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Quorum Court approves contract agreement with City of Magnolia for countywide rescue truck services

by J.D. Bailey on 06/08/21

After months of negotiating, the Columbia County Quorum Court this week unanimously approved a deal with the City of Magnolia to help finance and operate accident rescue operations throughout the county. The agreement, which was passed in the form of a county ordinance, went into effect immediately after its approval Monday night.

The multi-entity deal is the conclusion to a process that has taken more than a year to finalize. In early 2020, the county’s former rescue service operator, Columbia County Ambulance Service, notified local authorities that, after more than 20 years of volunteer service, the privately-held business would cease its vehicle accident rescue duties by 2021 and focus more on traditional ambulance services. The rescue duties included extractions from wrecked automobiles by using hydraulic cutting and spreading tools, otherwise known as the "jaws of life," as well as other crash-related rescue tasks.

In response to the news, Columbia County and the City of Magnolia last year began forming a plan to jointly fund the purchase and operation of a new rescue truck and extraction equipment. On Jan. 1, the Magnolia Fire Department took over as the county’s new rescue operations provider. Since that date, whenever an accident call comes across the local 9-1-1 dispatch service airwaves, the fire department responds.

“Whenever we get a call, we will roll,” said MFD Fire Chief Greg Pinner in March 2020.

The agency is currently using rescue equipment previously held by the ambulance service, but a new truck is on the way. In November, the Columbia County Quorum Court agreed to help purchase a rapid response rescue rig produced by ESI Equipment Inc. The truck featured battery-operated jaws of life cutters to remove car doors and spreaders to stretch apart crunched vehicles and came in a camper-shell design. The truck will also be able to carry upwards of 250 gallons of water and foam retardant for fiery accidents. The estimated price of the setup last year was thought to be between $130,000 and $150,000.

On Monday, the joint contract agreement was finally approved on the county's end. In it, the Quorum Court passed provisions that called for a 50-50 expense split between the county and city governments for the purchase of the new truck and rescue equipment. The contract also stated that the city will continue to staff rescue personnel via the Magnolia Fire Department and that the sitting MFD fire chief will be the administrator of rescue services and oversee day-to-day operations. The agency will also house and maintain the new truck -- once it arrives -- including funding fuel and scheduled maintenance expenses. MFD will also incur the cost of insurance premiums on the vehicle. A monthly report of incidents, costs, services, work hours, etc., will be generated and shared among the county and city, according to the contract.

In exchange for these costs and staffing provisions, the city has been absolved from its annual 9-1-1 dispatch service funding fees. The amount of the dispatch fees was not announced in the contract, but the funding provisions were originally part of a 2012 agreement.

“To this end, the parties agree to amend the interlocal agreement dated Dec. 18, 2012, to carry out the provisions hereof,” said the document.

Previously, the City of Magnolia, Columbia County, and the City of Waldo were all included in the 2012 dispatch funding agreement. But, since Magnolia has now exited the pact, Columbia County and Waldo are the only parties funding the local dispatch service.

Emerson, McNeil, and Taylor do not contain municipal police departments, therefore they are not involved in the 9-1-1 funding agreement, according to County Judge Denny Foster. The county official also stated that Taylor law enforcement, which contains a police chief and patrol vehicle, is not a traditional city police force.

“I believe he is a local marshal,” said Foster.

The new rescue truck contract will last four years, according to the county ordinance. It began retroactively on Jan. 1., and the deal is set to renew for successive four-year terms after Jan. 1, 2025. If a party wishes to leave the pact, a governing body must submit its wishes six months in advance via written notification. The exiting party will also be refunded its 50% investment, according to the deal.

“In the event of termination of the agreement, the party wishing to withdraw shall be compensated one-half of the fair market value of all jointly-owned property purchased pursuant to this agreement,” the contract says.

If both parties wish to exit the deal, the assets will be sold and the resulting revenues will be split equally among the government entites.

The new rescue truck is currently in the outfitting phase and is hoped to be delivered by the end of July, according to JP Russell Thomas. As of Monday, the vehicle was awaiting a paint job and installation of a winch.

Rescue services in the county responded to a total of five incidents in May, according to Thomas. Of that number, three occurred in Magnolia, while the other two took place in the county.


In other Quorum Court news:

- A $5,000 rural community aid grant was approved for the Village Fire Department. The funds will be used to help the agency purchase new firefighting equipment, turnout gear, and personal protective equipment.

