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Unrest in Payson over recall effort

Recall supporters say they have enough signatures to recall Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey, but don’t yet have enough signatures to force three other council members into a recall election.

The Unite Payson recall group said they have collected 974 signatures, but needed only 770 to recall Morrissey. The group turned 89 pages of signatures into the town clerk Tuesday.

Stan Garner, who is heading up the recall effort, said it amazes him that volunteers collected that many signatures by the end of August after starting Aug. 15.

“I couldn’t believe we got that many in just 17 days,” he said. “That is a lot of signatures every day if you think about it. We had a small army of volunteers collecting.”

The recall group initially set a target of collecting signatures by the end of August so there could be a special election held in November, but Garner believes that is unlikely. He said given the time it will take officials to verify the signatures and then allotted campaign time, a special election will most likely occur in March. Under state law, a town can hold a special election outside of a primary/general in November, March, May or August/September.

If the town and the county elections office verify the signatures in the next 60 business days, Morrissey can either resign or take part in the recall election.

Garner said they have gathered more than 900 signatures for Jim Ferris, Janell Sterner and Suzy Tubbs-Avakian, the three council members they are hoping to recall. They need 1,653 for each council member to face a recall, but Garner said their goal is 2,000 signatures for each so they have enough “padding” if any of the signatures are thrown out.

The recall group has until Dec. 10 to gather enough signatures to force a special election in March.

Garner said they are keeping the recall office, in the Swiss Village Shopping Center, open at least another month to collect signatures.

He said most residents who visit the office are for the recall, but they have had a few protesters.

“We don’t dissuade anyone from coming in,” he said. “We give people the facts.”

He said many residents have come in for more information about the recall. He said volunteers tell residents to go home and watch the recent council meetings and decide for themselves if Morrissey and the three councilors should face recall. He said most return and sign the petition after watching the videos, which are posted on the Unite Payson Facebook page.

“Those videos will answer all your questions,” he said.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric swirling around the recall effort has taken a turn, with the wide circulation of a flier. The flier states the three council members not facing recall voted against God, put taxpayers at risk in supporting a $43 million prep school project and are trying to bring Chinese and Canadian immigrant students to town to claim taxpayer-funded benefits.

One recall opponent passed out the flier at the recall office in the Swiss Village, initially refusing requests to leave over the holiday weekend. He ultimately left after signature gatherers took his photo, said recall supporters.

When asked about the flier, Morrissey said, “I have nothing to do with this flier,” adding, “I do not approve.”

Councilor Tubbs-Avakian said she had, “never seen this before. I don’t know anything about this. How would I know for certain it’s from my supporters?”

The flier said the “The Recall Pack” is made up of “three councilmen who mocked God and voted to remove God from all Payson council meetings.”

This is apparently a reference to a June 13 meeting when a question about putting Bible quotes in proclamations prompted Councilor Steve Smith to ask if that would offend those who do not practice the Christian faith.

Smith said it appears whoever passed out the flier was hoping it would upset the signature gathering effort.

“I understand it turned out to be the exact opposite — 25 percent of the signatures were gathered in the final four days,” he said.

Smith said he found the flier’s attack on immigrants “appalling.”

The flier accuses the three of voting for “a facility to house 500 Chinese and Canadian immigrant students with a $43 million mortgage placed on and guaranteed by the Payson taxpayers.”

This is an apparent reference to the effort to build a 500-student prep school in Payson. The previous council explored a partnership with the prep school to upgrade recreational facilities in Rumsey Park, but dropped the plan after voters approved a ballot measure that would have required voter approval of any long-term partnership.

However, the Rim Country Educational Foundation (established by the MHA Foundation) revived the plan in March. The Foundation wants to build a community center, year-round pool and the private sports academy on its property between Highway 260, Mud Springs Road and Tyler Parkway. The Roundup reported the MHA Foundation planned to partner with Community Center Partners to build a $43 million campus financed “from private sources, secured by revenue generated by the facilities.” (MHA Foundation announces plan for prep school — Payson Roundup, March 15, 2019)

Councilor Chris Higgins said he was offended that the flier suggested he and the other council members were not good Christians.

