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KZHE News Blog

City cuts millage tax, purchases new police cruiser amid vehicle shortage

by J.D. Bailey on 10/26/21

Magnolia property owners are set to receive a bit of tax relief next year, after the Magnolia City Council on Monday passed a measure eliminating the city’s 1.5-mill general fund tax for the year 2022.

The financial levy, which passed unanimously by present Magnolia City Council members Larry Talley, Jeff White, Tia Wesson, Jamie Waller, Steve Nipper and James Jefferson, came after Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann informed the board that the city no longer required the additional 1.5-mill tax to bolster the city’s general revenue fund.

“We told the voters many years ago that when we didn’t need it, we wouldn’t take it,” he said about the general fund millage. “That means 1.5 mills is coming down off the (city) property tax for next year. We are lowering taxes in the city of Magnolia.”

The tax applies to real and personal property owned in Magnolia and is separate from local school district and county millages. As part of Monday’s tax approvals for next year, the Council also levied millage rates for Magnolia Fire and Police Department pension funds. The rates remained the same at 1 mill for Fire pensions and 1 mill for Police pensions, for a total of 2 mills.

With the elimination of the general fund millage next, the city’s total millage rate for 2022 will be down from the current rate of 3.5 mills.

A mill is a rate used to calculate taxes owed on real and personal property owned by a taxpayer. One mill is equal to one-thousandths of a dollar. By eliminating the 1.5-mill City General Fund millage, Magnolia property owners’ annual tax bills should decrease next year.

For example, a taxpayer who owns $100,000 in assessed property will see a cut to their city taxes by $150 annually.

The city’s 1.5-mill general fund millage had been on the books since 2019. The tax was levied to help bolster the city’s revenues and increase local police salaries. A 2018 city budget proposal hoped to generate an estimated $70,000 in total raises for 22 MPD officers, as well as clerical staff and other employees officers within the agency.

But as the city’s finances have recently improved, the extra millage is no longer needed, according to the mayor.

“It appears that we’re OK with cash-on-hand,” he said.

Since last year, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city has been financially healthy. In March, during his annual State of the City address, the mayor stated that city tax revenues were up 7% (about $800,000) over the previous year, and that a contributing factor was thought to be the state’s legislative changes to online shopping sales tax collections that took effect in July 2020. Previous to the Arkansas statutory changes, many online retailers such as Amazon and eBay were often exempt from local sales collections.

The changes have helped see an increase in local tax revenues, but the mayor did say Monday that it has been a “good year”, but that some months were “a tick down.”

Monday’s vote to elimination the 1.5 mill tax, however, is not necessarily permanent. The tax can still be re-levied for 2023, or any year after that -- should the city council vote as such. According to the mayor, however, the city intends to keep the general fund millage off the books for as long as possible.

“We’ve always said that if we find ourself in the position where we have to call for (the general fund millage) back, that we would,” he added. “…If the world comes to an end, we can make it until it’s time to re-levy that millage.”

In other Magnolia government news:

- The Magnolia City Council on Monday approved the purchase of a new Dodge Durango SUV for the Magnolia Police Department. The cost for the vehicle is about $30,300, according to Mayor Parnell Vann, and will be used to replace a Ram truck police cruiser that was recently sidelines with motor problems.

The city was lucky to be able to purchase any new vehicle at all, according to the mayor. In a typical year, the city would buy at least two new police vehicles to phase out old units in the fleet, but, with mass material shortages and supply chain breakdowns and backlogs, the city was initially slated to receive no new MPD vehicles. The new Durango, however, was acquired after Landers Dodge Chrysler Jeep RAM reached out to the city.

“There will not be any more trucks or cars available this year,” said Vann.

The mayor said he’d like to buy more equipment for the city in upcoming 2022 budget talks, but that there simply isn’t the inventory available right now to do so.

“There is not a lot out there right now that we can buy,” he said.

The city official noted that he was told that past production levels for vehicles will not return until mid-2023 -- and that timeline is contingent upon no further supply chain problems or shortages.

“They’re just not making stuff right now,” he added.

- The Magnolia Utilities Water and Wastewater audit for the year 2020 was reviewed by independent water auditor Pete Parks of Parks & Company PLC in El Dorado.

The CPA noted that the city’s water audit found no significant deficiencies and praised the city’s Treasurer, Kim Newell, for her financial work for the city, but he did critique the utility service’s “segregation of duties” and asked that high-level city officials have more oversight in the Water and Wastewater Departments to prevent employee fraud and possible misappropriation of grant funds.

