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County approves state grant application to replace leaky library roof, issues local rural fire department grants

by J.D. Bailey on 03/02/21

A long-lingering leaky roof problem at the Columbia County Library may soon be remedied.

On Monday, the Columbia County Quorum Court unanimously passed a resolution to apply for a state aid grant that, if approved, would help fund a roof replacement at the local public library. According to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster, an office at the facility is currently flooded because of a leaking roof. The damage has affected the library so much so, that some employees are currently working from home.

“Their office was flooded, and they’ve lost everything,” said the judge.

The approved resolution now authorizes the submittal of a community development grant application to the Arkansas Community and Economic Development Program (ACEDP) to help complete the project. The ACEDP is a state aid program for small towns and cities in the state. The application will be submitted by Foster, according to the resolution.

The county judge said Monday that the grant was already “in the works” when he took office last year, but he did not know how much the ACEDP grant could net in funding.

“This [resolution] has to be done before we can apply for any grants,” he said.

If the application goes through, the leaky roof at the library may finally be an issue of the past.

As part of the application process, the county was also required to adopt a policy prohibiting law enforcement's use of “excessive force” against individuals during any local non-violent civil rights demonstrations. The policy’s enactment is required as a condition of ACEDP program funding and follows the U.S. Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, according to Monday’s resolution.

The provisions in the policy explain that county law enforcement “will be mindful and protective” of the rights of non-violent demonstrators and can only use force “when necessary to protect the rights of individuals or to uphold the law.” The policy also states that law enforcement agencies within the county’s jurisdiction will enforce all state and local laws against physically blocking or barring entrance to and exit from a location where a non-violent demonstration may take place.

The policy was passed unanimously by the Quorum Court.

Columbia County on Monday also handed out a few grants of its own in the form of two $5,000 community aid grants to help improve the McNeil Rural Fire Department and the Walkerville Volunteer Fire Department.

In a grant request letter to the county, McNeil Rural Fire Department Chief Jake Price asked for funds to help purchase two sets of new firefighter turnout gear for the agency. Turnout gear includes the flame-resistant equipment worn by firemen during an emergency call. The equipment can be expensive.

The cost of two full sets of gear, according to Price, is just over $5,000.

“Our department is steadily growing, and [Columbia County’s] willingness to help us has helped tremendously over the years,” said Price in his grant request.

Walkerville VFD also received approval for a $5,000 community aid grant by the Quorum Court. Their funds will be used to help purchase a 16-foot by 24-foot portable building to be used as a training and office building at the department. The total cost of the building, according to Walkerville VFD Fire Chief Jeff Gattis, is around $7,500. The remaining costs will be funded by the agency, according to the grant request.

“Our VFD is growing, and we feel this [building] would be beneficial to our department both now and for the future,” said Gattis in his funding request.

Both community aid grant requests were passed unanimously by the Quorum Court.

In other Columbia County Quorum Court news:

- JP Anette Pate, who chairs the Quorum Court’s finance committee, stated that a proposal for the purchase of a new rescue truck is ready to be presented at the appropriate time. The county and the city governments are still in negotiation stages on the joint project, according to Columbia County Attorney Becky Jones, but the two sides’ legal teams are still working out the final contract details of the deal. Magnolia Fire Department recently took over countywide rescue services from Columbia County Ambulance Service -- the private company that had handled rescue duties for the last two decades -- but a new truck and updated rescue equipment are still needed to modernize and streamline the emergency service.

- A resolution was passed to appropriate funds within numerous departments in the county’s budget. The transfers included amendments within the county clerk’s office, circuit clerk’s office, county treasurer's office, county tax collector’s office, county assessor’s office, quorum court, county courthouse, election office, county buildings, county civil attorney’s office, county health office, county sheriff’s office, circuit court, Rural Development Authority, county road department, county library, solid waste, county jail, central dispatch, and public defender's office. The budget amendments primarily consisted of professional services, office and utility expenses, and supply and maintenance costs.

