When it comes to broadband, the message is, “If you build it, they will come.”
That’s what Payson residents, business owners, staff and councilors heard when they attended a meeting hosted by the Broadband Consortium Tech Committee on June 7. The meeting focused on attempts to add capacity and reliability for both Rim Country and the White Mountains. Both regions have suffered repeated, debilitating outages in the past two years.
“It definitely has merits for the community — the public safety aspect of it, the benefits for the other surrounding communities ... the business opportunities,” said Nick Robinson, a broadband consultant and member of the committee.
Robinson, along with Mac Feezor and Greg Friestad — the other members of the committee — came to the meeting armed with maps, examples of the fiber to be installed and lot of information to help attendees understand how a reliable high-speed connection to the internet will change the face of business in Rim Country.
The meeting came in the wake of a Payson Town Council decision to seek more information before deciding whether to provide a requested $90,000 annually for the next 10 years to support the effort to provide fast, reliable, high-capacity internet. Several of the Payson council members who voted to get more information attended the session.
Cable One has agreed to provide a new line from Forest Lakes to Payson, with the help of a $2 million pledge of assistance from the MHA Foundation. However, Cable One is seeking additional help to complete an estimated $8 million connection to Phoenix, creating an outage-proof loop for both Rim Country and the White Mountains.
Bobby Davis, Payson’s economic development specialist, said he’s had businesses decide not to set up shop in Rim Country because of the state of broadband.
“It is an infrastructure we’ve got to have,” he said, “so you can sell your community.”
Feezor said broadband lies at the heart of many economic development meetings he attends.
“I’m on the Gila County IDA (Industrial Development Authority). We do economic development — that is why we are addressing this and chasing it,” he said. “You have power, water, road and broadband — and you have Payson because it sells itself.”
Payson Councilor Jim Ferris could see the benefits.
“We can have the logistics for manufacturing and telecommunications businesses,” he said.
Feezor said with reliable, high-speed broadband, telemedicine would be possible — addressing a dangerous shortage of doctors and specialists in rural communities. Local doctors and patients could consult with specialists in the Valley, who could also monitor everything from heart disease to diabetes without making patients drive to the Valley.
Robinson reminded the group outages put a real damper on business.
“Those could easily be a 20-hour repair,” he said, when the one-way cable into the region is cut anywhere along a 100-mile length.
It wasn’t hard to imagine how much business a store would lose if it was down for almost a whole day.
Everyone remembered the consequences of cell phones going down with the CenturyLink outages.
“If I can’t get hospital service, if I can’t buy gas, that is a hazard to me if my cell phone goes down,” said Feezor.
Darlene Younker agreed with the difficulties.
“That is an excellent point. If I as a resident have a medical emergency at my home and if my cell phone can’t work, I will suffer,” she said.
Robinson added that event promoters could live stream events, if the broadband had the capacity and reliability.
“Today, if you do a video, you have to drive back to the office and download it then upload it,” he said. “It would be quite interesting to see (with broadband) if they look at the capability of the location and ask, ‘Can we can do x – y – z?’”
Realtor Cliff Potts argued reliable broadband is an investment in the community.
“What funds Payson is the sales tax,” he said. “View this as an investment of the businesses that serve the people of Payson. Payson needs to invest in their tax base from time to time.”
So far, the Coldwater Fire up near Lake Mary Road and Highway 87 is a fire scientist’s dream.
It’s a textbook managed fire — the most important tool the Forest Service has for preventing catastrophic, town-destroying wildfires in Rim Country and the White Mountains.
The Forest Service is riding herd on half a dozen controlled burns and managed fires at the moment, including the 500-acre Hoyle Fire near Heber, the 8,600-acre Maroon Fire near Flagstaff, the 260-acre Southside Prescribed Burn near Flagstaff, the 2,500 Kaibab NF South Zone prescribed fire, the 72-acre Slide Fire north of the Grand Canyon, and the 15,000-acre Aravaipa County South Rim prescribed fire in southern Arizona.
Crews are much more actively fighting the 5,000-acre Woodbury Fire in a rugged wilderness area near Superior and the 7,400-acre Mountain Fire near Horseshoe Reservoir. Both those fires are burning in already hot, dry, lower-elevation areas, so those fires remain more likely to burn out of control.
