On Nov. 7, the Payson Town Council voted to seek further legal information to determine if it can “dissolve the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE),” originally established by Payson and Star Valley to develop a proposed university.
So they haven’t divorced yet — but the relationship is on shaky ground.
The council vote amounts to the discovery phase in a divorce, focused on listing assets and studying the fine print of the prenuptial agreement.
Payson set up the RCEA as a “separate legal entity” to insulate the town from any liability in case the university project floundered. The SLE gains tax advantages and control of zoning and development, which means the town made no financial contribution and has no liability. The SLE has since spent about $14 million to buy and develop the 253-acre university property on the border between Payson and Star Valley. The money has come almost entirely from the MHA Foundation.
Already, Payson Councilor Jim Ferris has asked for a binder full of documents. Those documents don’t clarify what would happen to the SLE and the assets it now owns if the town pulls out of the partnership.
The founding paperwork states the SLE restores control over zoning to the town if the SLE sells the land, but doesn’t lay out what happens if Payson withdraws.
Prior to the council going into executive session Thursday night, some audience members questioned the council.
Resident Peter Kennedy asked, “Why is this action being contemplated? Do the mayor and Mr. Ferris have another approach to accomplish the RCEA vision and mission statement as described on their website — ‘to educationally enrich our communities, attract, businesses, create jobs, generate revenues, lower the tax base for our citizens and stimulate overall economic development?’”
SLE president John Cline asked the council to keep the SLE intact.
Current plans call for a prep school and playing fields on a portion of the site bought from the Forest Service, while the SLE pursues other potential university partners. The SLE has largely given up on a partnership with Arizona State University after years of fruitless negotiations and escalating financial demands by ASU.
Mayor Tom Morrissey, in a prior interview, said he wonders, “what do we get out of (the SLE) and what is the liability of it now? The SLE is a major point of contention with the trees getting knocked down and all that.”
The SLE cleared a portion of the forested land fronting Mud Springs Road near the Payson Christian School to make way for ballfields. The SLE had asked Payson to partner in building a community center and aquatics center on the site, with an estimated lease payment of $600,000 a year to guarantee low-cost memberships for residents.
Morrissey said some Star Valley council members have come to him with “the same questions.”
“Why have a partnership if you’re telling me out the door you are going to build this thing without the Town of Payson?” asked Morrissey.
He doesn’t agree with the lease payment.
“You don’t own it you don’t have control,” he said. “We would be at their discretion to use the community center and pool. My reaction was to build our own pool ... it is an asset to our town.”
Councilor Steve Smith made a statement before the council went into executive session to ease residents’ concerns.
“So that the public understands, there will be no action taken,” he said. “This is a multi-million dollar consideration. It is very impactful to the community.”
He said the SLE and the MHA Foundation have been working on behalf of the community. He cited the C.C. Cragin raw water line and proposed solutions to broadband as examples. He said these improvements will help ease the challenges of bringing a university to the community.
“It will be fundamentally what any institution would have needed for a university to come to the community,” he said.
Morrissey replied, “It is not my intention to put away any benefits given to the town.”
The council met with lawyers for almost an hour behind closed doors to explore the town’s options and the likely effect of pulling out of the SLE. The audience that packed the room stayed to hear what the council decided.
Once the council returned, Vice Mayor Janell Sterner moved to “seek more legal documents from the SLE.”
The motion passed unanimously.