet bill for a rattlesnake bite is between $1,000 and $3,000 depending upon the time since the bite, the type of snake, size and condition of the dog.

Domestic dogs do not have an innate fear of rattlesnakes, he said. If they encounter one, they will often approach and sniff the snake.

Cody placed the three orange, ventilated and lockable snake buckets in the shade in the Humane Society’s exercise yard. He brought a juvenile Mojave rattlesnake, adult black-tailed rattlesnake and Arizona black rattlesnake — the most common types found in Tonto National Forest and surrounding areas.

“Arizona blacks are the most common in this region,” he said. “Diamondbacks in the Phoenix area.”

The dogs were brought in individually with their handlers.

Kate had a contract prepared for each client and fitted an e-collar to each dog.

Each training included exposing the dog to a juvenile snake, an adult snake, shed skin for smell, and recording of a juvenile and adult rattle.

Rattlesnakes often don’t rattle unless they perceive a threat and may not rattle at all before they strike.

“Despite what some people think,” said Cody, “these snakes are not aggressive, their rattles and strikes are defense mechanisms when they sense themselves in danger.”

Cody placed a juvenile rattlesnake on the ground and invited each dog handler to walk their dog past it. When a dog went in to investigate, he gave it a shock.

“Because no form of positive reinforcement training teaches the dogs the true danger of rattlesnakes both quickly and effectively,” said Cody, “electronic training (shock) collars are used to simulate a rattlesnake bite; causing momentary discomfort. This safe, quick jolt takes the place of the actual rattlesnake bite and communicates to the dog that a rattlesnake equals danger.”

Unlike trainers who specialize primarily in snakes, Cody has extensive training and experience in both snake and dog behavior.

Cody trains a dog to recognize a snake’s rattle by playing a recording, first hidden underneath brush or behind a bush. The moment a dog is near the speaker, he plays the sound and the e-collar jolts.

The last step in training involves placing a live snake near the speaker.

Often a dog makes the connection between a snake and a shock the first time, he said. If the dog still shows curiosity toward the skin, rattle, or live snake, a reminder is given.

The training is quick and effective and does not harm the dog or the snake.

Rattlesnake Ready plans to return to Payson next year.

If you missed the recent training, organized by the Humane Society of Central Arizona and P.A.W.S., they train year-round in the Phoenix area.

For more information, visit www.rattlesnakeready.com.


Local
featured
4fri
Crucial forest restoration effort hits the reset button – again

Back into the breech, dear friends.

The most ambitious, problematic, disappointing, hopeful forest restoration effort in human history has just hit the reset button.

Again.

It would be almost funny if the long-term survival of the forests of northern Arizona and every community in that forest didn’t hang in the balance.

Newly appointed head of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) Jeremy Kruger struck an optimistic note about the future of a forest thinning and restoration project that remains nearly a decade behind schedule at a recent meeting in Phoenix focused on the restoration of native trout in the Southwest.

“We’re very optimistic,” he said. “Nobody wants to see 4FRI fail. Everyone wants to see this effort succeed. It’s been going on for a decade and will continue for many more years.”

Joe Miller, with Payson Flycasters and one of the key stakeholders in the 4FRI effort, also did his best to look on the bright side. He pointed out that 4FRI aims to restore some 4,000 miles of endangered and degraded streams by thinning the thickets of trees that have not only dramatically increased stream-smothering crown fires, but have sucked up water that used to feed those streams.

He said the Forest Service has pioneered a streamlined environmental review process that will soon have cleared a million acres for thinning. The approach relies on coming up with an overall design for the forest that can be quickly applied to individual thinning projects — including an innovative “toolkit” of options to restore streams.

“This will hopefully ease some of the burden of doing the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) work for some of these projects,” said Miller. “This is new and part of the broad effort by the U.S. Forest Service to be able to move faster, with greater precision and flexibility on some of these projects.”

Sounds good. Except the succession of contractors selected to undertake those projects by the Forest Service has in the eight years only cleared about 15,000 acres. The original plan called for the contractors to thin and restore 50,000 acres annually — which should have added up to 400,000 acres by now.