- Bonnie Hardwell was reappointed to a five-year term as president of the Columbia County Library Board. Her term expired on June 6. The new term will extend through June 6, 2026, according to the approval ordinance.

- An appropriation ordinance was passed anticipating $55,000 in new county revenues after the recent sale of three old vehicles from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. Of that amount, $29,000 will be used to purchase a new vehicle at CCSO. The remaining sum will be placed back into the county’s General Fund, according to Columbia County Treasurer Selena Blair.

- An appropriation ordinance was passed anticipating an $800 increase for Columbia County Treasury salaries and expenses. The funds will be used by the county treasurer’s office to remedy a water leak, as well as pay for phone system expenses. Of the funds, $600 will be used for a landline phone and fax project, while the remaining $200 will be used for the utility issue, according to the ordinance.


City Council elects to continue in sidewalk grant program, approves $250K hospital maintenance fund

by J.D. Bailey on 05/25/21

With a June 1 deadline looming, the Magnolia City Council on Monday voted unanimously to continue the city’s involvement in a sidewalk grant program that has seen construction and refurbishing of numerous local sidewalks over the past few years. The program, which is funded by the state, grants 80% of the sidewalk building costs, leaving the city government on the hook only for the remaining 20%. The resolution approved this week will keep the city in the sidewalk grant program for another year.

If the council had not approved a resolution this week to remain in the program, the city would no longer have been eligible for the 80%-20% match grants.

“We are applying for another round of funding,” said Magnolia City Inspector David Nelson on Monday as he informed the council about the grant matter.

Sidewalk projects in Magnolia are currently funded by the grant program, including the ongoing Columbia Street sidewalk. On Monday, a $147,000 bid was accepted and approved by the Magnolia City Council to further expand the concrete footpath.

With the match grant, the city will only pay around $29,000 to complete the project. The new build will tie into the Columbia Street sidewalk and run up the east side of High School Drive, cross over Bradley Street, and continue to the parking lot at Magnolia High School’s Ninth Grade Academy parking lot, according to Nelson. The lone bid for the project was submitted by the Bryant-based construction firm, JCON, Inc.

On Monday, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann stated that another sidewalk is planned for South Vine, to stretch from Dixie Mart to School Street. With the lead time required for the grant program, though, construction on the project may not begin for another two years, according to the city official.

The area was targeted for new sidewalks after Magnolia Junior High School Principal Gwen Carter recently witnessed children walking in the street in that area and relayed the scene to the mayor.

“That’s a sidewalk that we won’t see, probably until the year 2023,” said Vann. “But (Carter) will be glad to know that something will be done.”

Additional sidewalk projects are not the only pedestrian improvements the city is looking at improving in the future. In March, during his annual State of the City address, Vann stated that he wished to pursue the construction of walking and cycling trails in Magnolia along the local water and wastewater property right-of-ways. But, on Monday, the city leader noted that, after researching the project more, the city only has the ability to use the right-of-ways for water and wastewater utility purposes, and not for the construction of pedestrian trails.

“We don’t have to ability to use the right-of-ways for anything we choose,” he said. “In this case – walking-bike trails.”

The location of the trails, according to Vann, is hoped to stretch from Southern Arkansas University near Hwy. 82 to the Forrest Place Addition area of Warnock Springs Road (Columbia 61) in the northern and eastern portions of Magnolia, as well as near Southern Arkansas University’s Laney Farm, along Columbia Rd. 13 (Old McNeil Highway).

In hopes of continuing the trail endeavor, the mayor on Monday noted that, even with the newly-discovered right-of-way limitations, the city plans to progress with the trails. This time, however, the city will be required to gain permission from individual property owners along the proposed route to use the right-of-ways for walking and cycling.

“We will have to work on easements of the (water and wastewater) right-of-ways that we currently have and visit with those people to see if they will allow us to do that,” the mayor said. “They have the option to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

If the city is indeed granted the proper easement approvals by the property owners, the city government would likely begin the trail project in 2022, according to Vann.

“If they say ‘yes,’ then we will begin next year,” he said. “If they say ‘no,’ then we’re done.”

When asked just how many property owners will need to issue an approval for the trail project to move forward, the mayor said that, at the moment, he did not know.


