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Firefighters for the fire merger – town council not so much

Firefighters crowded the Payson Town Council chambers Tuesday, Jan. 8 to show their approval for an agreement that would merge Payson, Houston Mesa and Hellsgate fire departments.

“Hellsgate firefighters are in favor. I can say that with full confidence,” said John Wisner, chief of Hellsgate Fire.

Both Wisner and Payson Fire Chief David Staub are also in favor of creating the Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority — a name chosen by firefighters for the new fire department.

“We are not silos, we are interconnected,” Staub said. “We deploy like a single entity, but we run with different chiefs.”

The chiefs argued joint training and operations would make firefighting both safer and more effective.

“We play in the same sandbox, but we all have our own set of rules,” said Hellsgate Fire Captain Rick Heron, who is also president of the local firefighters union.

“We’ve had chiefs in the past that didn’t play in the sandbox as well as some other chiefs did. What happened? I had firefighters going to fires, only showing up with nine people. I was listening on the radio for working jobs and because of personality issues — over chiefs — my engine wasn’t going and so those guys were left in the lurch. There were 14 people that we needed and you’re sitting here listening to this? Do you know how scary that is?”

However, the Payson Town Council appeared mostly skeptical of the proposal, peppering the chiefs with probing questions focused on finances. They will vote on the issue Jan. 24.

They concentrated on a financial analysis completed by The James Vincent Group, a consulting firm.

Based on past performance, the analysis concluded the merger would have no net financial impact on Payson, said Melissa Tomlinson, a representative from the firm. Combining the departments would not increase costs, but might result in savings, the analysis concluded.

The analysis projected a 4 percent annual increase in revenue, due to increases in sales taxes in Payson and property taxes in Hellsgate’s service area.

This would more than cover a projected 4 percent growth in personnel costs and a 2.5 percent increase for other operational and administrative expenses incurred by the fire authority.

Overall, the analysis found 80 percent of the future fire authority’s budget would go toward personnel.

The consulting firm found the fire authority, formed under a joint powers authority (JPA), would cover its own insurance costs as it took on liability issues, effectively shielding the town from that responsibility.

The entity would have some up front, one-time capital costs including computer and software upgrades as well as badge and uniform changes.

After five years, the authority’s income would stabilize and even have a reserve fund, concluded the consultants.

But the council appeared dubious of the reassuring figures in the consultant’s report.

“I’m looking at increasing personnel costs,” said Councilor Jim Ferris.

The newly formed JPA would assume the administrative, information technology and human resources costs the Town of Payson currently provides — in addition to the added firefighters from Hellsgate. Payson already manages the Houston Mesa fire department.

“When you came up with these numbers, you’re projecting out, did you talk to an IT person (or are you) just estimating?” asked Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian about the projected, upfront costs of $90,000 for new computers and software.

The agreement calls for Payson to transfer to the authority the same amount it now spends on the fire department — roughly $4 million annually. Hellsgate would also transfer its entire budget to the authority, which comes from property taxes in Star Valley and outlying communities. The combined total comes to an estimated $5 million.

Dozens of firefighters crowded into the council chambers to listen to the fate of their departments. The chiefs urged the council to study the consultant’s report, which addressed most of the financial questions. The agreement also has provisions to return to the current setup if problems develop in the future.

The fire chiefs said the agreement would improve emergency services throughout the region while ensuring firefighters have the resources and coordinated training to respond to major emergencies like a big structure fire or wildfires or evacuations.

“The reality is we rely ... the operations folks in the blue sitting out in the audience, we rely on each other to provide service,” said Staub.

Moreover, the savings on administration, training, capital expenses and equipment would give the authority more resources to ride out economic downturns or future loss of federal grants by Hellsgate.

“We don’t get the ability to negotiate — deal with downfalls together,” said Wisner.

National standards recommend four firefighters per truck. This not only provides enough manpower to deal safely with a structure fire, it provides the manpower for medical calls and reduces the risk of firefighter injury. However, many trucks have only two firefighters when they roll out of Hellsgate and sometimes the same happens in Payson.

Previously, Payson had a contract with Hellsgate to help pay for the frequent support from Hellsgate for calls on Payson’s eastern border with Star Valley. But Payson decided to build a million-dollar fire station, with staffing costs of roughly $750,000 annually. As a consequence, the town ended that contract. This started a series of financial difficulties for Hellsgate.

