KZHE News Blog
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.
by J.D. Bailey on 04/27/21
As part of an amended 2021 budget passed Monday by the Magnolia City Council, numerous municipal employees, including most local police officers, firefighters, street department, and utility workers, as well as and city executives such as the mayor, all received bumps in their annual pay.
The extra compensation comes a year after city raises were frozen in 2020 during the coronavirus outbreak. But, despite economic slowdowns in some private sectors, the city had a “good” 2020, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. He noted last month in his State of the City address that most of the extra revenues (up to approximately 7% over 2020) came by way of added online sales tax collections.
On Monday, the city leader, citing an increase in the cost of goods, said it was time for municipal workers to be issued pay increases.
“During COVID, we were scared to give raises – not knowing what the money was going to do,” he said. “But, without our people, we’d be nothing, and they’ve had to endure high prices just like all of the rest of us have.”
Vann noted that he and City Treasurer Kim Newell reviewed municipal finances over the past month and “carefully” issued raises to most city workers. The wage increases should last through 2022, according to the mayor, with the possibility of employee pay boosts back on the table again in 2023.
“The money is good,” said Vann. “We’re not going to be hurt if we give raises. I know our people need it.”
The licensed head of water operations is the highest paid city employee at $80,000 annually. Vann defended the large pay salary on Monday by saying: “Without him, we’d be lost. And he doesn't make anything comparable to some of the other (water managers).”
Salary increases were also seen in the Magnolia Fire Department and Magnolia Police Department budgets. In total, MFD salaries (12 current firefighters) jumped $12,000 from the previous budget, while MPD salaries (26 employees) rose nearly $17,000.
“I know our people need it,” Vann said.
City executives, including the mayor, received pay increases as well. Vann’s salary jumped $2,000, from $68,000 in 2020 to $70,000 in 2021. The remaining top city executives, including the city treasurer, assistant treasurer, city building inspector, city attorney, and assistant city attorneys, all saw a pay increase that combined for around $6,000.
The eight city council members did not receive a raise. Their salaries of $250 per month remained the same.
Other city departments also received bumps in pay from the previous budget. They are as follows:
Magnolia Park Department labor and salaries (3 employees) - $8,100 total increase
Magnolia Street Department labor and salaries (8 current employees and 3 vacant slots) - $13,320 total increase
Magnolia Economic Development salaries (2 employees) - $3,560 total increase
Animal Control salaries (1 employee) - $1,000 total increase
Magnolia Utilities joint wages (8 employees + OT) - $9,520 total increase
Magnolia Water Treatment (3 employees + OT) - $29,000 total increase
Magnolia Utility Maintenance (7 employees + OT) - $15,920 total increase
Magnolia Wastewater (9 employees + OT) - $12,142 total increase
Alderman James Jefferson on Monday asked Vann how the raises were calculated and wished to know if anyone received preferential treatment for pay increases, due to “relationships.”
“I looked at some of the people that got substantial raises, and I didn’t really see much effort,” said Jefferson. “But, I guess you guys know how to make that back. I just wanted to know how you (decide raises).”
The mayor answered by saying that he watched the workers carefully and felt no employee would turn down their raises issued in the new budget. He also stated that longer-tenured and higher-skilled workers were important to take care of.
“We need people that can pass water tests and wastewater tests,” he said. "We need patrol officers and street department workers and firefighters. We need them."
The mayor added that the “big brass" of the city is going to be fine in times of rising costs, but that employees he wished to address were those making $10-$11 per hour.
“We looked at trying to give as many people as we could a $1 (per hour raise),” Vann noted.
Besides salary increases, the 2021 amended budget also saw a $100,000 increase in expected city sales tax revenues (from $2 million to $2.1 million), a $50,000 increase in Economic Development funds (from $660,000 to $710,000), and a $7,000 increase in projected beverage tax monies (from $15,000 to $22,000), which helped contribute to an overall general fund increase of $157,000.
“We’ve had an extraordinarily good year,” the mayor said.
In other City Council news:
- A home at 628 Kennedy Street was condemned due to public nuisance. The passage of the condemnation ordinance was unanimous among the council members. The address, according to the mayor, has caused problems in the neighborhood with large, hazardous gatherings and does not currently contain utility hookups or meters because of theft and lack of payment.
