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Hollywood at 6,000 feet

LAKESIDE — The second Show Low Film Festival is about to roll. Filmmakers, actors, and their crews will arrive in the White Mountains beginning as early as Wednesday to prepare for orientation, workshops and a chance to experience White Mountain hospitality along with the picturesque backdrop that residents enjoy all year round.

For the public, it all begins at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, with an invitation to be part of a welcome party at The Lodge in Pinetop, hosted by them and the Show Low Film Festival. The festival will culminate with the awards ceremony Sunday evening, Oct. 20 at Hon Dah for filmmakers and their group, along with event sponsors, followed by the doors opening to the public at 7:30 p.m.

If you came to the festival debut last year, you already have a taste of what a film festival is like. Ninety filmmakers and their staffs and 52 films were hosted last year, and this year there will be 132 filmmakers and staff and 65 films. Though there will be awards presented at the Red Carpet event on Saturday evening, each filmmaker whose film will be shown on the big screen at Village 8 is already a winner by virtue of being selected to attend.

Among the entries this year is one from Scotland, two from New York and according to festival organizer Martina Webster, “tons from many others states.” Five alumni are also in the mix again this year.

A complete list of all the films being offered can be found on the festival’s website at www.showlowfilmfestival.com. It also lists the entire schedule for the event.

The films vary in length from what is called a “short,” which is about three minutes to those that are much longer. Shorts, by the way, are like a calling card to show attendees what the independent filmmaker is capable of doing. The lengths of the films are also listed next to the movie so you can easily chose what you want to see.

Judges looked at between 150 to 160 films before making their final selection. On a scale of 1 to 10, a film had to get a score of 5 or higher to be invited. There was a total of three rounds of judging. Webster said that this year all the films chosen received a 6.5 or higher.

There are rules that must be adhered to for film entry into this festival without exception. One such requirement is that a film be a in a Digital Content Package or DCP. This costs the film maker additional monies but it ensures the highest quality of digital sound.

This is a major local event and exactly the way that film festivals like Sedona and Sundance got started. Most film festival events do not usually have the luxury of being held in a theater, but at some other venue. With the festival being held at Village 8, filmmakers actually get to see what their work looks like on the big screen in digital in one of the four theaters set aside just for the festival.

Five or six movies have been chosen as special screenings for viewing only. “Turnover,” which will be shown Saturday at 3:30 p.m. is one of those movies. After the movie is shown, red carpet photographs and autographs will be held for the public.

Matthew Jones of the Arizona Office of Film and Media will be at the festival as well as Legion M Fanbase Studio will have six scouts here looking at films.

A person can purchase a one, two or three day pass for the festival. A three day pass is $60. Purchasing tickets in advance will keep you out of long lines and get you right to the movies which you can pick out in advance on the website. Save your ticket stubs, too; a 10 percent discount is offered to attendees at several restaurants.

Keep in mind that these movies are independent films being shown and are not rated. This is not an event for children. The festival does plan to add a children’s portion in the future.

The theater is offering a popcorn and drink three-day special for $20 for all three days.

Also offered is a special festival movie preview book for $5. Though you get a one sheet listing the movies and their times, the book was designed as a souvenir and a great way to keep your autographs with the right movie. T-shirts, jackets and hoodies with the festival logo can be ordered online and drop shipped to you.

Webster, who is a film producer herself, says she has a five year plan for the festival. The festival is about economic development and is being held at a time when we do not have anything else going on.

“The festival will make money,” said Webster. “We did not lose money last year. We are taking any money we make and sinking it right back into the festival. The payoff will come.”

This year Webster added the awards dinner. She also has chosen a charity to benefit from the festival and will choose a different one each year – this year it will be Meals on Wheels. She will have at least one named talent or celebrity at the festival. Paul Guilfoyle from CSI and New York model Janel Tanna will be here this year.

Webster said she envisions the time coming when every business on the Mountain will put up a banner, a flag and fliers during the month of October promoting the film festival.

Webster concludes, “I want it to be said that if you make it in the Show Low Film Festival, you have made it.”

Police, firefighter pension plan on the mend

WHITE MOUNTAINS — No one likes to think about this stuff.