The flier said, “We say, stand with God. Stand with town mayor Tom Morrissey.”

“That is inappropriate and in poor taste ... To me it means, that person is implying who you support politically determines whether you believe in God ... it’s wrong. It’s not right,” said Higgins.

The flier said, “The new town council members represent Payson taxpayers and common sense growth. The taxpayers do not endorse Chinese and other immigrants who get free water, free sewer hookup and other taxpayer funded freebies.”

The Rim Country Educational Foundation has asked the town whether it wants to contribute to the community center, swim center and playing fields to ensure residents can use the facilities at a discounted rate, but has not asked for taxpayer money to fund building the sports academy.

The flier ended with, “Once again, the three complaining council members, who are bought and paid for, are fooling themselves if they think the Payson taxpayers don’t know what they are up to. Stand with God. Stand with Mayor Morrissey. Stand with Payson taxpayers.”

Recall volunteers said they didn’t call the police to remove the man who showed up with fliers because they “don’t want to create more problems at city hall than they’re already dealing with.”

Alexis Bechman contributed to this article.

Teen rescued off Young Road

A Valley teen was rescued from a canyon near Young Saturday after reportedly getting trapped under a tree, rescuers report.

18-year-old Trent was camping over the Labor Day holiday weekend off the Young Road on Forest Road 109 with three friends. The group had gone out on a long hike, ultimately winding up at the bottom of a ravine Saturday afternoon, said Bill Pitterle, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue commander.

“This was his is first trip out into the woods with his friends,” said Alicia Keller, with TRSAR, who took photos of the rescue. “He told me that his mother wasn’t happy about him going with his friends, but he told his mom, “I’ll be fine.” Well ... he had quite the adventure for his first time out.”

Trent and his friends were reportedly hiking out of the canyon and walking along the side of a large fallen ponderosa pine tree that was lying in sand. Trent fell and got lodged under the tree “chest deep” in the sand, said Cole LaBonte with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

Trent’s friends tried to pull him out, but could not move him. While one of his friends stayed with him, the other two hiked out to get help.

“It took them several hours to hike out and when they got back to camp, there was no cell service,” LaBonte said.

Luckily, two Arizona Game and Fish Department officers were in the area and Trent’s friends flagged them down for help.

Game and Fish officers hiked down to Trent and radioed that he may have broken his leg. They requested TRSAR to help get Trent freed and a DPS Ranger helicopter to fly him out.

TRSAR sent 15 volunteers along with rope rescue gear. Pitterle estimates it would have taken them 40 minutes to hike in and then additional time to rig a system to pull Trent out.

At the same time, the Arizona Department of Public Safety sent a helicopter.

Game and Fish officers and Trent’s friends were able to dig Trent out while TRSAR was en route.

DPS then airlifted Trent out to safety before TRSAR sent crews in, he said.

Although bruised and dehydrated, Trent did not require additional medical care, LaBonte said.

“He just had a wild first time in the woods,” he said.

Water WheelAs crews worked to get Trent out, dispatchers notified rescuers that a man had dislocated his knee in the Water Wheel area.

The Water Wheel Fire and Medical District had reportedly sent firefighters in, but had requested resources to help move him out, Pitterle said.

Pitterle, working with poor cell service off the Young Road, was able to get six additional TRSAR volunteers to respond with the group’s second litter and wheel, which was located in storage in Strawberry.

As that group worked to get supplies together, DPS was also getting ready to send the helicopter from the Young Road mission over to help. However, firefighters reportedly carried the injured man out and both TRSAR and DPS were called off, he said.


MHA Foundation: Lots of moving parts

The offer from Rim Country Educational Foundation to partner with the town to run a community center has some town elected officials uneasy.

“I’m asking for transparency,” said Mayor Tom Morrissey during an Aug. 29 appearance on the Rim Country Forum radio show. “If you have total transparency and integrity and you have a level playing field, that takes care of 90 percent of the problems and the concerns of the people of this town.”