The owner of the property, Victoria Lindsey, issued a plea Monday to avoid the home’s condemnation. The young woman said that she inherited the address from her mother and told the council that she had been incarcerated last year and was unable to bring the home up to proper regulations.
Alderman Tia Wesson, who resides in the Kennedy Street neighborhood, noted that the home was on the condemnation list because the community felt it was a danger to their well-being and that a murder nearly took place there recently. City Inspector David Nelson also stated that buckets of human excrement had been found on the property and that the property lacked basic utilities such as water, natural gas, and electricity hookups. The city official also said that the windows were broken out and dangerous.
After hearing from all parties, the council unanimously voted to pass the condemnation ordinance. Lindsey does, however, still have 30 days or more to salvage the property before further steps are taken.
- The city’s 2019 Legislative Audit results were unanimously approved by the council. City Treasurer Kim Newell said that the audit came back “good,” and that no issues of non-compliance arose.
There were, however, two items that caused the city to receive a letter from the legislative audit’s management. According to the audit results, the city made an advance payment of $25,000 to City Council member Steve Crowell for a Christmas light project without a contract of service. The issue stems from a Magnolia Advertising and Promotion funding motion passed in early 2019. The project later used the services of Magnolia High School's shop class to build lighted Panther Paws and Mulerider logos to hang on city utility poles during the Christmas season, but the project was never completed. The Panther paws were built but the Mulerider logo lights were not.
According to Vann, who is not part of the A&P Commission but was familiar with the 2019 Christmas lighting project, he believed no contract of service was ever signed between the two parties. He also stated that the student who designed much of the project has since graduated from the school and the former shop teacher is no longer at the institution, so details on the project may now be lost.
The audit states that only $11,660 worth of materials for the project can be documented. Vann said on Monday that he did now know where the remaining $13,330 in materials were located. He has also not been asked to appear before the legislative audit committee in Little Rock over the issue. He stated Monday that the local prosecuting attorney will take over any investigation into the issue, should it occur, but that he has not heard anything from that office.
“If we were going to hear from him, we would have already heard from him,” said Vann. “If I were going to be called before the legislative audit, I would have already gone to Little Rock. So, what you see is what we’ve got. I’d say it’s a clean audit.”
The audit also stated that a salary of $3,000 for Vann and $2,500 for Newell in 2019 were paid more than their appropriated amounts. Newell said Monday that those were raise amounts approved the next year in the city budget.
“We did not get raises that year,” she said.
- A resolution was unanimously approved to retroactively amend the city’s 2020 budget. The changes were made to better balance out and reflect actual city revenues and expenses from last year instead of their initially projected figures tabulated in 2019. According to Newell, this change to the budget is a routine and annual occurrence.
“It’s just our normal changes that we have to go back and make for the auditor,” she said. “We establish a budget at the end of the year, and then, when we finish the year, if we’ve gone over or under, we adjust that to meet the budget so we’re not way over or way under.”
by J.D. Bailey on 04/06/21
by J.D. Bailey on 04/06/21
Thanks to a state grant valued at $82,275, Columbia County Sheriff’s Office patrol units will soon be retrofitted with some of the latest roadside technology in law enforcement.
The grant, which was issued through the Arkansas State Police and unanimously approved for appropriation Monday night by the Columbia County Quorum Court, will see the entire CCSO patrol fleet (12 units) house the advanced eCrash/eCite mobile system for full-time use in the field. The in-vehicle computer technology is designed to allow patrol officers the ability to quickly and remotely upload on-site accident and incident reports directly to the central server at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. The system should help eliminate trips back to the office to file paperwork and allow patrol units to be to stay on the road, according to Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe.
“If a deputy works an accident somewhere in the county, he actually works the system on the side of the road. When he’s through with the report and approves it, all he has to do is push a button and he’s back on the road. The same also works for an incident report, such as a break-in or a domestic issue somewhere," he said.
Loe also noted that the new in-vehicle computer system allows for easy updates to future software advancements.
“You can add license plate readers," he said. "You can add fingerprint pads -- which we’re going to do soon. You update it to add all kinds of things involved in law enforcement."
The sheriff added that facial recognition software can be added as well, but that he is “not too high” on the tool just yet.
“If they make it better in the future, we may do it,” he said, “but I don’t know.”
The eCrash/eCite computer system is already in use in many patrol vehicles around the state through the same Arkansas State Police grants. It is also used in multiple other states, including Alabama and Mississippi.
