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County passes 2021 budget and millage, slight cuts made in County General Fund

by J.D. Bailey on 11/17/20

The Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday unanimously passed the county’s 2021 operating budget. The county’s Finance Committee, which is made up of the 11 local justices of the peace, spent numerous hours in prior meetings compiling a balanced budget for next year.

In the budget, projected expenditures are $14,276,413. The largest single line item for 2021 is the county’s General Fund at $4,169,868. The General Fund contains expenditures for personnel and daily operations for most county government offices. 

Next year’s General Fund budget comes in nearly $87,000 (2%) under the 2020 projected budget. One of the largest cuts occurs in the Columbia County County Assessor’s office. In 2020, the projected budget for the office was $516,913. The 2021 budget, however, is projected at $482,282 in expenditures, equating to a cut of nearly $35,000. The office is the second biggest line item in the 2021 General Fund Budget. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office at $1,155,144, is the largest item for next year in the fund. Unlike the County Assessor’s office, though, the law enforcement office saw a $32,500 increase in budget from 2020 to 2021.

Other six-figure sub-fund expenditures in the 2021 General Fund include the following:

  • Circuit Clerk: $375,249
  • County Clerk: $301,978
  • County Special Projects: $310,000
  • County Collector: $265,241
  • Equalization Board: $212,160
  • County Buildings: $162,496
  • County Treasurer: $142,421
  • County Judge: $103,364

The county's next largest budget funds are the Road Fund at $3.35 million and the Solid Waste Fund at $2.65 million. These budgeted expenditures are separate from the County General Fund. The Jail Fund at $1.54 million is the only other seven-figure budgeted fund for 2021.

The county’s Special Project Fund, which is funded through the Columbia County General Fund millage, makes up $886,700 of the 2021 budget. None of the monies in that fund, however, are budgeted for expenditure next year. The fund was set up in 2018 as a mechanism to put back funds for special projects, such as large, unforeseen expenses at the Columbia County Detention Center, or to help save for a new facility altogether.

The local jail has been one of the most difficult county expenses for the Quorum Court to budget in recent years. The Rawhide Rd. facility, which is now more than 20 years old, has become inadequate for the needs of the county and contains numerous design flaws and issues, including its leaky roof, an outdated shower pipe system, and a shifting foundation.

JP Steve Lee on Monday, whose term ends on Dec. 31, pleaded with remaining JPs to come up with a future remedy to address all of the jail’s problems.

“You really need to consider a tax or get approval from the taxpayers to do something about the jail,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve just gotten by the seat of our britches for so long, and there’s going to come a day when aren’t going to get by – and it’s coming soon.”

MILLAGE

The 2021 county millage rate was passed Monday by the Quorum Court. The county’s millage rate will not be raised next year and will remain at 9 mills for real and personal property tax purposes.

The county government millage breakdown is as follows:

  • County General: 5 mills
  • County Road: 3 mills
  • County Library: 1 mill

Other local millage amounts are:

Cities

  • Magnolia: 3.25 mills (increased by .25 mills from 2020)
  • McNeil: 4 mills
  • Waldo: 5 mills
  • Emerson: 5 mills
  • Taylor: 6 mills

School Districts

  • Magnolia School District: 33 mills
  • Emerson-Taylor-Bradley: 37.4
  • Lafayette County: 32.8 mills
  • Union County (Smackover-Norphlet): 41 mills


The full breakdown of the 2021 Columbia County budget can be seen below.

  • General Fund: $4,169,868
  • Road Fund: $3,354,464
  • Solid Waste Fund: $3,653,351
  • Jail Fund: $1,549,298
  • Columbia County Library Fund: $458,280
  • Emergency 911 Fund: $431,527
  • Additional Motor Fuel Tax Fund: $246,150
  • Collector’s Automation Fund: $92,000
  • County Recorder Cost Fund: $79,100
  • Treasurer’s Automation Fund: $58,920
  • Circuit Court Automation Fund: $9,180
  • District Court Automation Fund: $8,100
  • Assessor’s Amendment 79 Fund: $25,407
  • County Clerk’s Cost Fund: $20,000
  • Rural Community Aid Fund: $20,000
  • Circuit Clerk Child Support Fund: $3,870
  • Drug Control Fund: $10,000
  • Emergency Vehicle Fund: $9,945
  • Victim of Crime Fund: $22,050
  • Indigent Criminal Defense Fund: $9,790
  • Adult Drug Court Fund: $14,101
  • Circuit Court Juvenile Division Fund: $5,000
  • Circuit Clerk Commissioner Fee Fund: $5,850
  • Assessor’s Late Assessment Fee Fund: $3,465
  • Investigator – Public Defender Fund: $8,711
  • Rural Community Aid Fund: $5,000
  • Automated Record Systems Grant: $2,986
  • County Special Projects Fund: $886,700 (no projected expenditures)
  • Boating Safety Fund: (no projected expenditures)

(NOTE: All figures, unless noted, equate to amounts available for appropriation as budgeted expenditures)

In other Quorum Court News: 

- A new fund titled the Coronavirus Relief Fund was established for any incoming CARES Act funds that may be issued to Columbia County. County Judge Denny Foster in October said he was seeking nearly to $676,000 in hazard pay grant monies for safety personnel during the coronavirus pandemic.