In the meantime, yet another company now owns the contract to thin the first 300,000 acres of a project that could eventually encompass millions of acres in northern Arizona. Ponderosa pine forests from the Grand Canyon to Alpine once harbored perhaps 50 trees per acre. After a century of logging, ranching and fire suppression, tree densities now average more like 500 to 1,000 per acre. This has not only led to a sickly, beetle-plagued forest, it threatens crown fires like the one last summer that destroyed Paradise, Calif., killing 86 people.

The 4FRI effort represents the only program on the horizon likely to prevent a runaway crown fire from eventually consuming communities like Payson and Show Low.

Washington-state-based logger Tom Loushin and his former logging company have completed a merger with Good Earth Power, which has held the primary 4FRI contract since 2013. The company has thinned perhaps 15,000 acres in that time, although the contract calls for a pace of 50,000 acres annually.

Loushin has spent 40 years in the logging business in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The Forest Service hopes he’ll bring the hands-on industry experience previous contractors have lacked. Preliminary plans include following through on Good Earth’s long touted, long-delayed plan to build a lumber mill in Williams that can turn a profit on milling the millions of small trees that now plague forest managers.

The 4FRI contract on the initial 300,000 acres was originally awarded to Pioneer Forest Products in 2012, but that company sold the contract after a year to Good Earth – controlled by a group of investors from the Middle East with extensive logging experience. Early plans to turn the saplings and logging slash into jet fuel never panned out.

The new contract holders say they have plenty of markets for lumber and products made from trees 12 to 18 inches in diameter, but still must figure out what to do with the millions of tons of biomass produced by restoration and thinning projects. Biomass represents about half of the material removed in a thinning project, which leaves most of the trees larger than 18 inches in diameter behind.

One hopeful shift stems from the Arizona Corporation Commission’s proposal to require Arizona utilities to generate perhaps 90 megawatts of power annually from burning forest biomass.

Arizona Public Service recently completed a study on generating electricity from burning biomass that concluded the chief obstacle remains ensuring a steady, 20-year supply of saplings and wood scraps from perhaps 61,000 acres per year, which would generate 28 million tons of biomass annually. Since burning biomass would cost more than adding natural gas powered plants, the cost would add between $1.54 and $4.13 per month to the average homeowners bills.

However, that cost doesn’t include the benefits of averting megafires. Last summer and fall, megafires in California not only killed 86 people they destroyed 19,000 homes and businesses and cost $12 billion. The Forest Service spends $3-$4 billion annually just fighting wildfires – a roughly 10-fold increase in the past decade.

The Black & Vetch study wrestled with the cost of processing the millions of tons of biomass without a huge taxpayer subsidy. Much of the debate about an ACC requirement that power companies burn biomass has focused on an APS proposal to convert Cholla from coal to biomass.

However, the Black & Vetch study suggested the most economical approach may involve building new, smaller biomass power plants in Payson or Winona, to cut transportation costs for the bulky, low-value biomass to the power plant.

In the meantime, the new 4FRI head will try to get the project moving again – with the help of the unusual coalition of loggers, environmental groups, foresters and local officials that has driven 4FRI. The stakeholders ended decades of stalemate and lawsuits when they agreed to focus on creating a regional timber industry focused on making a profit on the millions of small trees and massive amount of biomass clogging and endangering the region’s forests.

Kruger, a former hotshot firefighter, said “the goal is to restore the structure, pattern and health of the region’s forests, while reducing fuels and the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

He added, “The sense of urgency is palatable,” he said. “The partnerships and list of stakeholders is as broad as anything I’ve ever seen in the U.S. I worked the Wallow Fire and the Whitewater-Baldy fires. They’re a stark reminder of what’s at stake. The urgency couldn’t be clearer.”