- A resolution of appreciation was approved for former Columbia County JP Jason Ray. The recently re-elected District 11 official resigned his office effective Feb. 3. He had been a Columbia County justice of the peace since Jan. 1, 2019. Ray resigned due to a residential relocation out of District 11.

Ray resigns as Justice of the Peace after residential relocation takes him out of current district

by J.D. Bailey on 02/01/21

An address change by a sitting Columbia County justice of the peace is set to leave the county one quorum court representative shy of a full 11 -- at least temporarily. 

On Monday, Jason Ray of Magnolia, who has served as the District 11 Justice of the Peace since 2019, announced his resignation from the quorum court due to an upcoming residential relocation that will take him out of his current district. Ray’s resignation will go into effect on Wednesday.

“It is with regret that I must resign my position as Justice of the Peace,” he said in his resignation letter issued to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster. “This is effective as of Feb. 3." 

Ray, who also serves as a vice president at Farmers Bank and Trust in Magnolia, was first elected as Justice of the Peace District 11 in 2018. He is just over a month into his new term.

In his resignation letter, Ray also thanked his constituents.

"It has been an honor to represent the people of Columbia County,” he wrote. " ...Thank you and God bless." 

Ray was set to serve as a justice of the peace at least through 2022. His district is located in the northern portion of Magnolia. It encompasses the eastern campus of Southern Arkansas University, as well as residential areas stretching from Goode Circle in the north to E. Greene and N. Dudney in the southern part of the district. Its western boundary splits SAU’s campus, while its eastern border follows the Hwy. 79 Bypass N. in Magnolia. District 11 is roughly 1.5 miles by 2 miles in area.

The Chaffin Lane resident is set to move into a more rural location outside of his current district.

“Moving out into the country was just something that we couldn’t pass up,” he said.

In his farewell address to the quorum court on Monday, Ray thanked his fellow justices of the peace for their kindness over his 23-month span in the county government. 

“It has been a pleasure being a part of this [court],” he said. “I truly appreciate everybody.”

A resolution was passed Monday officially declaring a vacancy on the quorum court. Upon its unanimous passage, Ray’s fellow JPs gave him a round of applause for his service.

The process now begins to fill the void left by Ray's resignation. An interim justice of the peace will be tapped to finish out the remaining 23 months left on Ray’s 2-year term. Columbia County Judge Denny Foster said Monday that he has 10 days to submit the resignation paperwork to the state. Once notified of the vacancy, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson will appoint Ray’s replacement to represent District 11.

Foster added that he hoped a new justice of the peace would be in place by March, but he had no control over the replacement timetable.

In other Columbia County Quorum Court News:




- An appropriation ordinance was passed to transfer funds within the county’s operating budget. The transfers mostly included funds to cover health insurance matches, salaries, overtime, and worker’s compensation costs. The amounts ranged from $49.70 within the county treasurer’s office to $3,069.96 within the county assessor’s office.

Any yard damage caused by city projects will be fixed and replaced as before, says Magnolia mayor

by J.D. Bailey on 01/26/21

If your yard has morphed into a muddy mess during ongoing municipal water and sidewalk projects -- don’t worry says Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann, the damage will be fixed in due time.

“We’re going to put them back how we found them,” the mayor said on Monday when speaking of potential yard damage. “I want to assure the public that we’ll put you back like we found you -- if not better; just bear with us.”

Any yard damage comes as the city conducts multiple municipal ongoing infrastructure projects during the cold, rainy, wet season that is not at all ideal for preserving soft grassy areas and yards. Currently, A.L. Franks Engineering of Texarkana is overseeing a major water line main replacement project throughout much of the central and western portions of Magnolia. The project, which began work last year, will retrofit much of the city with new, non-corrosive water pipes, thus eliminating any discoloration issues in the water system that were first reported in 2019.