- JPs approved a transfer of $3,139.25 within the county’s Jail Fund for the purchase of a new freezer at the Columbia County Detention Center.

- A transfer of $5,010 within the County Clerk’s budget was passed to cover overtime expenses in the office during the 2020 election cycle. The extra funds were needed, according to County Clerk Tammy Wiltz, due to the increased number of absentee ballots that were cast and counted this year.

- A transfer of $5,000 from the Rural Community Aid Sales Tax Fund to the Grants-in-Aid Fund was approved by the quorum court.

- Chris Gilliam, who currently sits on the Columbia County Rural Development Authority Board, was reappointed in his same capacity for a new term. The approval vote among the JPs was unanimous.

 

City chips in $200K for Amfuel expansion into former Shanhouse building

by J.D. Bailey on 10/27/20

Amfuel, with a little help from the Magnolia City Council, is again set to expand its local fuel cell operation.

On Monday night, Council members passed a $200,000 economic development grant measure to aid the defense contractor with opening Amfuel Plant #2 at 1706 N. Vine Street in Magnolia. The 4.10-acre address was previously an industrial space for Shanhouse Outerwear Inc. and served as a warehouse facility for Albemarle Corporation.

With Amfuel’s expansion also comes the promise of new jobs, according to Ellie Baker, economic development director for the City of Magnolia.

“They’re going to try to increase their employees by 75 new jobs over the next 10 years,” she said Monday while explaining the parameters of the grant contract to the City Council. “They’re going to do their best to do that, but it guarantees 325 [jobs] over the next 10 years.”

Baker added that the city’s $200,000 grant will be used to repurpose and remodel the 1706 N. Vine industrial building for use as a spray booth facility. The new Amfuel property will make for its third operational facility in Magnolia.

The grant contact with Amfuel was passed unanimously by present Aldermen Larry Talley, Tia Wesson, Jeff White, Steve Crowell, Kelli Souter, Steve Nipper, and James Jefferson. Alderman Jamie Waller was not present.

The contract includes a “payback” penalty if the company cannot fulfill its job numbers, according to Baker. The new plant will be located just a half-mile north of Amfuel’s primary manufacturing facility at 601 Firestone Drive in Magnolia. The Firestone Drive site will remain in operation, according to Baker.

“They want the current building to be used for building and repairs,” she said.

The N. Vine industrial property is currently owned by JTS Capital Realty SB, an asset acquisition and management company based in Waco, Texas, according to Columbia County tax records. The firm purchased the 178,000-square foot property for $628,124 in February via a commissioner’s sale, records show. The building changed hands after JTS Capital SB in 2019 filed a civil consent decree of foreclosure against former Magnolia-based owner Trimek Properties LLC, according to Columbia County Circuit Court records. Trimek had owned the address since 2000. The county currently values the property at just over $1 million.

Amfuel’s purchase cost of the property was not stated publicly on Monday, but Elliott said the company expects to close on the N. Vine site within the next month.

The city of Magnolia and Amfuel have become serious economic partners over the past year. In October 2019, the City Council issued a $150,000 grant to help the manufacturer secure a $2.3 million U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) deal for new “preferred cell” spray booths. In that agreement, Amfuel and the DoD put up the bulk of the funding. The city in April also leased the former Zodiac-Amfuel industrial property at 2015 Field Street for a small fee. The formerly overgrown site, which had been functioning as a Magnolia Utilities storage facility, is now a completely renovated and functional manufacturing plant, according to Elliott, that employs dozens of workers.

“There will be 38 heads in that facility,” she said.

Elliott also said the company plans to add a storage extension at the property.

With Monday’s $200,000 grant, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann said the city will no longer be able to aid Amfuel again financially due to “tapped” economic development resources. He noted, though, that military contract manufacturing jobs are worth the expenditures, and the city will help support the company in any way it can. 

“My thoughts have always been that if the Department of Defense is going to invest in Magnolia, then we need to invest in Magnolia,” he said.

The new owners of Amfuel have expressed their intent to stay in Magnolia and make the plant successful. With Monday’s announced expansion, the company has thrived after its former Texas-based ownership group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly three years ago.

Amfuel has also ordered robotic systems for its spray booth operation, according to Elliott. The Amfuel executive said the equipment will not affect future hiring, stating that the company intends to increase its in-plant manpower as well.