Miller said the new approach to environmental analysis and the willingness to involve a wide array of groups like Trout Unlimited give him hope. “We’re going to see another draft environmental impact statement this summer – and it’ll be thick. But there are already a lot of local projects throughout Rim Country and the White Mountains” to restore riparian areas. “There’s a lot going on across the forest landscape.”


Local
Payson Council quietly kills fire merger

The Payson Town Council last week voted against merging the Payson, Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire departments.

Officials negotiated the merger for two years, which won overwhelming support from firefighters. The departments spent thousands on a consultant, which concluded a merger would save money, not require a tax increase and improve services. Fire chiefs from throughout the region showed up at study sessions to detail their experience and support the merger.

But none of that convinced a council majority.

“I feel it is a bad deal for Payson,” said Mayor Tom Morrissey.

“At this point I’m not 100 percent sure I could support it,” said Councilor Barbara Underwood.

“I just don’t feel it’s best for Payson as a whole,” said Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian.

“I have mixed feelings because I know there is so much more involved with it,” said Vice Mayor Janell Sterner.

“I think that, as fellow council members, that at this time, I think it is better to kind of keep the Payson Fire Department as it is under the Town of Payson, but to definitely be open to and looking at ways that we can continue to expand the partnerships with Hellsgate and even other fire districts that are out there,” said Councilor Chris Higgins.

Councilor Jim Ferris moved to kill the merger.

Councilor Steve Smith, who attended the meeting telephonically, removed himself from the meeting as the fire merger came up for discussion and vote.

The joint power authority would have been the first merger involving a town fire department and a fire district in the state. The two have different revenue streams. Property taxes fund the Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire districts, while sales taxes fund the Payson Fire Department. A point Morrissey made.

“Our tax base is different and creates an inequity for the Town of Payson,” he said.

The leadership of the new entity would have required the Payson council to share control with two board members from the Hellsgate fire board and one from the Houston Mesa fire board. Payson would have had three members on the board.

That wasn’t enough for Morrissey.

“I can better get done what needs to be done if the control and power to do so is not removed from this council,” he said.

Morrissey also objected to creating a new governmental entity.

“Adding another layer of government is, I think, one of the worst things we could do,” he said.

Yet when Morrissey suggested the fire merger was “a bad method” to solve the issues the fire department faces, Payson Fire Chief David Staub had to say something.

“I don’t think we really disagree on the methods,” he said, “and I will take John (Wisner, chief of Hellsgate) and I back to our original discussion we had and we originally brought to the council — there were several possibilities listed,” he said. “Frankly, from our perspective, this had the least political issues.”

Underwood suggested Hellsgate consider the arrangement the Houston Mesa Fire Department now has with Payson.

“If the council chooses not to go forward that would be the way to do a little ... it would give us a start to see what it would be like,” she said.

After the meeting, Staub explained Payson has a contract for service with Houston Mesa.

“Payson provides fire protection for Houston Mesa,” he said. “We took over operations and we hired all staff as reserves.”

The Houston Mesa fire board still pays insurance on its building and equipment, but Payson maintains the equipment.

Staub said this conversation isn’t over.

Fire districts around the state struggle for funding because of Proposition 117 taxing limits on the property tax.

Payson relies on Hellsgate to safely respond to major incidents, including even house fires. Therefore, if Hellsgate again suffers big problems during a recession due to a decline in property values it would directly affect Payson’s ability to handle major incidents.

“We’ve gotten really close through all of this, so I told Chief Wisner, ‘Let’s lick our wounds, complete our budgets and get through the summer then come back to the table,’” said Staub.

Contact mnelson@payson.com


Local
Payson council raises staff salaries for the second year in a row

The Payson Town Council approved $556,689 worth of pay raises for town staff at its May 7 meeting, but the actual hit on the budget will be much less.

“Because we tightened up every area of the budget this year, including reducing overtime and other personnel costs, the total proposed operating budget for 2019/20 is approximately $71,000 over the 2018/19 budget, including the pay increases,” said Deborah Barber, the town’s chief financial officer.