And that explains the mess we’re in.

Many small towns and counties owe a huge debt to the firefighters, police officers vested in the statewide pension plan known as the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS). Separate pension plans for detention officers, dispatchers and even elected officials, like judges, county supervisors and others face similar deficits.

Navajo County owes almost $12 million, Apache County $11 million and the Show Low Police Department owes $7.8 million – and that’s just for police and firefighter pensions, according to PSPRS actuarial reports. The Pinetop Fire District owes a whopping $6 million. Worse yet, the town of Holbrook owes $7.1 million, although it has only 5 police officers – and 15 retirees.

Many counties, towns and fire districts don’t have the money to catch up – so their debt grows every year [CP1] .

But wait, you say; didn’t we fix this whole problem by approving several cost-cutting pension reforms?

Well. Yes. The Legislature created new employee tiers in 2011 and 2016 that required new first responders to work longer and contribute more towards their retirements.

Voters in 2016 and 2018 also changed how public safety, corrections officers and elected officials and judges receive increases to their pensions.

But, wait. How’s that fair?

Well, it isn’t. However, the State Supreme Court rebuffed earlier efforts to reform the system that impacted the benefits of those already retired and first responders who were already on the job. This made the hole even deeper, as cities and counties and PSPRS had to refund $250 million to officers and firefighters. It also made inevitable the three-tier system, so officers working side by side will find themselves with very different retirement checks.

So in today’s installment, we’ll look at the failure of initial efforts to reform the system and the changes put in place to restore stability to the system in the future.

But here’s the catch. About 70 percent of the workers in the system will continue to go by the old rules, since the courts ruled counties, towns and the state can’t alter the retirement system once someone’s hired. That means the hole continues to get deeper every year, despite the voter-approved reforms.

The long road to disaster

Some 30 years ago, the three jointly managed pension plans adopted what turned out to be a disastrous reform. The plans decided to boost monthly benefits with any investment returns above 9 percent. This produced steadily rising pension checks, but it also slowly drained the pension’s investment fund. As a result PSPRS now has about half of the money it needs to pay promised benefits – a deficit of nearly $9 billion. That could change if investment income soars, officers stay on the job longer or a variety of other changes take place – but it’s the best guess at the moment.

The slow bleed turned into a hemorrhage in recessions of 2001 and 2008 – which caused billions in losses to investments. Despite those loses, the benefit increases continued to mount, thanks to the effects of the Permanent Benefit Increase formula at the heart of the disaster.

The pension plans have come under criticism for the investments made, with some critics maintaining the plans got lower rates of return and paid higher fees on its investments than the state’s civilian retirement fund. Plan officials vigorously contest those criticisms. Returns have remained in the general range for pension plans, which generally adopt a more conservative strategy when it comes to taking risks than many other plans, said Spokesman Christian Palmer. That shift has limited returns during the bull market in the past 10 years, but will protect the fund from another recession.

Lawmakers attempt to reform the system

In the meantime, lawmakers attempted to enact reforms in 2011.

Those changes boosted the employee contribution from 7.65 percent of salary to 11.65 percent. In addition, the changes did away with the PBI and reduced retirement benefits.

However, a group of employees sued to block the imposition of the changes. The State Supreme Court in a split decision in 2016 ruled the counties, towns and state could not change the promised benefits once an employee starts work.

Judge Randall Howe wrote, “We acknowledge that devising measures to guarantee the Plan’s financial stability is difficult and fraught with unpleasant policy choices. But whatever measures the Legislature enacts still must comport with the Arizona Constitution.”

In a blistering dissent, Justice Clint Bolick called the majority’s decision “a work of legal fiction to which the likes of John Grisham could only aspire.” He said state workers have no contract that could bind towns for decades.

As a result of the ruling, the cities and counties had to repay some $250 million in contributions and benefit cuts accumulated between 2011 and 2016.

The pension fund quickly resumed bleeding out.

Now, the only solution lay in a voter-approved ballot measure to change the constitution.

Voters step in to make changes

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 124 in 2018.