When pressed by the council, Tomlinson said her firm’s estimates were conservative since they didn’t take into account the money Hellsgate earns from fighting wildfires elsewhere.

Fighting those wildfires provides invaluable training for local crews in the event Rim Country faces a wildfire threat. The pooled resources of the three fire departments would provide the crews and equipment needed to expand wildland fire response, contributing to the financial stability of fire services in Rim Country, argued Wisner.

“We talked about the wildland aspect and I would recommend that we purchase engines that can fit dual roles so that they can meet that need when the state calls for wildland resources and the revenues from those can pay for the costs of those engines versus doing it with tax levy dollars,” he said.

Tubbs-Avakian summarized the issue with her final questions of the night.

“I would like to hear from you what you think the largest benefit to the Town of Payson is if this was completed?” she said.

“This is an opportunity to operate in a regional way and to have input and say and frankly, there is enough power in the way this IGA is structured that Payson can stop anything that they don’t like,” Staub said.

She then asked what the negatives were for Payson.

“I think it could be two things. One, if we ever go through a divorce, that’s going to be hellacious. But the biggest negative I see to it, is the perception, if not the reality ... that we’re turning over $6 million in assets and $5 million in money,” Staub said.

Tubbs-Avakian then turned to Wisner.

“What will happen to Hellsgate if this JPA doesn’t happen?” she asked.

Wisner said he hopes that Hellsgate would be able to continue to provide the same level of service it currently offers, but that could change if revenue sources dry up, like a federal staffing grant.

“Well, the staffing grant requires we have a certain level of staffing. You have to maintain that, but once that goes away, if we have to lay off, we could lay off people,” he said. “We will also be faced with capital needs that we have.”

But his main concern returned to the ability to work together

“Without this, we don’t get the benefits of working together,” he said.


Local
featured
Bernie the bald eagle survives harrowing journey

Where do they come from?

Where do they go?

Do they have a nest in the area?

Whenever I’m taking pictures or fishing down at the park lakes, I have these and a whole lot of other questions about the eagles that visit Green Valley Park.

What I do know is that the nearest bald eagle nest is at Woods Canyon Lake. By their band numbers on their ankles, I also know that three of the bald eagles that come and go from the park originated from Camp Verde, along the Salt River and on the San Carlos Reservation.

Until recently, I didn’t know where any of our visiting eagles, banded or not, go when they leave the area for the summer months.

When an eagle recently arrived at the park with a band, I wondered if it was Bernie, a 4-year-old eagle, that I had photographed before, or a new eagle visiting the area.

Whenever I am at the park, I love chatting with others about the bald eagles and quite a few other visitors had noticed this eagle too.

There is something special about these birds that separates them from the other 45 or so species of ducks, shorebirds and raptors that either live, visit or migrate through the area.

Maybe it’s their massive wingspan, their coloring or their awesome power when they swoop down to snatch a trout. Most likely, it’s all that and a whole lot more.

Arizona Game and Fish has banded some of the young eagles. When Arizona eaglets are 6 weeks old and have already reached adult size, rangers remove them from their nests and rivet metal bands, with an identification number, on their ankles. When the banding is complete, the eaglets are returned to their nests. They’ll take their first flights from the nest when they are 10 to 12 weeks old.

There are two non-banded bald eagles that have regularly visited the Rim Country during the cooler months of the year.

Ernie, a mature eagle, has wintered in Payson for at least the last 10 years, arriving in late September/early October and then leaving in May (his visits coinciding with the lake’s trout stocking schedule). Sadly, Ernie did not return this fall, with his whereabouts unknown.

Then there is un-banned Bernie, who is nearing maturity and whom I speculate to be the son of Ernie. Bernie has visited each winter for the last three years, delighting many with his aerial acrobatics and fishing prowess. He appears to be as curious about us humans as we are about him.

When Bernie arrived on Oct. 19, the exact same date he flew in the previous year, something was seriously amiss.

He had a band on his right ankle. I wondered how a ranger could get close enough to a healthy, rambunctious adult raptor to band it and if this was really Bernie.