Morrissey and Councilor Jim Ferris, during his own radio appearance, have had questions about the three key organizations. The lineup includes:

  • The MHA Foundation, with some $40 million raised from the merger of the Payson Regional Medical Center with Banner Health Systems in 2014.
  • The Rim Country Educational Foundation, which is the higher educational arm of the organization and which has spent some $14 million that came mostly from the MHA Foundation on the university project.
  • The Rim Country Educational Alliance separate legal entity (SLE), which governs the 253-acre property bought for university and educational facilities, which could now also accommodate a site for the community center, parks, an aquatic center, a prep school and an ice arena.

Backers of the MHA Foundation say the group has already spent millions on community projects and is now offering Payson a way to build a community center, park and year-round aquatics center. The town doesn’t have the money to undertake the projects on its own, but by helping cover the operating costs, the town could secure the benefits, say MHA Foundation officials.

However, the complexity of the MHA Foundation’s structure, which oversees a slew of different projects and charities, has left some council members leery of the arrangement.

So MHA Foundation President Kenny Evans sat down with the Roundup to thread together the various entities and their histories.

“It all started in 1954,” he said.

In that year, a group of Payson mothers banded together to raise money for a medical clinic in town after the only doctor retired. The group raised enough to set up a medical clinic in 1957. Fundraising drives ultimately helped build the Payson Regional Medical Center in the 1990s, which was owned for years by a group of doctors.

When the hospital ran into financial troubles, the Mogollon Health Alliance paid off some $15 million in debts the owners had accumulated and assumed ownership of the hospital. The Mogollon Health Alliance brought in a national hospital chain to run the hospital.

That worked well until 2014, when Banner Health acquired the hospital, merging with and absorbing the Mogollon Health Alliance in the deal.

Backers set up the MHA Foundation to take over the non-hospital assets and manage the roughly $40 million paid by Banner when it took over the hospital. The merger agreement required the merged nonprofit to invest tens of millions back into health care in Rim Country. The MHA Foundation says it is dedicated to supporting the health and education of Rim Country.

But what does that involve?

For years, Rim Country had dreamed of building a university campus. Realtors from the 1990s remember telling homebuyers, “A university is coming!”

But no university came.

So the MHA Foundation decided to chase that dream.

They had identified a piece of Forest Service property between Mud Springs Road, Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway. After years of negotiations, the towns of Payson and Star Valley created a separate legal entity to purchase and develop the land for health and education purposes.

The formation of the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE made it possible for the Forest Service to sell the land based on an appraisal, rather than through competitive bids. Investors could also reap important tax advantages due to the creation of the SLE. Finally, the SLE protected Payson from any liability in case the project failed.

“At that point in time, if we didn’t have the SLE, they would have said, ‘Thank you we’re going to go out on open bid,” said Evans. “We needed a structure to do that.”

So Payson and Star Valley created the SLE, which could then partner with the MHA Foundation to develop the property for a university and health and educational purposes.

Gila County was also asked to participate, but “the southern Gila County contingent said, ‘What do we get out of it?’ which ended discussions,” said Evans. “(But) we never terminated those discussions, we just moved on and started conversations between Payson and Star Valley.”

The Mogollon Health Alliance needed another entity to raise money and pay for studies and plans for the property since their purpose was only health care at that time. So community members who were backing the university in Payson formed a community committee — the Rim Country Educational Foundation (RCEF).

After the MHA Foundation was formed in 2014, it assumed the committee’s functions and created RCEF, LLC.

RCEF now raises money to promote higher education and development of the health and educational facility property. It has also signed the checks for the roughly $14 million invested in the development of the 253-acre university site. The money has come mostly from the MHA Foundation, which invested the money it got from Banner. Investment gains have covered most of the costs incurred so far, said MHA Foundation officials.