This had the effect of finally driving a stake through the heart of the Permanent Benefit Increase, which has boosted pensions for thousands of officers, firefighters and local officials while destabilizing the pension fund.

The reforms now specify that the town will contribute half and the employee the other half – with contributions rising or falling depending on investment returns. The new system will include cost-of-living increase but won’t hand out the excess gains in investments.

The changes also reduce benefits and increase the retirement age. Officers hired before 2012 can still retire with full benefits after 20 years – even if they get other jobs. Officers hired after 2012 can’t collect full benefits until they’re 52 or 55.

The PSPRS board estimates the changes will save the system about $475 million.

The system now allows the fund to rely on a seven-year “smooth out” of investment gains and losses in making its calculations, softening the boom-bust cycles of a pension fund that relies heavily on the stock market – as well as bond funds.

The investment fund provides about 45 percent of funds revenue, with employees contributing about 17 percent and employers about 38 percent.

Between 2009 and 2015, the annual investment returns ranged from 3.4 percent to 5.1 percent. Since 2016, the investment returns have remained between 8.1 percent and 7.56 percent. However, some critics maintain the system’s portfolio’s returns remain too low, especially in a bull market. PSPRS officials counter that this stems from stressing safe investments, even if that sometimes means accepting lower yields.

“All public pensions and investors suffered enormous losses during the recessions but PSPRS had a unique pension increase formula in state law that made its recovery extremely difficult,” Palmer said. “We can’t control the world economy, but we can play a ‘defense-first’ investment strategy to make sure that the next recession doesn’t bring severe consequences for local governments across the state. There’s a common misconception that PSPRS underperforms compared to other pensions,” Palmer said. “But what gets lost in the mix is there’s a trade-off to any strategy, whether it’s sacrificing returns for safety or accepting the risk of loss that comes with seeking really high returns.”

So where do we stand now?

So what does that all add up to for cities and counties in Rim Country and the White Mountains?

There’s a light flickering at the end of the tunnel. But it’s a long dark tunnel.

The situation facing cities and counties varies from dire to worrisome – mostly depending on how many officers, firefighters, detention officers, elected officials and retirees still qualify for benefits under the old system.

The counties are generally in the worst shape, since they employ sheriff’s departments, courts, jails and more elected officials. They not only have lagged further behind in their benefit payments, they have little control over their income.

Some towns have turned to raising the sales tax.

Payson raised the sales tax to begin chipping away at their enormous debt to the pension system. Payson’s already paying about 60 percent of each officer’s salary into the system to keep up, it’s making an extra payment of about $600,000 annually from its recent increase in the sales tax. Even so, Payson owed about $20 million.

The PSPRS statistics show Payson Police officers make an average of $67,000 annually in salary and overtime. The Police Department has 23 active officers paying into the system and 21 retirees, with an average pension of $45,000 annually. Because of the high number of retirees, the department’s only paying about 34 percent of what it owes – which means taxpayers will have to somehow make up the $13-million difference.

Most counties are in worse shape than the towns.

For instance, Apache County has 26 active sheriff’s deputies making an average of $61,000 in salary and overtime. The 23 retirees collect an average pension benefit of $37,000. The pension plan is only 30 percent funded – with a deficit amounting to $11 million.

The county also has 25 detention officers making an average of $33,000. The county also has 5 detention officer retirees with an average pension of $18,000. The retirement fund is 68 percent funded, which means taxpayers will have to come up with an extra $1.1 million.

Unfortunately, despite the reforms the debt’s still growing for most towns and counties.

Some smaller towns face a huge problem. For instance, Holbrook has five police officers, making an average salary of $66,000. However, it has 15 retirees, with an average pension of $37,000. It’s paying in just 24 percent of what it owes – leaving a debt of $7.1 million. But the population’s only 5,000 – whose debt to the pension fund now tops $1,400 per resident.

But Palmer says the change in investment strategy is paying off now, with steady gains that will bolster the fund, now that the voters have eliminated the Permanent Benefit Increase. Moreover, the increase in the retirement age, increased contributions and reductions in benefits will help stabilize the fund going forward.