Alderman James Jefferson, who runs a local nonprofit that deals with Columbia County District Court community service and job preparedness, said he hopes that many of his program’s participants will be considered for job opportunities as Amfuel expands.


In other City Council News: 


- The Council approved a millage increase for the Magnolia Fire Department pension fund. The new tax is levied for 2021 is 0.75 mills. Combined with the Magnolia Police Department pension fund, the total police, and fire pension millage is now 1.75 mills. The police pension millage was not raised for 2021 and will remain at 1 mill.

The city’s general fund millage will remain at 1.5 mills. This rate will generate roughly $200,000 to help pay fire and police salaries, according to City Treasurer Kim Newell.

The mayor said he thought city millage may be able to be decreased after 2021.


- A resolution was passed to fund the repaving and re-striping of three blocks-worth of Pine Street in front of the Magnolia Post Office. The cost of the project for Magnolia is $62,650. The project was aided by the state, according to the mayor. The low-bid came in from Tri-State Asphalt of DeQueen. The paving work has already been completed, but, as of Monday, it still needed to be re-striped.

City Building Updates: MPD Headquarters, shooting range, local construction

by J.D. Bailey on 10/27/20

On Monday, Magnolia Police Chief Todd Dew, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann, and Magnolia Inspector David Nelson issued building and construction updates for Magnolia. Their presentations included the following details:


MPD HEADQUARTERS

The new MPD headquarters at 103 Harvey Couch Blvd. is roughly 65% complete, according to Dew, and is expected to be move-in ready around January. The former SAU Tech Welding Academy building began its remodel process in the summer.

The renovation will move the base operations of the Magnolia Police Department out of their cramped, aged home at 206 N. Jackson next to City Hall. The downtown location, however, will remain operational as an MPD substation.

The new fencing around the Harvey Couch station has been completed, according to Dew, while electrical and plumbing work is currently underway.

The computer tech work is also ongoing. Once that is complete, only the painting and flooring process will remain, the police chief said.

Impressed with the new amount of space that the police department will have to work in as a primary station, Dew said that the new building will be a great new home for MPD.

“It’s looking really well,” he said. “For me, it's a little bit overwhelming at the space that we’re going to have out there when it’s done.”


CITY FIRING RANGE

The city-owned shooting range at Columbia Rd. 302 is nearing being re-opened to the public, according to Mayor Parnell Vann.

The facility is tentatively scheduled for a “soft opening” on Oct. 29 or Oct. 30.

The Magnolia City Council in January 2019 voted to temporally close the firing range after a neighboring property owner expressed safety concerns at the facility. The range was previously unsupervised and shots were routinely fired over the berms, hitting trees and other obstacles on a neighboring property.

In July 2019, after months of searching for a new location, Vann announced that the public shooting range would be re-opened at its former site, but only after a major safety overhaul and renovation of the property. The hours would also be limited, the mayor said last year.

Vann said on Monday that the range opening is still contingent on a meeting and tour with the neighboring property owner.

“I’ve talked to him, and he would like to go to look at the work that’s been done before he blesses it,” said Vann.

The Columbia Rd. 302 firing range now contains a locked gate at the road’s entrance.

“We have done what we physically can do with the equipment that we have,” Vann added. “There’s nothing more that we can do. From there, it’s going to cost us more money than I think it’s worth.”

The mayor also stated that he has spoken to a group that may be willing to build a range in order for the city to transition away from operating the current firing range facility.


MAGNOLIA CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS

New home construction and building projects have been slow in recent months in Magnolia, but work hasn’t stopped completely, according to Magnolia City Inspector David Nelson.

- Locally-owned duplex apartments are currently being built on Shady Lane. The development is expected to expand near Blue Bird Street to give Southern Arkansas University students more near-campus housing options.

- On N. Washington Street, a 12-unit small-home development is coming to a close. There is a possibility that another row may be built in the future.

- The only new home build in the city was just completed. The home is located in the Regal Row Addition.

- Lucy Circle now has updated street lights. The lights are LED bulbs and “really lit up the place,” according to Nelson.

- Amfuel has built an updated and expanded employee parking lot near Mallard Street. The lot is a high-end build, according to Nelson.

- So far in 2020, the city has seen 18 condemned houses be removed. Of that number, five were removed by the owners themselves. Nine more homes remain on the condemnation list to be removed, according to Nelson. The homes that have yet to be removed are typically held up by utility cut-offs or the waiting process involved in a home’s removal. The process can take up to 90 days or more, according to Nelson, if everything goes smoothly.

- A draft of the Garver 2040 Plan has been completed and submitted to the city. A presentation of the plan has been tentatively scheduled to take place at the November Magnolia Planning Commission meeting. The meetings are typically held on the third Monday of each month. If the plan is approved by the Planning Commission, it will come before the Magnolia City Council as an ordinance to be adopted.
The plan includes new zoning and subdivision rules and regulations, as well as revised city sidewalk and street suggestions.