Mayor offers positive financial news, infrastructure and department updates in State of the City addressby J.D. Bailey on 03/23/21
by J.D. Bailey on 03/23/21
Despite economic and viral unpredictability since last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann on Monday issued a mostly positive message during his annual State of the City address. The concise speech took place during the monthly Magnolia City Council meeting. Numerous city department heads and officials were in attendance, including Magnolia Police Chief Todd Dew and Magnolia Fire Chief Greg Pinner.
The topics covered by Vann ranged from local finances and infrastructure to department updates and future goals for the city. He said that last year was expected to be much worse in terms of stress to the city and its financial health, but, a year later, the opposite has occurred.
“This time last year, I was very concerned at how the pandemic was going to affect city business,” Vann said. “We could only assume that our sales tax revenues would plummet, and we would have to tap into our reserves to keep the city running. I’m very pleased to announce that we were wrong.”
Although city hall was closed to the public -- and remains so tentatively until May 1 -- and all “unnecessary” spending was halted in the wake of the unpredictability, the city’s finances were not negatively affected by the virus. In fact, Magnolia’s tax revenues actually grew by 7% (more than $800,000) from the previous year, according to the mayor.
“We had a good 2020,” he said.
Unable to pinpoint exactly where the largest area of growth came from, the mayor predicted that online shopping sales tax collection, which took effect in Arkansas for all remote vendors on July 1, 2019, was the primary cause of the revenue increase. From a national standpoint, the assumption holds water. In 2020, it was estimated that e-commerce grew in the U.S. between 32% to 44%, which shattered the record for year-to-year growth.
Financial viability also carried over into the Magnolia Street Department. According to the mayor, the city department ended 2020 with a $200,000 budget surplus.
State aid grants also helped the city with its street covering efforts. Vann stated that last year alone, some $300,000 in state aid was requested and granted to re-pave Mullins Street, South Height Street, Burnt Bridge Road, and Pine Street. City sidewalks also saw a facelift with the help of state aid monies as a new sidewalk was completed along Jackson Street and a project is currently ongoing along Columbia Street.
“I want to remind everyone that the Jackson Street project was 100% paid for by the state,” said Vann.
Besides the streets and sidewalks, a major water line project also began last summer in the central and western portions of Magnolia to replace outdated and corroded cast-iron main lines with new, non-corrosive piping.
The sidewalk and water projects have caused some damage to private yards and properties, but the mayor assured the public on Monday that any blemishes will be replaced upon completion of the work.
“When the water and sidewalk projects are complete, then we will come back and fix your yard,” the mayor said. “We’re not fixing yards as we go. We’ll fix them when we’re completed.”
Other city infrastructure statistics and updates include the following:
- The mayor announced Monday that a deal is “close” to being completed to maintain Magnolia Regional Medical Center. The hospital separated from the city last year and formed into an independent non-profit corporation in hopes of generating an additional $750,000 or more in federal Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements. The new deal is expected to cover local hospital tax distribution.
“My phone will always be answered,” he said. “I look forward to working with the staff at the hospital and the CEO or anyone who needs me.”
- Following 32 violations by the Arkansas Department of Health and an inoperable water treatment facility in 2020, the Sterling Lacey Treatment Plant was renovated and re-activated to draw and filter water from Lake Columbia. Staffing changes also occurred at the Magnolia Water Department, including hiring a new water treatment supervisor in Robert Chisolm. The changes have resulted in a clean bill of health from the state and higher quality water, according to Vann.
“Per the Health Department and Robert (Chisolm), the changes have produced some of the best water we’ve ever made -- and I can say that as a fact,” said Vann.
- Magnolia Utilities absorbed the Free Hope Water Association in 2020 and new “readless” digital water meters will be installed in that community. The wireless smart meters have already been installed at most Magnolia addresses, according to the mayor.
- The Magnolia City Inspector’s office issued 93 building permits for commercial and residential improvements in 2020. The total value of the permits was $7 million, including 23 new construction permits.
- Sixteen dilapidated properties were cleaned last year, according to the mayor. The Magnolia Police and Magnolia Fire Departments aided in the projects.
– Magnolia Wastewater made repairs to their department, including pond levee repair, lift station repair, and mainline repairs.
- The Magnolia Municipal Airport for the first time in years lost money in 2020. The reason was due to low fuel sales and lack of flying during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Vann. The airport, however, did gain two new hangar tenants, and the runway is planned for a renovation soon via an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) grant. Security and communication improvements have also been made at the airport, according to Vann.
- East Side Park is receiving a new playground structure, and the old playground equipment will be rearranged to accommodate for the project, according to Vann.
MAGNOLIA POLICE DEPARTMENT
One of the most significant projects announced and implemented last year involved the long-awaited move of the Magnolia Police Department into a new headquarters at the Harvey Couch Business Park. The mayor noted Monday that he began seeking a new home for MPD in 2011. Last year, after saving funds for a decade, the building was settled upon and the project was paid for out of the saved monies.
The police department now makes its primary station at the former SAU Tech Welding Academy at 103 Harvey Couch Blvd. The building was formerly owned by the Magnolia Economic Development Corporation, but upon the organization’s dissolution in 2019, all assets were donated to the city, thus making way for a financially feasible new police station.
“It took us 10 years, but we got there,” said Vann. “We don’t owe a dime, and it will be a state-of-the-art department for our city to be proud of.”
Work on the building was mostly completed last year. The local agency continues to operate its former home at 206 North Jackson Street as a substation, while the Harvey Couch Business Park Location operates as the primary station. The 18,600-square foot building now provides enough space not only for a full station, but it will also be able to hold its own training center. The center will be named after former Magnolia Police Chief Robert G. Gorum, according to the mayor.