After a few days of observing him, I was convinced that this bald eagle had to be Bernie. He fished the same way as Bernie and had similar markings.

But why would he suddenly appear with a band on his ankle? I would need to capture a picture of the number on his band and then contact Game and Fish.

After three weeks of taking hundreds of photos I could finally piece together Bernie’s nine-digit band number.

Unfortunately, Game and Fish did not have the number in its databank. So, I turned to the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency dedicated to bird identification, for help.

It took about six weeks to hear back, but it was well worth the wait.

Along with a certificate of appreciation, they sent the coordinates where Bernie was banded, along with the name of the banding agency. A few more calls would give me even information that I wanted.

At the end of July, Joe Cerise, a bird rescuer in southwest Montana, received a call from a couple living on Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Mont.

The couple reported a bald eagle lying on its side in the middle of their backyard.

When Cerise arrived at the couple’s home, the scene was dire.

“This eagle was near death. The bird was hardly moving and it couldn’t even raise its head,” he said. “If this bird were any other raptor, I would have put it down without a thought. But since it was a bald eagle, I thought even though it’s a long shot, why not give it a chance?”

Cerise made a two-hour drive to the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman.

“Seeing the bleak condition of the bird, it appeared that the eagle had consumed something toxic, perhaps lead from a bullet lodged in a dead carcass it had been eating. So we began charcoal treatment right away to force the eagle to vomit out the toxin,” said Becky Kean, conservation center director. “Thank goodness this worked, as this raptor was flat-out on its death bed. But within a couple of days, though wobbly, he was back on his feet again.”

Bernie’s rehab continued for another 6.5 weeks, starting off with a liquid diet of pureed mice, then a solid diet of rodents and fish and strength rehabilitation.

When his rehab was complete in mid September, the rehab center staff banded Bernie and transported him to nearby Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone River, where they released him back into the wild.

Thank goodness for the skill and love these wildlife rescuers and rehab staff have for our country’s wildlife.

Because of them, Bernie’s life was extended and we in the Rim Country have been given the opportunity to continue to be a part of it.


News
Chamber membership doubles under new executive director

Big changes characterized recent months for the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Membership doubled to more than 300 since Maia Crespin took over as executive director six months ago.

And many of those members filled the banquet room at the Mazatzal Hotel & Casino for the chamber’s monthly luncheon on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

Members got a look at the chamber’s new board of directors. Payson Roundup general manager Gary Tackett has taken over for Banner Payson Medical Center CEO Lance Porter as board chair.

The board also includes National Bank of Arizona banker Linda Hamman; Chevron/Rim Liquor owner/partner Shawn Dugan; Ironhorse Signs owner Heather Oberg, Bruzzi Vineyard owner James Bruzzi; Rim Team associate broker/partner Wendy Larchick; Payson Culver’s owner Steve Chlupsa and APS supervisor Scott Jones.

Crespin thanked Porter for his assistance in helping her settle into her new role with the chamber.

“Lance is a true leader and inspiration,” Crespin said. “Lance is staying on the board of directors for the chamber, which is a blessing because we have an amazing team of business leaders who care about the community.”

Crespin holds the only paid position with the chamber, although she said the board recently approved a part-time assistant for her. That position will be posted soon.

Among the changes Crespin has implemented in her brief time with the chamber is a new texting notification feature.

“Emails get lost in the shuffle, so this is a quick and efficient way for me to communicate with our members with updates on upcoming chamber-sponsored events,” Crespin said.

Members may activate the free service by texting the word “Chamber” to 313131.

She also added a new event calendar for Rim Country residents and visitors on the chamber’s website. Visit rimcountrychamber.com/eventcalendar to view it.

Members can post their events directly to the calendar free. Visitors who stop at the Visitors Center also receive a free calendar that lists the web address.

Crespin also hosts a variety of workshops, which are listed on the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page, not to be confused with another page listed on Facebook as Rim Country Commerce.

The workshops are also listed on the event calendar and the chamber’s website at www.rimcountrychamber.com.

Movie at Sawmill Theatres

Among the upcoming events are a VIP chamber event at Sawmill Theatres at 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 9 for a screening of the Lego Movie “The Second Part.” Adult tickets are $5, which includes a small popcorn and drink. Kids are free with a paid adult. Each child will also receive a raffle ticket for Lego sets that will be raffled off at the end of the movie.