- Two interlocal agreement measures were passed by the Magnolia City Council Monday to finalize a joint-agreement with the city of Magnolia and Columbia County for the recently-purchased Columbia County Rescue truck. The vehicle, which cost an estimated $185,000, is operated around-the-clock by the Magnolia Fire Department and is used during rescues and extractions of car accident victims. The truck contains Jaws of Life devices, as well as on-board flame retardant and rescue equipment.

As part of the agreement, the city of Magnolia was absolved from its part in funding the local 9-1-1 emergency dispatch service, but is responsible for staffing, insuring, and maintaining the new rescue vehicle. As part of the agreement, the city and the county governments also split the cost of the truck’s purchase.  

Magnolia City Council approves sale of former Blewster home, Home Health clinic for $70K

by J.D. Bailey on 10/26/21

The Magnolia City Council on Monday unanimously approved the sale of the former Magnolia Regional Medical Center Home Health clinic at 833 N. Washington to local business owner Laura Cowell. The property, which was also a residential address of former Magnolia Chamber of Commerce director and First National Bank president W.C. Blewster and his wife, Agnes, until 1997, was selected for a high bid of $70,000.

The deal still needs to be closed upon in the next 30 days and a final resolution on the matter next month, but Crowell’s previous plans called for a major transformation of the property to serve as the local Edward D. Jones financial planner’s new office location. The Magnolia resident currently operates a business location at an E. Main Street shopping center near the intersection of N. Dudney Street.

The city-owned N. Washington Street property was initially set to be sold in September, but a three-week public bidding period was placed on the project by the Magnolia City Council to block any perceived notions of unfairness or favoritism from the local governing board. Crowell, who initially wished to purchase the former MRMC Home Health clinic, is the wife of sitting Magnolia Alderman Steve Crowell. And although the city official was not present during discussions on the property sale this week nor last month, the City Council still elected to place a specified waiting period for any other public bids.

“I think we’ve done our due diligence and done all that we can do,” said Magnolia Alderman Jamie Waller on Monday. “Mrs. Crowell’s bid has the higher bid, and will probably be the better suit for the city anyway.”

Magnolia City Inspector David Nelson stated this week that the property had received five calls -- one after the Oct. 18 deadline -- during the bidding period, and only one party wished to view the parcel.

“Not a whole lot of action on it -- for whatever reason,” he said.

The only other bid on the property came from Magnolia Resident Kayla Higgs for $30,000.

Public records do not indicate when the home was built or its assessed value, but they do show that the property was sold to Magnolia Hospital in 1997 for $183,000.

With the sale now approved by the Council, the property is expected to be rejuvenated and remodeled over the coming months into a vibrant new office space. The building, which has been used only for storage by MRMC over the past few years, had become somewhat overgrown and unsightly.

Crowell, ahead of the potential sale of the property last month, told, “It is a lovely home with so much potential and would fit my needs for expansion of personnel and additional space. I intend to honor the history of the home with a tribute area to the home and the Blewster family. We are very excited to have the opportunity to improve the lot and keep the area growing with homes that are well cared for.”

The City Council will still need to vote again on the final closing of the N. Washington property in November, but the move should be all but a technicality by then, according to advice from the city attorney’s office. The mayor also noted that he will double-check with Crowell to see if her plans are still set to proceed as originally planned last month.

County uses portion of federal aid to issue $1.5M in essential worker bonuses

by J.D. Bailey on 10/05/21

J.D. Bailey

With over $4.5 million in federal relief aid scheduled to be issued to Columbia County by next spring, the Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday voted unanimously to issue a set of “premium pay” bonuses for all current government employees who were staffed during the first 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The total amount of the payments will be just over $1.5 million, according to the local appropriation ordinance, and will be retroactively applied to employees for the hours worked from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2021. To be eligible for the bonus payments, which will be tabulated as overtime/premium pay, current county workers must have been continuously employed through the dates listed.

Since county employees have been deemed essential workers, they were eligible for the extra wages.

“The Quorum Court of Columbia County recognizes the need to provide resilience to our local government by providing premium pay to eligible workers retroactively to March 3, 2020,” the appropriation ordinance states.

The measure was effective Monday evening upon the passage of the ordinance. The retroactive wage increase set by the bonuses is not permanent, according to the county measure, and only applies to the stated period. 

The bonuses will be funded at no cost to the county. The grant monies used in the one-time pay increase were gained as part of the federal government's 2021 American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March. The $1.9 trillion aid bill included some $350 billion in direct cash infusions into city, county, and state governments across the U.S. to help offset any financial impacts and shortfalls of the coronavirus pandemic. The federal dollar amounts issued to each county were based on population and other economic factors, including HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program formula that examines the poverty levels of a community.

