Gila County saw ups and downs in 2020 that will change the landscape for years to come.

The year started on a couple of high notes — the county saw the state legislature approved $15 million for a bridge over Tonto Creek in Tonto Basin/Punkin Center and opened its new probation office and teen center in Payson.

Tonto Creek bridge

The Tonto Creek Bridge issue has plagued county supervisors and the residents on the far side of the creek for years. Attempts to cross the creek when it was flooded have cost several lives over the last 25 years. The county has applied for numerous grants and done bits and pieces of the work needed to get a bridge built — buying rights of way; contracting for preliminary engineering and design; making the necessary studies and keeping them up to date. None of the funding the county was able to secure was enough to build the $20 million bridge.

When the legislature approved $15 million in early March, that meant the county could see a light at the end of a decades’ old tunnel with in-kind work done and the funds it had set aside over the years paired with state money to get the bridge built.

But then COVID-19 began turning things upside down. The long-standing — nearly realized — hopes to get a bridge over the creek to allow residents to cross safely during flooding were dashed when Ducey signed a scaled down emergency state budget March 28. It included no money for the Tonto Creek Bridge.

Even though the state was keeping its purse strings tightly knotted due to COVID-19, efforts to get funds from the federal government continued.

The county had applied to the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary grants program several times and failed to make the cut of recipients. The story changed in September when Gila County learned it would receive $21 million to build a bridge over Tonto Creek. The county will provide $3.38 million in matching funds. Gila County will receive the funding under the fiscal year 2020 BUILD program.

While the county may have secured the funding, it will be some time before a bridge is built over Tonto Creek, according to Gila County Public Works director Steve Sanders.

The county has to complete several federal agreements, update environmental studies, update plans and get bids. All told, the project is expected to cost more than $24 million and could take two years to get off the ground, he said.

Building projects

Gila County’s ambitious facilities improvement plan saw major strides in 2020. It opened its new probation office and teen center in Payson; it opened a new health and emergency services department in the old NAPA building next to the sheriff’s office in Payson; it moved the local Community Action Program and UA Extension Service offices to temporary quarters in the Twin Pines Center in order to demolish the old offices (formerly a residence) at the corner of East Frontier and South Colcord, making way for the eventual construction of a multi-use complex.

COVID-19

Arizona’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was diagnosed in January, shortly after a man in the Arizona State University community returned from Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus was first detected in late December.

By March, there were no cases in Gila County yet, but Michael O’Driscoll, director of Gila County Health and Emergency Management, on March 10 said the state had six reported cases.

Gov. Ducey on March 11 issued a Declaration of Emergency and an Executive Order to provide health officials and administrators with the tools and guidance necessary to combat the continued spread of COVID-19 and to reduce financial burdens on Arizonans by lowering health care costs associated with the virus. This was followed by new orders on an almost weekly basis as the disease continued to spread.

Gila County reported 222 people were tested for COVID-19 by early April; 219 were negative, leaving three positive tests.

Voluntary efforts to curb the spread by clubs, organizations and churches were put in place as cases began to rise. Multiple events were canceled, including the Gary Hardt Memorial Spring Rodeo in May.

The first death in Gila County due to COVID-19 related issues was reported in early May — it was a Payson man, age 80. By mid-June there were more than 100 cases of confirmed coronavirus, with many of those in long-term care facilities. The county’s COVID-19 report for July 1 showed it had 203 cases and six deaths. By July 6, the number of cases had jumped to 237. The number of cases in Gila County was approaching 300 in mid-July, with 12 deaths reported. At the end of July, the county report showed 483 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths.

Through August confirmed cases and deaths continued to rise, the county reported 650 confirmed cases and 39 deaths. The rise continued through the month of September, but not as dramatically, there were 34 confirmed cases and 5 additional deaths reported.

October saw a big increase in confirmed cases, at the end of September there had been 684 confirmed cases, at the end of October that number had jumped to 840 cases, with 52 deaths reported, the report from the county showed 44 deaths at the close of September. By the end of November confirmed cases had climbed to 1,317, with nine more deaths reported.

The most recent report from the county, dated Monday, Dec. 28, shows 2,159 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 83 deaths, up from 61 at the end of November.

Throughout the pandemic, the Rim Country has had limited opportunities for mass testing. The MHA Foundation and its partners set up drive-through testing in May and in November the Arizona Department of Health Services and Arizona State University partnered to provide saliva tests for COVID-19.

A variety of restrictions limited the COVID-19 tests available through Banner Payson Medical Center and from individual health care providers.

Now a vaccine is available, but it also has limitations due to the numbers shipped and who can receive the early doses first.

Elections

The 2020 Payson Town Council election may not have been as nasty as some higher profile contests, but it had a bitter flavor compared to many in the past. The council had three seats to fill: those held by Steve Smith, Janell Sterner and Barbara Underwood. Both Sterner and Underwood sought reelection, Smith did not. Challengers were Dave Golembewski, Scott Nossek, Deborah Rose and Jolynn Schinstock.

With the August primary election, Underwood kept her seat and Nossek won a place on the council. However, the numbers between Rose and Schinstock were too close and they had to vie for the remaining seat in a run-off Nov. 3.

The enthusiasm for some candidates in the primary escalated at several polling places so much that there were voters who felt intimidated. That led to the Payson area voting sites to put firmer restrictions on how close campaigning could get to the voters in November.

The run-off between Rose and Schinstock was marred by complaints against each candidate by the supporters of the other. And the forums between the two fell apart when Schinstock refused to participate after she said Rose reneged on an agreement she felt they had to refrain from personal attacks. When Schinstock refused future forums with Rose, Rose announced she would have forum of her own.

In the end, Schinstock won the run-off and is now a member of the Payson Town Council.

County elections saw one surprise — longtime incumbent treasurer Debi Savage lost her bid for reelection to challenger Monica Wohlforth. Wohlforth’s message in her bid was to improve the customer service of the treasurer’s office. She will be sworn into office Jan. 5.

The loss of our strongest advocate

One event in Gila County that will have a long-lasting impact on the county as a whole and the Rim Country in particular was the Dec. 10 death of Tommie Cline Martin, District 1 Gila County Supervisor.

Martin, 69, a lifelong resident of Gila County, with roots going back several generations, died after recovering from a life-threatening viral infection earlier this year. She would have celebrated her 70th birthday on Jan. 11, 2021.

Martin had served as Gila County District 1 Supervisor since 2005 after being elected in 2004. She was just reelected to a fifth term in office this year. She was also on the county planning and zoning commission from 1991 to 1998.

Following a serious viral infection in May and emergency hospitalization in June, the popular Rim Country Supervisor was back to work attending meetings throughout the summer and fall, up to the Dec. 1 Board of Supervisor’s meeting. A popular county leader, Martin began intensive physical therapy last summer, despite lingering health issues maintaining that she still had “much work to be done” on behalf of Gila County.

Martin was perhaps one of the Rim Country’s strongest advocates, not only on the county level, but also at the state, regional and national levels as well.

Contact the reporter at tmcquerrey@payson.com

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