MRMC LEASE AGREEMENT

An amendment in the property lease agreement between the City of Magnolia and Magnolia Regional Medical Center was approved Monday via a 5-1 vote from the Magnolia City Council. The amendment will allow for a $250,000 maintenance fund to be set up by the city and allow the local hospital to use the monies for building and property upkeep. The funds can only be used for hospital maintenance purposes, according to the agreement, and cannot be used for services directly associated with health care, according to the lease.

In August 2020, Magnolia Regional Medical Center signed a 30-year lease with the city after the hospital last year broke away from local government ownership and formed a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. The move was made in an attempt to boost the financial health of Magnolia’s hospital through higher federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. Estimates in 2019 stated that the hospital could be in line for a $750,000-plus annual revenue boost by the move.

The new lease revision limits the maintenance fund only to property and building repair items at MRMC. These items include the following:

  • Roofing
  • Cooling Towers
  • All Chillers, to include compressors and motors
  • Boilers, to include replacement and re-piping
  • Generator, switches, and software
  • Major electrical feed panel
  • Hot water storage tank
  • Elevator major repairs
  • HVAC systems (including air handlers)
  • Fire Alarm system and software
  • Sprinkler System
  • Repairs to major sewage and wastewater drainage systems
  • Structural damages not covered by insurance
  • Any other major repair item not contemplated by the parties, but later agreed upon by the parties as a major repair item related to the building


The fund will be limited to $250,000 and filled by local hospital maintenance fund tax collection. Currently, the fund is full, according to Magnolia City Attorney Mike Boyd.

Hospital maintenance tax collected by the city will be separated from other city tax monies, according to the lease amendment, and placed in an interest-bearing account. Should the hospital be required to spend from the maintenance account, the city will replenish the maintenance account at a rate of $10,000 per month, per the lease amendment. Once the fund reaches $250,000 again, the city replenishment will cease until the next round of spending -- should that occur.

To receive monies from the city hospital maintenance account, MRMC will be required to issue a request form to the city containing a description of the repair and a cost, or estimated cost, and submit all invoices and receipts from the repair, according to the lease.

When Magnolia Regional Medical Center was under city ownership, it previously had unlimited access to the hospital maintenance tax fund. Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann on Monday stated that the old fund was often used to aid the hospital financially, as well as maintain its grounds.

“For 10 years, that money has been used to operate,” he said.

The amendment was approved Monday by ‘yes’ votes from Aldermen Larry Talley, Jeff White, Steve Crowell, Kelli Souter, and Steve Nipper. The only ‘no’ vote was cast by Alderman Tia Wesson. Councilmen Jamie Waller and James Jefferson were not present for the vote.

The approval vote came after Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann expressed wishes to hold off the vote until after MRMC addressed a current drainage problem at the hospital, which could potentially deplete or significantly lower the $250,000 in maintenance tax funds.

“It appears that the Nabholz Group (that built the current hospital in 2010) did not dig up the old french drain-water drain system and left the 1939 system in the ground,” he said. “It has come loose.”

The vote to approve the amendment, however, proceeded with a 5-1 passage, which will allow the hospital to access the maintenance funds for its current property issue, and potentially avoid incurring a large expense from its operational bottom line.

There was a request Monday by Wesson to amend the language in the lease amendment motion to exclude the current drainage issue, but the original motion to pass the lease was moved forward with, voted upon, and passed.

According to Nipper, the MRMC Board of Directors on Monday also approved the lease amendment. The language in the contract was also reviewed and approved by attorneys at Friday, Eldridge and Clark LLP, according to Boyd. The Little Rock-based firm has offered legal advice to the city since MRMC’s nonprofit transition began nearly two years ago.

...

In other city news:


- The Magnolia Blossom Festival did “very well” this year, according to Magnolia Economic Development Director Ellie Baker. The city official stated Monday that the local chamber of commerce appreciated the city’s input, as well as its help in cleaning up the streets immediately following the conclusion of the event last week. In addition to the work performed through the night by the Magnolia Street Department, the Magnolia Police Department and Magnolia Fire Department also pitched in, according to Baker.

“If you went to church the next morning, you really didn’t see anything left out,” she said.

- The newest version of Magnolia Living, the city’s local travel and information guide, is now available, according to Baker. They can be picked up at the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce offices along West Main Street, as well as various locally-owned businesses. The Chamber is also working on a new city seal and logo to help better market the town, according to Baker.