On the other hand, the Coldwater Fire offers a perfect chance to study the Forest Service’s increasing reliance on managed and prescribed fires to thin dangerously overgrown forests and reduce the odds of a catastrophic crown fire, like the Rodeo-Chediski that nearly destroyed Show Low or the Camp Fire which last year consumed the California town of Paradise — killing 88 people.
So what made the Coldwater Fire a blaze the Forest Service could manage rather than rush to put out?
- The weather has provided near-perfect conditions.
- The brush and larger fuels have impressive moisture content.
- The fire continues to creep along the forest floor, burning needles and fine fuels.
Moreover, the Coldwater Fire started smack in the middle of the C.C. Cragin watershed project — an area the Forest Service, the Salt River Project and Payson are all desperate to thin before catastrophe strikes.
“With this particular fire and location, they had a lot of things lining up for them,” said Jessica Richardson, a Forest Service public information officer for the Coldwater Fire.
A lightning strike started the Coldwater Fire inconspicuously on May 30, but the blaze wasn’t reported until days later.
“When we get a lot of moisture on top of a strike, you don’t see the smoke from a fire right away,” said Richardson. “It smolders around the under layers of the vegetation until enough fuels dry out to show smoke ... the term they use is a ‘hold over’ because it didn’t happen right away.”
The behavior of the fire contributed to the Forest Service’s decision to use this naturally occurring fire to thin the forest around the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.
The Forest Service hopes the Coldwater Fire will burn out 17,400 acres, said Richardson. As of June 12, the Coldwater Fire had burned 13,010 acres.
“They have a perimeter around the fire that they feel confident they can meet the objectives,” she said. “We’re pretty fortunate most of the project area doesn’t have a lot of neighbors.”
Only one community lay near the projected management area. The first priority was to create a good line so the fire did not burn any structures.
“That was our first priority,” said Richardson. “We assessed the situation and immediately created a good containment line.”
In order to create a perimeter around the majority of the acres, the firefighters have started “burn out operations” near Highway 87.
This hasn’t helped the smoke issue.
“This weird moisture event coming from the southeast has the potential to really impact our smoke leading to visibility conditions that could severely affect driving, so you couldn’t see at all,” said Richardson.
To help, the Forest Service partnered with ADOT to shut down Highway 87 to one lane. A pilot car guided people through the smoke, said Richardson.
The worst of the smoke occurred in the wee hours of the morning, which were the same hours Payson saw smoke.
“Payson was getting smoke starting (in the) morning until mid-afternoon,” said Richardson. “It was following the 87 corridor.”
As the winds shifted in the afternoon, the smoke would drift away from Rim Country.
“We’ve had smoke reports in Winslow,” said Richardson. She expects to have more reports as the week goes on.
So far, the Coldwater Fire has 130 people “working in different capacities,” said Richardson.
Air support in the form of helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft has helped to keep the fire contained.
Yet this fire allowed the Forest Service to add drones to its arsenal.
“It’s really new. (Drones have) been used a handful of times so far ... to start ignitions,” said Richardson, “(drones have) been under testing for a long while ... it is still a fairly new technology ... it is a wonderful resource where we don’t necessarily have to use firefighters.”
Richardson explained the ignition process.
“It is a two-drone system,” she said. “The one drone is equipped with a plastic sphere dispenser device. They are little plastic balls with fuel in them. They shoot, then when they land they ignite.”
How many spheres the drone dispenses how quickly depends on the intensity of the fire the Forest Service hopes to ignite.
“There is a lot of science behind the process,” said Richardson. “The other drone ... is basically monitoring what is going on.”
Fire managers use the information from the monitoring drone to figure out what is going on with the fire — without putting lives in danger — or finding someone with very specific flight skills.
“To have pilots that have the skill set to order, ‘Hey, can you fly this super close to the tree line and drop it right here,’ is hard to find,” she said. “Drones are very maneuverable. If the drone is struggling and you lose it, you’ve only lost a piece of equipment, not a life.”
All in all the Forest Service sees many benefits from letting the Coldwater Fire run its course.
“It definitely is important to the forest and the district,” said Richardson. “We were able to put a lot of things into play on this one. We were able to take our time and really think things through.”
Firefighters were called to the Payson Senior Center Tuesday morning after staff saw smoke coming from a cooler on top of the building and smelled what they thought was burning electrical wires.