The council accepted the recommendations of consultant Igor Shegolev of HR Knows, which included giving everyone a raise of at least a 40 cents an hour. The study suggested changes in the salary schedule that produced additional raises ranging from as little as $.02 an hour to as high as $8.41 an hour.

Most employees will get a roughly 5 percent raise, but the study generally recommended larger raises at the lower end of the salary schedule.

The town has 164 full- and part-time employees. Their salaries and benefits account for roughly 70 percent of the town’s $20 million general fund budget — or $27 million if you include the water department. About 85 percent of the town’s revenue comes from sales tax.

Barber assured the council the town’s budget could absorb the pay increases. The town’s revenues from the mainstay sales tax has increased by about $3 million this year as a result of an increase in the tax rate.

The compensation study did not provide staff turnover rates to support the need for pay raises. The town had not responded to a Roundup request for turnover rates as of press time.

However, town department heads supported the salary study recommendations, especially for workers at the lower end of the pay scale.

Breaking it down

Street Operations Manager Tim Riden broke down an employee’s pay stub to illustrate the struggles his employees at the bottom of the pay scale face.

“Right now, if I hire a new, green employee, the starting wage is $12.73 an hour. The average person we are hiring is about 24 years old, married, has two kids,” he said.

For two weeks of work, this employee’s paycheck would come to $1,018, net.

Out of that comes $42 in federal taxes; Social Security, $73; state tax, $25; Arizona State Retirement, $152; health insurance, $149; dental, $15; and vision, $6.

“He’s got $562 to take home,” said Riden. “He hasn’t made it to the grocery store yet to buy diapers and groceries.”

More frustrating to Rider, during the first six months of that employee’s job, that employee would get a commercial driver’s license with a tanker endorsement; learn about basic materials; how to operate heavy equipment; have carpentry, concrete and asphalt skills, and “whatever else is required of the streets department,” said Riden.

All of which makes this employee attractive to a private construction company that pays $19 per hour plus benefits.

“Do you think he will stay at the Town of Payson or go to the Davis Bacon (construction company) job?” said Riden.

Supervisor of Parks Nelson Beck said the labor market has changed so much he struggles to find people.

“Fifteen years ago when I put out a recruitment for one parks maintenance position I would have between 80 and 100 applicants,” he said. “I’ve had to hire six people in the last 18 months and I am lucky to get 12 (applications).”

Councilor Chris Higgins praised the HR Knows study for providing a road map to straighten out “past ills.”

Higgins referred to the almost 10 years town staff went without a raise. The council voted last year to give a 2 percent cost of living plus a 3 percent merit raise to employees, an almost across the board 5 percent raise. Only three employees did not receive the full merit raise.

“I believe last year was an attempt and it was a correction in some salaries and wages that needed to be adjusted,” said Higgins. “Where we didn’t have the data we have now, the compensation study ... is a much more strategic plan.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the recommendations for staff raises.

Contact the reporter at

mnelson@payson.com


Business
Housing industry enjoying upswing

The Rim Country housing industry is enjoying an upswing.

There are new developments going up in both Payson and Pine.

One of the newest developments is Sanctuary at the Rim from Haven Construction and Wendy Larchick — At The Rim Team/Keller Williams Arizona Realty.

It includes 43 lots, with 10 available now. There are four floor plans and seven elevations offered. The homes range in size from 1,276 to 1,967 square feet. The development is next to The Rim Club, just off Rim Club Parkway.

Woodshire at Elk Rim

Up in Pine, there are 18 lots for sale at the Woodshire at Elk Rim. From Woodshire Realty and Brookshire Communities, 10 floor plans are offered, ranging in size from 1,020 square feet for a single story home to 2,063 square feet for a home with a loft. The lots are about 6,000 square feet and the development is on approximately four acres. It is located in The Portals area of Pine.

Elk Rim was the first to break a 10-year development drought in the unincorporated areas of Gila County when it was approved in 2018.

It took about a year for the project to get through the county’s planning and zoning process and win approval from the Board of Supervisors.