Macky’s is also offering a discount for those who attend the movie.

Members who plan to attend the movie screening must RSVP because of limited seating. Sponsorships are available for prime seating. Contact Maia at 928-978-9389 or email her at maia@rimcountrychamber.com.

Contact the reporter at

kmorris@payson.com


Local
School still struggling with teacher shortage

Rim Country schools continue to cope with the ongoing teacher shortage, despite recent pay raises.

Gov. Doug Ducey last week vowed to make education a top priority in his second term, boosted by a projected $1 billion state budget surplus this year.

Last year, he pushed through enough money to fund a roughly 10 percent teacher pay raise — with enough money for another 10 percent raise this year. However, this will still leave Arizona with amongst the lowest teacher salaries and biggest class sizes in the nation.

Prior to the raises, the state ranked 49th in teacher salaries and 50th in class sizes.

Surveys show that 23 percent of teacher vacancies across the state remain unfilled, with a growing number of teachers having “emergency” credentials or teaching in subjects outside their field.

The turnover remains especially high amongst new teachers, with the number of teachers in training programs dropping steadily. Last year, 913 teachers simply quit in the first half of the school year.

A shocking 42 percent of traditional public school and 52 percent charter school teachers quit within three years of starting the profession between 2013 and 2016, according to a report by The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

The Arizona Legislature responded to the teacher shortage by essentially waiving previous teacher training requirement, making it easier to grant an “emergency credential” to someone without any teacher training at all or allowing teachers to take on subjects outside their training. This increased the number of teachers without the normal training, but didn’t do much to reduce the shortage.

Payson School Superintendent Greg Wyman said the district has managed to fill all its teaching slots this year, but continues to struggle.

The shortage has a big impact especially in the science and math fields.

“We do have a problem getting teachers in these fields. This year we have utilized ASU Digital Prep for some math classes at the middle school,” Wyman said. “This program is a distance learning program with the teacher being housed at ASU.”

In the meantime, the district has relied on emergency credentials and asking teachers to take classes outside their field.

Unfortunately, he said the statewide pay increase for teachers may not help much in the short term — since Payson must still compete with Valley schools in high-demand fields.

Since the Valley schools all gave raises as well, the roughly $5,000 gap between rural and urban pay rates remains.

“We lost two teachers at the break, but were able to replace them. We have growing numbers in our preschool program and have not been able to find a new teacher for that program,” he said. “We will hire additional paraprofessionals to help support the class and look for another teacher next year.”

The three Rim Country districts generally have more experienced teachers, fewer unfilled slots and fewer instructors teaching outside their subject areas than schools statewide.

In Payson 16 to 20 percent of the teachers have either emergency credentials or are teaching outside their field. About 21 percent of teachers are considered “inexperienced,” which means they’ve been teaching for less than three years.

At Payson High School, 23 percent of the teachers ranked as inexperienced and 20 percent were teaching outside their field or on an emergency credential in the statistics reported as part of the state department of education’s school report card for 2018.

In the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School District, which has just 128 students, only 3 percent of teachers rated as “inexperienced” and only 5 percent were teaching out of their fields.

In the Tonto Basin Elementary School District, which has 69 students, none of the teachers ranked as inexperienced and none were teaching outside their field.

Still, Payson fares better when it comes to teacher experience than many other school districts, despite larger classes and lower wages than the state average.

For instance, Payson’s average teacher salary in 2016 was $45,229 compared to a statewide average of $48,378. However, Payson did a little better than other small, rural school districts — which paid an average of $44,553.

Payson’s teachers have an average of 13 years of experience, compared to 11 years statewide and 13 years for other small, rural schools, according to the Arizona auditor general’s summary of school financial performance based on 2016 data.

Payson teachers do suffer one big drawback — large class sizes. Payson has 20 students per teacher compared to 18 statewide and 17 in other comparable, rural schools.

Payson spends $9,222 per student, $4,182 of which goes directly into the classroom, according to the auditor general’s report, based on 2016 figures. This compares to a statewide average of $9,623 in per student spending, with $4,377 spent on instruction.


Contributed photo  

Maia Crespin