With RCEF handling the university project, the community committee members set out to find a way to increase the number and lower the costs for Payson students to go to college. That effort evolved into the Aspire Arizona Foundation, which raises money to cover the tuition for dual-enrollment community college classes for Payson High School students. This provides a path for students to graduate with both a high school diploma and associate degree at the same time.

Payson and Star Valley each appoint members to the Alliance (SLE) board. However, Payson and Star Valley both have to choose their representative from a list approved by the private equity firm supplying the funding for the project, which now is the MHA Foundation.

Morrissey said he’s wary of partnering with some other entity to build a community center and other facilities. He also opposed an earlier proposal for the town to partner with backers of a sports academy boarding school, which wanted to develop a community center, swim center and ice rinks in Rumsey Park.

“I want a community center, of course I do — and I want a year-round pool, of course I do,” said Morrissey. “That’s the ends, though, let’s examine the means — how we get there? If we’re contributing to an entity we don’t own, that’s not under the auspices of the town — OK, well, there’s just so much we have to say about it. As opposed to we go to an entity that we own or we have a lot to say about, which is way better.”

Morrissey also has concerns about the limits of Propositions 401 and 402, which he strongly supported as a way to require a vote before the town partnered with any other group to build major projects.

“They prevent us from committing to anything longer than three years,” he said. “That could bring complications to what I have heard so far regarding an agreement.”

MHA Foundation officials say their main goal is to provide a range of recreation facilities and services to the community, with minimal cost to the town and no need for taxpayer-supported bond issues. However, they say they’ll move forward with a plan to build ballfields and other facilities even if the town decides not to partner.

Contact the reporter at

A windy Labor Day

It’s rare, but not unheard of — a September monsoon storm.

Payson residents and visitors experienced such a surprise Labor Day weekend when a microburst opened up overhead and brought tree-breaking winds, rain and a long, hard hailstorm.

A 65- to 70-foot tree at George Henry’s Plumbing Heating & Cooling splintered and damaged the roof of the business and the neighboring Comfort Inn. Taylor Goss at George Henry’s said they had talked about taking the tree down a couple of months ago. Bob Lee & Sons Tree Service removed the fallen tree. The company was called to handle quite a number of smaller trees knocked over and limbs broken by the storm, said a representative.

Fortunately, no one was injured at the site, or elsewhere, according to a Payson Fire Department battalion chief.

The fire official said the PFD responded to about 25 emergency calls from the microburst, starting around 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 1, mostly about trees and power lines down. He said the most critical incident was with a tree blown down into an unoccupied home. Reviewing the incident reports, most calls came from the Payson Ranchos area on the northwest side of the community.

Drivers cited for running lights, blocking intersections

While traffic still backed up for miles over the Labor Day holiday weekend, police managed to keep the major intersections clear thanks to increased patrols.

The Payson Police Department had received numerous complaints in recent weeks about drivers blocking the intersections along State Routes 87 and 260 and subsequent delays due to backed up traffic.

“Due to the expected high volume of traffic, we put out extra patrols to address these complaints,” said Payson Police Chief Ron Tischer. “The officers made over 100 traffic stops (59 of those stops occurred on Monday). The stops were for drivers going through red lights and drivers blocking the intersection.”

Police issued several citations and many warnings. Tischer said their goal was to keep traffic moving and make the drive through Payson as safe as possible.

“Drivers that block the intersection end up causing significant delays due to the obstructing of the cross traffic lands,” he said.

The Payson Police Department will continue to put out traffic details when there is an anticipated heavy volume of traffic. Typically, traffic volume decreases after Labor Day weekend and through the fall and winter months until Memorial Day.

Officials have considered a southeast bypass as far back as 1999. The idea is typically met with opposition from local merchants who fear the bypass would create a revenue vacuum for their businesses.

Local residents attempting to cross town on busy holiday weekends say it can’t come soon enough.

There are no plans to create a bypass at this time.

“The police department appreciates the drivers from out of town that patronize our local businesses and enjoy time in Payson,” Tischer said. “However, the police department will continue to ensure that traffic laws are being followed and accidents are hopefully kept to a minimum.”