According to a report by the University of Alabama, the full capabilities of the system can include the following:
- Scanning of driver’s licenses (reads all 50 states)
- Auto-Population of driver’s license and GPS information
- Integration with crash diagramming applications
- Crash Report Validation to minimize errors
- Eliminate redundant data entry
- Improves on the timeliness of data
- Electronic submission allows for a paperless system, plus a web portal for supervisor approval of crash report and analysis
- Finds the current officer’s GPS location
- Transfers reports and submits them for supervisor approval
- Includes crash location functionality and crash diagram support
The $82,275 grant covers the total costs for the purchase and installation of the eCrash/eCite system, leaving no extra cost to the county.
The technology help should help keep CCSO patrol units up to date and out in the community, according to Loe.
“I’m not very literate on computers and all this new technology,” he said, “but I’m smart enough to know that if we’re not on top of it and to use it to our advantage, we’re going to be behind.”
The results from Columbia County’s latest Financial and Compliance Report were announced and approved Monday by the Columbia County Quorum Court. The report included the findings of the 2019 Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.
According to the audit results, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbia County Circuit Clerk’s office were both cited for accounting mishaps.
At CCSO, the audit results noted that the balance in the Sheriff’s Office Bond and Fine bank account was not identified with receipts issued for cases not yet adjudicated.
Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe on Monday said that, upon receiving the audit results in January, he felt that errors had been made -- enough that his office filed a complaint with the Arkansas Legislative Audit Committee.
After a “very professional” meeting with audit representatives in Magnolia, Loe noted that, on some issues, the agency was “right” and some it was “wrong.”
“We still had a formal write-up after it was all said and done,” said Loe as he addressed the Quorum Court on Monday. “That was because the bookkeeper misunderstood what they were told in the previous audit. I even had two people watching and working on the books, and both of them thought they were right.”
The sheriff said that during their meeting in Magnolia with audit representatives, he and his bookkeeping staff asked “tough questions” so everyone could be on the same page going forward.
In a Feb. 4 letter to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster, Loe said that, after the meeting, one of the reportable findings was removed, but another finding remained in place. The sheriff noted that the original audit result required a meeting in Little Rock in front of the state audit committee, but after revisiting the issue, that trip was no longer needed.
Loe noted that new procedures and checks have been put in place to catch any mistakes going forward.
“That issue has been resolved, and we put a system in place to check to see if it's being done properly,” he said.
The audit results from the Columbia County Circuit Clerk’s office cited two discrepancies. The state audit stated that bank reconciliations were not properly prepared for all accounts and receipt journals were not properly maintained. The second audit point stated that the circuit clerk’s Trust account ledger was not properly maintained, noting that receipts and checks were not properly recorded. Similar issues have been ongoing since 2016, according to the report.
Columbia County Circuit Clerk Angela Keith was not able to attend Monday’s Quorum Court gathering due to a prior commitment, but she sent a letter addressing the audit points. In it, Keith said that she had been keeping up with the bank reconciliations properly since 2020.
She also addressed the trust account issue with receipts and checks, saying that she is still working on the discrepancies and that a Certified Public Accountant has been hired by the office to help sort out the issues this year. Keith, who took office in 2019, noted that a CPA was not used by her immediate predecessor, former Columbia County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Disotell, but that a CPA was used by former circuit clerk Janice Linkous, who preceded Disotell and ended her term at the end of 2014. The presence of a CPA was and is helpful, according to Keith.
“The CPA has given me some guidance on where to start, as he said it was right at the end of 2014,” she said in her letter to the Quorum Court. “… I am working to the best of my ability with the time I have had. The CPA told me he will advise me until he can devote more time to this. Rest assured, this is not being taken lightly.”
In other Columbia County Quorum Court news:
- Jenny Marie Whitehead attended her first meeting as the new Justice of the Peace for District 11. The Magnolia resident was sworn into office on March 24 after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed her to fill the void left by former District 11 JP, Jason Ray, who moved out of the district and resigned his office in February. Whitehead will now serve out the remainder of Ray’s original term, which ends Dec. 31, 2022.
- The Quorum Court unanimously approved a $2,500 donation from Saltwerx LLC, a Siloam Springs-based mineral and brine exploration firm. The funds were appropriated into the Circuit Clerk’s office where they will be used on salaries to help fund an ongoing scanning project in the department.