As a precaution, fire officials called a first alarm with four fire engines responding to 514 W. Main St. About a dozen seniors in the center were evacuated and waited in the nearby Humane Society thrift store parking lot, watching as Payson police officers closed part of the street to traffic.
Suzanne Kammerman, the center’s director of operations, said staff and volunteers had shut everything down and got everyone out safely when emergency personnel arrived.
The fire department’s inspection of the cooling unit, which is connected to venting in the center’s kitchen, proved inconclusive, she said.
The cooling unit remains shut down, but the vent system is still operational.
Another cooling system in the kitchen, donated a few years ago by the Town of Star Valley and O’Connor Heating & Cooling in Star Valley, is working and saving the kitchen staff, she said.
The Payson Senior Center has operated out of the building for more than 20 years. Before the center took over the space, it had served as a bowling alley and skating rink. Next door, where the center runs the Trinkets & Treasures Thrift Store, was a post office.
In October, a portion of the ceiling collapsed in the dining hall due to a leaky roof.
“We’re holding the place together by prayer,” Kammerman said.
An answer to that prayer may be on the horizon — the center has purchased land to build a new facility and a campaign for construction funding is planned.
While the incident earlier this week was frightening — one senior had to be given oxygen by paramedics due to a possible panic attack — Kammerman said it was also a learning experience.
“People are afraid to call 911 thinking it might turn out to be nothing and they will be embarrassed or they will be putting the first responders out. A fireman I spoke with said you should never, ever feel that way. It is better to be safe than sorry,” Kammerman said.
She later learned from a police officer that should something like this happen in the future, the seniors could be moved from the center into the thrift store and kept comfortable.
If everyone gets “merit pay,” does it really mean you’re doing a good job?
Related question: Are teacher evaluations afflicted by grade inflation?
Those questions lurked in the fine print of the Payson Unified School District’s merit pay system for teachers — which produced a pay boost for all but one of the 120 or so teachers in the district.
In Payson this year, 93 percent of the teachers will get the full $3,700 bonus for scoring at least 80 percent in meeting all three of their goals. Another 5 percent will get two-thirds of the bonus by meeting two of the goals with another 2 percent having met at least one goal. Only one teacher did not achieve the 80 percent threshold for any of the goals.
Voters approved a merit pay plan for teachers statewide, which gives each teacher this year the chance to earn a $3,770 bonus, providing they mostly meet three goals related to student achievement.
The voter proposition left it up to each district to come up with a merit pay plan, approved by the bulk of the teachers. The merit pay plan in Payson won the support of the overwhelming majority of the teachers — almost all of whom this year qualified for the bonus.
Several board members asked delicate questions before voting unanimously to approve $480,000 worth of bonuses.
“If everyone’s meeting their goals — are the goals rigorous enough?” asked board member Jolyn Schinstock.
Student Achievement Director Brenda Case responded, “When we had Shane Keith on the board, he was asking that question and he comes from a business background, which is very different from an education viewpoint. Our goal is to get every kid across the line. These teachers are setting three goals and working on them all year long and each one of their goals has to be approved by their administrator. So if I have to reach these goals, I’ve got to push my kids. I do think they are lofty enough. We’ve got to work on those things and all our principals know — they do reject goals when they review them.”
Newly re-appointed board member Shelia DeSchaaf asked some questions about whether all the teachers agreed with the system.
“Did we have any no vote?” she asked.
Case acknowledged that some teachers always object to the system. Often, teachers who teach in areas like special education, drama, music, sports or other hard-to-quantify subjects. Some of those teachers say they’re being evaluated based on other disciplines, where teachers can rely on test scores to measure what students have learned.
“The components were voted on (by the faculty) and included smart goals in reading, writing and culture — which is Capture Kids’ Hearts based. We’re very proud of that,” said Case.
But some teachers objected that the components of the evaluation didn’t really measure what students learned in things like arts and physical education.
Sure enough, some of the teachers in the arts who have supervised award-winning programs in statewide competitions nonetheless had trouble meeting all three of their goals — generally based on test score measurements of learning. The current system also stresses gains in math and reading and writing in virtually every subject area.
Case said setting and tracking progress on those goals has improved teaching in the district.
She and the principals all work with teachers to first set, then meet, the goals. “It’s revisited constantly throughout the school year. They do have an element of control over how hard they work towards achieving those goals.”