“All three funds gained ground this year for the first time in a long time. When you have a long-term plan, the trends’ got to flatten out before it rises. It won’t turn like a jet ski, more like a battleship in a harbor,” said Palmer. “The costs are going to come down, but it’s going to take time.”

So yes, the voters did slash benefits for future retiring firefighters and police officers.

And that will save a lot of money for the 30 percent of the workforce affected.

But the challenges of paying up on promises made to some 56,000 workers and retirees will affect the bottom line of counties and towns for years to come.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Aspens: Magical & tough

WHITE MOUNTAINS — It’s that time of year when the aspen come into their glory. The time when we can’t wait to drive up the mountain to experience their golden light, bold and splashy against the green background, yet somehow so elegant.

Randy Fuller, vegetation management staff officer for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, understands the science behind the aspen’s annual fall display.

File photo 

In the bright sunshine the yellow leaves of the autumn aspens shine brightly along Highway 273 on the way to Sunrise Ski Resort.

The development of fall’s golden hues in the aspen is driven by the same scientific processes that create fall color in all deciduous trees — chlorophyll and the length of the day. Chlorophyll is the chemical in the leaves that gives them their green color and produces food for the tree. In short, the trees that shed their leaves in fall are responding to the shorter days and longer nights.

Oddly enough, fall’s brilliant hues are created by chemicals in the leaves that are always there, but can’t be seen until fall.

“Come fall, as the days start to get shorter, chlorophyll tends to die off, it needs sunlight to keep the process going. As chlorophyll dies in the leaves, these yellow and orange colors start to emerge,” explained Fuller.

According to Fuller, there are 138,000 acres of aspen trees across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests to enjoy during the fall, and the trees are pretty healthy. Quaking aspen (populus tremuloides) are an adaptive, versatile tree that ranges from Canada in the north all the way down to our White Mountains. Aspens can live as long as 175 years.

Their name stems from the silvery backside of their summer leaves, and how they rattle in the breeze.

“When they move in the wind, they look like their shaking,” Fuller said.

Along with their golden fall hues, aspen are known for their silvery-white bark, which adds to the trees elegance. In aspen, the bark is not a tough, protective husk as it is in many other trees. It’s more like skin, tender and easily damaged.

Most everyone has seen an aspen trunk that carries someone’s initials on it, like a tattoo.

“Aspen bark is alive, it actually has chlorophyll in it … the elk tend to chew on it because it’s sweet, and people tend to carve on it,” Fuller noted. But he said, like a cut in the skin, damaging the bark allows access to disease and pests that can kill the tree.

Although aspen trees may seem a bit delicate and mild-mannered what with their name and their thin bark, they are not the tenderfoot of the forest.

Aspen trees show their tough side after a wildfire has ravaged a forest. Called a pioneer species, aspens are the first trees that will sprout from the burned landscape, holding down the soil and creating useful habitat for elk, birds and small mammals. Aspen start the process of re-creating the forest by sprouting from remnants of their roots in the soil, that survive the fire.

The power of the aspen is especially visible on Escudilla Mountain, just north of Alpine. The mountain towers 10,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, but was terribly burned by the 2011 Wallow Fire. Now it is aglow with aspen thickets that blanket much of the former burned landscape. The aspens will help tend to the mountain for the next 100 years, holding the ponderosa and other pine, spruce and fir trees in their nurturing shade until these other species are large enough to build their own forest.

“It’s this pulse, this energy across the landscape. When you see these dynamics, it’s an expression of the living force,” Fuller said, exposing his poetic side.

Aspen trees are also among some of the largest living organisms on the planet. A grove of aspen in the Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah has garnered a lot of attention from scientists and nature lovers over the past few years when it was recognized as the largest living organism on earth. A single male aspen tree has reproduced from its roots 47,000 trees that cover 106 acres. Because the entire grove stems from one tree, it is considered a single organism.

The grove is known as “Pando,” Latin for “I spread.”

Fuller’s favorite grove of aspens is near Spruce Mountain, not far from Sunrise.

“When you drive through them, they take on this really surreal, ethereal color, yellow with the green spruce coming through, this diffuse light, you get yellow on the road. With just a little windy day and you get the aspen leaves coming down and it’s … a religious experience,” he said.