Months after a few council members voiced concerns over John Basteen’s performance and one month after hiring a new town attorney, the Duncan town manager’s future is again the subject of discussion.
According to the agenda for Wednesday’s Duncan Town Council meeting, the council will meet in executive session to evaluate Basteen’s performance “and to receive legal advice pertaining to the performance of the town manager.”
The next item on the agenda is “consideration and possible action with regard to the town manager’s employment.”
Basteen did not return calls and texts seeking comment and two council members who expressed concerns over his performance in March, Alex Blake and Deborah Mendelsohn, declined to comment when reached Saturday.
In February, an accountant from a Gilbert firm hired by the town shared the results of the June 2020 audit with the council and said the town of fewer than 800 was $115,862 in the hole.
He told council members the town’s financial health has been steadily declining for five years. The town has not been charging enough for water and sewer to cover costs and the town’s savings have been eaten away, Bingham said.
After that meeting, Blake, Mendelsohn and council member Valerie Smith said Basteen’s performance is partially responsible for the dismal financial picture and that they believe there is a lack of transparency and communication from his office. Blake and Mendelsohn went so far as to wonder if the town would have to disincorporate.
It was also revealed in February that steps to address the Basteen situation were taken in 2019 and 2020, but COVID-19 brought that to a halt.
In December 2019, the council met in executive session to “review town manager’s job performance with possible dismissal,” according to the agenda. Although Basteen kept his job, council members began creating performance evaluation procedures but were interrupted by COVID-19.
Further complicating the issue was the decision of the town’s attorney to resign in November, Mendelsohn said.
Last month, the council hired the law firm of Pierce Coleman. The town is being represented primarily by Christina Estes Werther, who joined the firm last year after a nearly six-year tenure as the general counsel to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
The council has taken steps since February to address the town’s financial issues. They have increased water, sewer and trash rates and increased rental fees on the town’s front loader.
The council also agreed to allow Veregy, an engineering and energy services company, to take a look at the town’s mechanical and electrical systems to see if they need to be repaired or improved with an eye toward cost savings. Veregy also will analyze solar and renewable energy opportunities.
The council also agreed to more aggressively pursue annexing property along Highway 75 to Hunter Estates, which is already part of the town. Annexation was first discussed back in 2012.
During a meeting in March, Basteen pushed back against the idea that any delays in annexation are his fault. He noted that the walls of the council chambers are lined with sheets filled with subcommittee ideas from four years ago.
“It’s been put out that the manager doesn’t do his job. It’s been put out the manager brushes stuff aside, but these are four years old, so it’s not just on the manager. The council has said, ‘We will help,’ but these are four years old. That’s why they’re up,” Basteen said. “All’s I get in articles is, ‘The town manager’s not doing his job and not paying attention to what’s going on.’”
He said he resented that council members pretend to be “innocent,” when they know what the truth is.
In interviews and texts with The Copper Era in February and March, Basteen, who became town manager in 2009, said he doesn’t believe Duncan’s financial situation is any different than any other small community.
“The auditors have always given us the the doom and gloom from the time I’ve started with the town,” Basteen said. “It’s a struggle for every small town. We rely on grants. Grants are what pays for some of the stuff. We don’t get any revenues for the streets so we rely on grants.”
Basteen also pointed out the town council raised water, sewer and some trash rates in March 2019. The following year, it raised senior rates after Vista Recycling and Greenlee County raised rates.
“Every month in the packets the council members get a report from the Arizona State treasurer of what is in the town’s accounts and August 2020 to December 2020 has shown an increase of almost 100k,” Basteen wrote. “Also since October we have raised water, sewer, animal, water laboratory and cemetery service fees.”
Basteen wrote that he has asked the council a couple of times to look at the possibility of charging the employees for some of their insurance costs, but the council has always said no because it’s a perk for working for the town.
Other chances for revenue have come up for a vote such as Mud Boggs, a recreational marijuana dispensary, chain hotels or businesses. Those have either been tabled or voted down, Basteen said.
“As a manager, I don’t just get to raise rates and fees. The council has to vote on those changes,” Basteen wrote. “The Town is not going to go bankrupt or have to unincorporate. I wear several hats besides Town Manager and we have a skeleton crew working. We are trying to keep costs down for the town.”
Mayor Anne Thurman and council member Jill Wearne have not returned phone calls or emails, but Smith said she suspects the items were placed on the agenda because of “unresolved issues” and because some residents feel “neglected” by Basteen.
Thurman has said in the past she doesn’t believe the town’s finances are in as dire shape as some believe. She’s also pleaded with council members to try to get along better.
Other items on Wednesday’s agenda include a presentation by Veregy, equipment fees, annexation, the naming of a chief fiscal officer for 2020 and 2021, and the purchase of July 4 fireworks. The meeting is at 5 p.m.