 

Federal Rescue Plan Act relief aid coming soon to Columbia County

by J.D. Bailey on 05/04/21

With hundreds of billions in federal relief aid headed into state and local governments across the country over the coming weeks, the Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday voted unanimously to establish a special fund in the county’s financial budget to hold the expected revenues.

The new budgetary fund, officially called the Columbia County Rescue Plan Fund, was established this week as the deadline nears for the first federal aid payments to be dispersed as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which Congress passed on March 11. As part of the bill, $130 billion was specifically set aside to assist local governments in coronavirus recovery across the U.S. Of that total, local governments in Arkansas are set to receive $2.8 billion in fiscal relief assistance. The monies deposited in the county’s Rescue Plan Fund will follow guidelines issued by the U.S. Treasury, according to Monday’s passage of the special new account.

Numerous factors, including population and economic considerations, went into determining how much aid each local government will be issued. According to Civilytics Consulting, a Massachusetts-based data science consulting firm, language in the American Rescue Act Plan determines that each county will receive $198 per person in aid. When applying that formula to the roughly 24,000 county residents locally, Columbia County could receive approximately $4.7 million in federal aid by May 10.

That amount, however, has not been officially verified by the Columbia County government. On Monday, Columbia County Judge Denny Foster said he was not sure exactly how much the county would receive and how, specifically, the funds could be used once it receives them.

“We were just told to be ready for the funds, and to set everything up properly before we get the aid,” he said.

The estimated assistance figure for Columbia County, though, does line up with other county relief aid amounts already announced. Pulaski County, which is one of the 200 largest counties by population in the U.S. and the largest in Arkansas, is set to receive just shy of $78 million, or $198 per person, in the federal aid package, according to Civilytics Consulting.

City governments are also set to receive American Rescue Plan Act aid separately from counties, according to the data firm. The amount, however, differs by population. Cities with populations over 50,000 could get anywhere from $200-$300 per person in aid, while cities with populations under 50,000 could see an estimated $240 per person. Little Rock, alone, has already been announced to be in line for $37 million in relief aid, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. That amount is expected to be separate from Pulaski County's aid total.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the federal relief funds are designed to remedy the “mismatch” between rising costs in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and falling government revenues. However, many local governments have actually seen a rise in tax revenues over the past year, instead of a decline. In March, the City of Magnolia announced that it saw a tax revenue increase of around 7% over its 2020 budget and, because of the strong financial year, issued raises to most of its workforce last month. Columbia County Finance Chair Annette Pate also announced recently that the county government had taken in more tax revenues in 2020 than it previously estimated. Much of the revenue increases are thought to be linked to a growth in online sales tax collection, according to local government officials.

On Monday, Foster said he was not sure how the incoming federal aid monies for Columbia County will be spent or what parameters will be put in place for the funds by the federal government.

“I estimate that it will be related somehow to COVID. That’s all I know right now,” he said. “We’ll know for sure when we are told what we can do with it.”

It is also unknown how much of Columbia County’s federal aid allotment will be issued in the first round of Rescue Act funding. According to the relief bill, all of the monies must be dispersed to local governments by May 10, 2022.

According to findings by Civilytics Consulting, the firm determined that the Rescue Act relief funds can be used to aid local small businesses and nonprofits, provide government services to workers deemed essential, and make investments in local infrastructure -- including water, sewer, and broadband. These parameters, however, are only estimates by the data firm and have not been confirmed by the local government.

Regardless of the limitations or designations on the aid, Columbia County, along with numerous other cities, counties, and schools, will be the recipient of significant amounts of coronavirus aid since the pandemic began in March 2020. To go along with the incoming federal aid, the county in October applied for -- and eventually received -- approximately $676,000 in state-funded grants to help offset coronavirus hazard pay for county law enforcement and healthcare employees. The grants were linked to federal funding issued to states as part of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES ACT of 2020.

In other Quorum Court news:

- The joint city-county emergency rescue truck project is progressing. The new truck is currently being outfitted with rapid response equipment, according to JP Russell Thomas, but the process is moving slowly. On the legal side of the project, Columbia County Attorney Becky Jones said Monday that negotiations are “moving along,” and should be nearing the final stages of the agreement between Columbia County and Magnolia soon.

- A $2,550 grant has been issued to the county via the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. The funds will be used to purchase 8-10 foot spike strips for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.