“Officer training hours have increased with all that has gone on in our country,” said Vann. “Our men and women have to have multiple hours of training, and this building will now provide that.”
The mayor noted that Farmers Bank & Trust and Southern Aluminum helped donate to the project, while Greg Bennett suggested the building as the new location for the agency.
To go along with the new police station, MPD also needs new officers. The mayor announced Monday that Chief Todd Dew is seeking three new police officers to be hired onto the force. The agency is currently taking applications. For more information, please contact Magnolia Police Department at 870-234-2323.
Other notable statistics and comments about the Magnolia Police Department included:
- The agency responded to 4,260 incidents last year. MPD is staffed by 21 full-time officers, two part-time officers, and two office personnel.
- Due to the coronavirus, police adjusted how they interact with the public. PPE (Personnel Protection Equipment) was found and purchased early on in the pandemic, and officers now sanitize the department as part of regular job duties.
– Community events hosted by MPD, including Shop With a Cop and the annual Public Servants’ Halloween were unable to be hosted in 2020, but they are planned to begin again this year.
MAGNOLIA FIRE DEPARTMENT
The Magnolia Fire Department has seen an addition of duties after this year taking over emergency rescue services throughout Columbia County. These services include responding to all auto wrecks and accidents that require “jaws of life” services.
The rescue duties were handed over to MFD after Columbia County Ambulance Service, a private company, carried out the service for over 20 years but exited the accident rescue business late last year.
The fire department is currently using the ambulance company's former equipment, but a new “state-of-the-art” rescue truck and equipment are expected to be in use in the next few months via a joint purchase between the city government and the Columbia County government.
“That tuck will be outfitted and should be with us in the next 30-45 days,” said Vann.
Other MFD statistics and updates include the following:
- MFD responded to 123 incidents in 2020. The force is made up of 12 full-time firemen and 11 volunteers.
- The agency hosted two blood drives for LifeShare Blood Center last year and received $10,000 in equipment grants.
One of the most notable projects for Magnolia Economic Development in 2020 included the clearing of Fountain Plaza Shopping Center.
“That’s something we’ve wanted for years,” said Vann.
In January 2020, the Magnolia City Council voted to demolish the mostly abandoned and dilapidated shopping center structure along East Main. The city acquired the real estate in 2019 for $250,000 and hoped to eliminate an eyesore for the city and eventually flip the acreage for new business development.
According to Magnolia Economic Development Director Ellie Baker, there was some interest in the property early last year, but the coronavirus pandemic halted much of the progress. She has stated that development options remain hopeful.
Magnolia's economic development has also invested heavily in Amfuel. Last year, the Magnolia City Council issued a $200,000 economic grant to help the defense contractor expand its operation in Magnolia. The plant already moved some of its workforce to the former Magnolia Utilities storage facility at Field Street and hopes to move more of its operation into the former Shanhouse Outerwear Inc. and Albemarle Warehouse property at 1706 North Vine Street.
“Amfuel is going strong,” Vann said Monday.
Other Economic Development accomplishments and updates include:
- Development of a marketing campaign began called “Branding Magnolia.” The effort hopes to attract more economic development and boost the visibility of current businesses.
- Local business owners were aided with COVID-19 information, relocation projects, and unemployment guidelines.
- Buildings and properties were marketed through Entergy's Select Site program and AEDC (Arkansas Economic Development Commission) project requests were completed.
GARVER 2040 PLAN
The Garver 2040 Plan, an infrastructure plan aimed at improving Magnolia’s zoning and building regulations and preparing the city for the next two decades of economic growth, was submitted to the mayor’s office late last year. The civil plan, which was contracted through the Little Rock-based Garver firm, had been in the works since 2016. The plan is now in the review stages by the city and still needs to be fully approved by the city council before it can be implemented.
On Monday, during the regular portion of the monthly Magnolia City Council gathering, the mayor requested that a committee be formed to meet two hours per week to help review and finalize the lengthy and dense plan. The committee, which will likely be made up of available Magnolia City Council members and Magnolia Planning Commission members, along with guidance from City Attorney Mike Boyd and City Inspector David Nelson, will be tasked with sifting through the numerous city zoning and development ordinance suggestions and identify which ideas are feasible in Magnolia and which are not. Once the plan is thoroughly reviewed, the issue could come before the Magnolia City Council for final approval.
“I think this is going to take a lot more time to work,” said Boyd as he addressed the city council Monday.
According to the city attorney, some of the suggested zoning and building changes are “slight” and some are “significant” in the 40-plus pages of Garver suggestions.
“I’m sure there are a lot of good things in there, but I was pretty shocked myself that the result was over 40 pages -- only in the notable differences," he added.
FUTURE CITY GOALS
As he closed his address Monday, the mayor laid out a set of future goals for the city. They included the following:
- Hire three experienced police officers
- Complete renovation of the Magnolia Fire Department and the Magnolia Police Department sub-station complex
- Begin working on nature trails in Magnolia via grants from the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department.
- Develop a food truck park on 16 vacant acres on South Jackson Street that the city owns.
- Complete construction on a new shop building at the Magnolia Street Department.
- Replace lift stations and sewer lines at Magnolia Wastewater
- Complete a new branding campaign for the city, get a plan in place for the development of Fountain Plaza, and focus on existing industries.
- Urge water maintenance crew members to pass water distribution tests in 2021.
- Install readless water meters in Free Hope and complete water main line replacement work in Magnolia.
- Present a future paving business idea for the city.
In closing his state of the city address, the mayor ended by saying, “God bless you, God bless Magnolia, and this year, go Panthers.”