As of April 2019, seven of the 18 lots are sold and construction has started on three of them, with permits approved for work on the others, according to Rick Vesci, broker for Woodshire Realty and one of the principals in the development.

Sanctuary at the Rim

Gilbert-based Haven Construction has a long history in the construction and development industry. It is family owned and operated. The Jobe brothers are fifth generation Arizonans.

Larchick said she met Justin Jobe, one of the principals of Haven Construction, when he was interviewing agents to represent him in Payson.

“He and I just clicked — we had a lot of the same core values, such as customers first, a sense of urgency in response time to clients and providing the highest level of service and product,” Larchick said.

Haven Construction is building all the homes and is the seller. Larchick and her At the Rim Team represent the developer and many times the buyer.

“We will work with both parties to do our best to ensure that home selections are made early and the construction process goes smoothly,” she said.

Larchick explained the reason they are releasing the 43 lots in phases, with 10 lots initially.

“This allows them to build 10, then move forward in a mindful manner of what floor plans and features buyers are looking for and also to build value,” she said.

She expects the home to go up fast.

“The timeframe is 90 to 120 days. I think the first homes being built is going to be done right around 90 days. That is fast,” she said. “Haven Construction is such a professional organization. They manage the time of the crews and make sure that the construction of each home is moving forward while at the same time overseeing and making sure that everything is being done properly and the quality they are known for is there.”

Development’s history

Ray Pugel has worked in the Rim Country real estate industry for more than 20 years. He has seen the market go through quite a few cycles.

He said the industry has matured to where builders are starting to shoehorn construction into wherever it will fit because there are fewer easily buildable lots available in Rim Country.

While things seem to be picking up on the residential side, Pugel said the commercial side is stagnant.

“There are a lot of commercial vacancies and rents have not appreciated as they should have.”

With rents stable, landlords can’t reinvest in their property to maintain or modernize it, he said.

There are no new commercial projects proposed and he points to the demographics.

“We’re not big enough to attract large new businesses.”

On affordable housing, Pugel said there needs to be a firm definition of what is affordable and a way to make new construction affordable. He said impact fees make it difficult to keep new builds affordable — both residential and commercial.

“The formula the sanitary district uses to determine impact fees has killed many ventures,” he said.

Pugel thinks multi-family housing projects would help address the need for affordable housing — keeping construction costs low enough to allow occupancy at a lower price point. He said the Pine Creek Cabins in Pine provide affordable housing for some.

“There are some older, single women there who like it because it makes them feel safe and there isn’t so much house to take care of.”

The park models are also popular with seasonal residents who don’t want to spend the going rate for homes on a second residence.

“They can sit outside and enjoy the weather and visit the community’s restaurants.”

Pugel said he has no plans to move forward with Rimside Village, another park model development in Pine. The Roundup incorrectly reported several weeks ago that it appeared steps had been taken earlier this year to move the project forward.

“The project was rejected by the Gila County Board of Supervisors and there are no plans to proceed with further rezoning. The land is currently zoned R-3, which will not allow park models,” he said.

However, there will always be a need for second homes in the area, Pugel said.

“The market will always have ups and downs,” he said. “Buying used to be more seasonal than it is now. Now it’s year-round.”

Pugel shared some real estate statistics that show this trend.

Payson-Star Valley

The average list price of homes in Payson and Star Valley in 2013 was $203,879. By 2018, it had jumped to $498,307.

The average sales price was $193,242 in 2013 and $296,354 in 2018. The number of residential sales has steadily increased — 481 homes sold in 2013 to 782 sold in 2018. The time on the market in 2013 was an average of 152 days; last year, it was 118 days.

Pine-Strawberry

Pine and Strawberry were essentially even with Payson and Star Valley. In 2013 the average list price was $202,782, average sales price was $193,103 and the average time on market was 137 days. In 2018 the average list price was $347,882, the average sales price was $268,403 and time on the market was 99 days.

Housing sales in Pine and Strawberry are substantially less than in the Payson and Star Valley areas — 173 were sold in 2013 and 176 were sold in 2018.