Still, only a few teachers didn’t get at least two-thirds of the bonus, which for most amounted to a 5-10 percent pay boost. Teachers weren’t eligible for the bonus if they were hired after Jan. 15.
Payson Councilor Steve Smith on June 12 filed an open meeting law violation complaint with the Arizona attorney general against the mayor and three council members.
Smith alleges an email with a series of questions about broadband sent to Mayor Tom Morrissey, Vice Mayor Janell Sterner and Councilors Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Jim Ferris from Greg Friestad, a member of the Broadband Consortium Tech Committee, broke the open meeting law (OML).
“(The four council members) were very coordinated,” in their comments at the meeting, said Smith. “I have been in a lot of executive level meetings. When I see that type of behavior, I know people have coordinated. They have an agenda.”
Contacted by email, Morrissey said, “I haven’t seen councilor Smith’s complaint and can’t comment on it until I know more about it.”
Tubbs-Avakian said she could not recall seeing the email.
“I told the people I would not vote on something I do not have enough information about,” she said.
The other council members did not respond before the Roundup went to press.
On May 30, the council voted 4-3 on whether to create a $90,000 placeholder in the budget for a broadband contract with Cable One, the company proposing to build a resilient internet connection from Show Low to Phoenix.
Friestad’s three-page memo asked a series of questions about the proposed contract and whether the town would benefit from its investment. Cable One said in return for the annual pledge, it would provide the town with 2 gigs of internet service for the next 20 years.
The four who received the email all voted against the budget placeholder.
However, Councilors Chris Higgins, Barbara Underwood and Smith all voted to move forward with the placeholder. None of them received the email from Friestad.
Smith said he found out about the email during a meeting with Town Manager LaRon Garrett on May 31.
“I went in the next day to the town hall to LaRon. I said, ‘You know something has been funny about that meeting. It’s been on my mind,’” said Smith. “He said, ‘You know where they got all their questions? They got all their questions from the email from Greg Friestad.’ I said, ‘Really. I didn’t get an email.’”
The town clerk monitors emails sent to councilors to make sure they do not violate the OML.
According to the law, the OML is not violated if a member of the public emails a quorum of the council and there are no further emails among board members.
“The available case law and Arizona’s statutory language indicate that a one-way communication by one board member to other members that form a quorum, with no further exchanges between members, is not per se a violation of the OML ... in addition, passive receipt of information from a member of the staff with nothing more does not violate the OML,” according to a 2005 attorney general opinion.
But the legal waters muddy when that email seems to have influenced the actions of the council.
“A communication that proposes legal action to a quorum of the board would, however, violate the OML, even if there is no exchange among the members concerning the proposal,” states the 2005 attorney general opinion.
The email from Friestad lists a series of questions about broadband, such as who is the “mystery” donor that made the cable possible and why should the town invest in broadband if homeowners do not see improved internet service.
Smith said the video of the May 30 meeting clearly shows all four councilors used the memo to frame their questions for Dan Conrad, the general manager and director of Cable One and Kenny Evans, president of the MHA Foundation.
The MHA Foundation has pledged $2 million to help cover the cost of stringing a broadband cable between Show Low and Payson.
“Jim Ferris is flipping through pages on the video,” said Smith. “You can time stamp the questions to the presentation.”
Smith called the alleged coordinated communication “a hub and spoke meeting violation.”
“The hub was Greg Friestad. The spokes were those on the email,” he said.
Not only were the four council members copied on the email, so were Jim Muhr and Ken Woolcock.
Those two men, who along with Friestad and Morrissey, have formed an ad hoc committee to explore building a road to connect Green Valley Park to the Payson Event Center.
In his memo on broadband, Friestad said, “just some thoughts and questions about the Kenny plan. We must not let them use budget funds from the Green Valley Parkway extension or the splash pad for the Kenny plan.”
“Could this be an open meeting of the ad hoc committee?” said Smith. “They have been meeting in (Morrissey’s) office frequently about who knows what. Then all of a sudden they have this new agenda item about the road.”
Smith confirmed he added Muhr to his OML complaint. and approached Town Attorney Hector Figueroa about his concerns.
“He said, according to his policies he has to investigate. He represents the town. He can’t advise somebody to file against the town,” said Smith.
But Smith feels he had to do something.
“I’m being transparent,” he said. “I’m not going to let these people violate the trust they have been entrusted with by operating this way.”