The $2.3 million water project, which was approved by the Magnolia City Council last summer, is expected to complete work by the end of 2021, according to Andy Franks, owner of A.L. Franks Engineering. The primary areas of focus include the vicinity of Lawton Circle, Highland Circle, Hazel, Joy, Partee, Monzingo, Calhoun, West Main, Kelso, North Height, Virginia, Ross, Doris, Clay, Pecan, and parts of South Madison, South Washington, and South Jefferson.

To add to current work, a sidewalk project on Columbia Street is also ongoing, which could also damage residents’ yards.

“Wintertime is not the best time to dig into the ground, but it is what it is,” said Franks while updating the city council Monday on local projects. “Winter is not ideal. You usually tear up more than you can fix [at the time]. Before spring, what’s torn up now will be fixed and mowed.”

Any complaints about yard damage should be reported to forwarded to the engineering company, according to Franks.

“Let us know,” he said. “We will address them as they come in.”

The mayor wished that infrastructure projects could be completed without any conveniences to local citizens, but that simply isn’t the case in all scenarios.

“We love infrastructure, but we hate the pains that come with it,” said Vann.

Aside from the water line project, Franks is also overseeing a water well project on behalf of the city. On Monday, he introduced a bid for the replacement of the city’s Well 12, which is currently out of use.

The sole bidder for the project was Pender Water Wells of Texarkana. The bid, which was ultimately approved unanimously on Monday by the city council, came in at $207,800.

The well project will be mostly funded through a $200,000 Arkansas Economic Development Council municipal water grant.

The well has not been up-and-running for “several” years, according to Vann. Upon the new construction of Well 12, the city will be able to operate a total of four wells sourced by the Sparta Sand Aquifer. The plan going forward, according to the mayor, will include shutting down the city’s water wells during the cooler months and use Lake Columbia as the primary water source for Magnolia and surrounding communities during that time.

“We’re on lake water right now,” said Vann. “They’re making really good water. We’re going along with the [Arkansas] Health Department. It’s going good.”

In other City Council News:

Pete Parks of Parks & Company PLC was unanimously approved as the new water and wastewater auditor for Magnolia Utilities. The El Dorado-based CPA was one of three bidders to submit a proposal to the city. Parks’ bid at $17,000 annually was the lowest bid, according to City Treasurer Kim Newell. The new contract is for three years. The other bidders were accounting firms based in El Dorado and Texarkana. Parks will replace Robert Edstrom, a Magnolia-based CPA as the city’s water auditor. Edstrom had performed the audit duties for a number of years, including for the most recent audit of Magnolia Utilities. He notified the city last year that he no longer wished to perform the audit duties, according to Newell.

Neca Pharr was unanimously approved as a new member of the Magnolia Planning Commission. Pharr will replace Leslie Kent on the panel responsible for hearing local zoning issues. Current commissioners Zachary Talley and Mary Iverson were also re-appointed Monday to the city board.

The city council unanimously approved the 2021 personnel policy for city workers. There are no changes to the policy, according to Vann.

The city renewed its contract with the Magnolia-based Sponsors Non-Profit Inc. to handle local community service duties. The approval vote was unanimous among the Magnolia City Council. The local nonprofit is headed by current Magnolia Alderman James Jefferson. The organization’s duties include trash pickup around the city.

Shakamree Roy, the new acting Magnolia City Clerk, was introduced by Mayor Parnell Vann in what was her first Magnolia City Council meeting on Monday. The young Southern Arkansas University student is the first elected city clerk since Rachel Waller, the former clerk, vacated the position after she was elected Columbia County Tax Collector in 2018. The position was formerly held by a series of unelected interims. The city clerk is responsible for city record-keeping, calling the roll for present city council members and tallying any potential votes, as well as other city duties. She also publicly recites the text for any city resolutions during council meetings. Roy is the daughter of Shamekia Roy, according to Vann.