The amount for each local essential worker pandemic payment will vary among county workers, with employee pay scale and hours worked as the two determining factors, according to Monday’s measure.

The bonus payment structure breaks down as follows:

- Workers who made $14 per hour, the county government's minimum wage, will receive the largest bonus amounts with an additional $5.25 added per hour worked during the designated time period.

- Workers who made $14.01 to $18 per hour will receive an added $4.25 per hour worked during the designated time period.

- Workers who made over $18.01 per hour will receive an added $3.25 per hour worked during the designated time period.

- County Equalization Board members will receive a lump-sum payment of $100

- Quorum Court members will receive an additional $400, or 140% of their monthly per diem, for each meeting they attended from Jan. 1, 2021, through May 31, 2021.

- The County Coroner will receive $5,816, or 140% of his hourly contract rate, from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2021.

- The County Attorney will receive $4,900, or 140% of her hourly contract rate from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2020.

Although discretionary spending of these federal dollars is largely left up to the local governments, the U.S. Treasury set certain guidelines and parameters on the aid package in March. According to the Government Finance Officers Association, a group that since 1906 has advised private-sector financial and accounting professionals, eligible uses for the federal relief funds include: revenue replacement for government shortfalls; COVID-19 expenditures or negative economic impact assistance to small businesses, households, hard-hit industries, and economic recovery; premium pay for essential workers; and investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Federal guidelines also state that all American Rescue Plan Act monies must be used by the end of 2024.

In May, the Quorum Court established the Columbia County Rescue Plan Fund as the deadline for the first half of federal funds neared. The remaining half of virus aid must be sent to counties by May 10, 2022, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The breakdown of Monday’s premium pay measure, which totals $1,509,288, is as follows:

(Note: All amounts include the totals for all the entire eligible workforce in each department or budgeted entity, plus FICA and APERS allotments)

    • County Judge’s office: $7,992
    • County Clerk’s office: $65,379
    • Circuit Clerk’s office: $61,632
    • County Treasurer’s office: $25,050
    • County Collector’s office: $52,648
    • County Assessor’s office: $67,936
    • Equalization Board: $538
    • Quorum Court: $20,270
    • County Buildings: $21,348
    • Scanning: $3,939
    • County Attorney: $4,900
    • Sheriff’s Office: $219,609
    • County Coroner: $6,261
    • Office of Emergency Management (OEM): $3,291
    • Veteran’s Services: $7,347
    • Rural Development Authority (RDA): $27,176
    • Road Department: $369,292
    • Recorder Cost Fund: $13,597
    • County Library: $84,718
    • Solid Waste Department: $146,893
    • County Jail: $222,318
    • County 9-1-1 Service: $69,798
    • Public Defender’s office: $7,347

With the premium pay bonuses set to be issued, the county government will still be left with over $3 million in expected aid that it must spend in the coming few years on infrastructure, essential worker pay, local economic aid, or revenue replacement.

As of Monday, there have been no public announcements on how or when the county plans to use the remaining federal funds, once they arrive.

On Monday, roughly 25 county employees were present in the Columbia County Courthouse in Magnolia to witness the passage of the $1.5 million appropriation ordinance. Once the voting was official, Columbia County Judge Denny Foster stated:

“I do thank y’all, and the county employees thank y’all, too.”

Following the statement, JP Jenny Marie Whitehead acknowledged the county workers in attendance and began a round of applause in their honor.

After the Quorum Court meeting adjourned, Columbia County Circuit Clerk Angela Keith issued a brief statement showing her gratitude for the retroactive wage increase.

“I just want to say, from the elected officials and the staff to the Quorum Court, thank you very much,” the county official said.

In other Columbia County Quorum Court News: 

- A funding measure was passed to replace two air conditioning units at the Columbia County Detention Center. In total, $16,353 was transferred from within county insurance budgets and into a machinery and equipment fund to pay for the project.

- A resolution was passed designating Southwest Arkansas Planning and Development District, Inc. as the grant administrator for an Arkansas Community and Economic Development Grant. If the grant is approved, the funds will be used to replace the roof of the Columbia County Library.

- The county’s funded it's portion of a joint rescue truck purchase with the City of Magnolia. In total, $88,862 of public safety aid grant funds were spent on the project -- which represented roughly half of the cost of the new emergency vehicle. The truck, which is staffed 24 hours per day by the Magnolia Fire Department, is used in automobile extractions and accidents.

- Darrell Chatelain was re-appointed to the Columbia County Rural Development Authority for another five-year term. The RDA is the governing board, made up of five commissioners, that oversees the maintenance and administration of Lake Columbia.