Pay raises halted for city workers as part of 2021 budget : KZHE News Blog
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Pay raises halted for city workers as part of 2021 budget

by J.D. Bailey on 12/08/20

An unpredictable 2020 has now affected next year's budget for the City of Magnolia. 

On Monday, the Magnolia City Council unanimously passed a balanced 2021 city operating budget. The passage was similar to past years, but for next year, municipal employees are not slated for pay increases. The move comes as an extra financial precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, now in its 10th month, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. 

“We were scared to give raises this year not knowing what Covid is going to do,” he said. “We probably could have done that, but we’re worried about the income because the city runs off sales tax income.”

The mayor noted earlier this year that city finances were still stable, but that extra expenses had been halted. He said Monday that the delay on employee raises is not expected to be longterm, adding that pay increases for city workers is slated to be part of the 2022 city operating budget, should local sales tax revenues allow it.

“We’ve got to see where 2021 takes us,” he said.

The city, however, has not been totally frozen from an employee hiring standpoint. Magnolia Utilities, which includes the city water and wastewater departments, added a new full-time water manager this year. The city had been without a full-time water manager since 2017. The hire had long been a suggestion of water department audits. The water manager hire was able to be made since city water and wastewater sectors are funded by local utility fees and not through sales tax revenues, according to the mayor.

The new water manager is a certified water distribution and water treatment operator. He has reportedly been well worth the extra investment. 

“He has already made a tremendous change to the water that we supply not only to the city but to all of our customers,” said Vann.

Mandy Ezell, office manager at Magnolia Utilities, said Monday that there have been no complaints of cloudy or discolored water in Magnolia over the last 3-5 months. 

Magnolia Utilities also invested heavily into the restoration and reopening of the Sterling Lacy Water Purification Plant at W. Greene Street, which transforms the water of Lake Columbia into clean drinking water for city water customers. The 30-year-old plant had been closed since 2018 but was reopened in the summer to alleviate municipal water depletion from the Sparta Sand Aquifer, which had been the source of Magnolia water for over two years.

Pumping water from Lake Columbia is not without challenges. In late 2019, the invasive plant species Giant Salvinia made its way into the Magnolia waterbody and now requires supervision from the Arkansas Health Department to perform semi-annual, non-toxic herbicide sprays to keep the plant from overtaking the lake. The problem is not one that will go away anytime soon, according to the mayor.

“The Giant Salvinia, it’s never going to go away,” he said. “It’s here forever. So every so often, we’ll have to spray the lake. I hope -- and that’s just me -- that it’s only two times per year.”

Magnolia Utilities is expected to cycle between Lake Columbia and Sparta Sand wells throughout the year.

Aside from the new water manager, other hires at Magnolia Utilities have also been made in recent weeks and months to aid in water and wastewater treatment for the city, according to Vann. The hires include new maintenance workers, as well as a water treatment intern.

Other expenses in the city’s 2021 operating budget include the purchase of two new Magnolia Police Department units and a city wastewater vehicle, as well as a joint-venture rescue truck purchase with the government of Columbia County.

The new police cruisers are standard expenses every year, according to Vann.

“We’re doing the two vehicles with the police that we’ve been doing for a number of years,” he said.

In other City Council News:

- The Council unanimously approved a $162,800 bid from Ed Pharr Construction for the erection of a new shop building at the Magnolia Street Department. The new facility will provide coverage for the department’s 33 pieces of equipment, as well as a stable place for the Street Department mechanic to work, according to Jerry Lewis, supervisor of the Magnolia Street Department.

The building will 50 feet by 200 feet, with a 50 foot by 50-foot enclosure, as well as open bays. The only other bid submitted came through Morton Buildings Inc., based in Mayflower, at $163,361. The Morton bid did not include concrete work, while the accepted Ed Pharr Construction bid, which came in $1,000 lower, did include concrete work.

The funds to pay for the project will include no taxpayer monies, according to Vann. The building costs were generated mostly through property abatements and millings, as well as excess department funds, according to Lewis.

The work on the new building is expected to begin soon.

- The Garver 2040 city improvement plan is expected to be voted upon by the Magnolia City Council in the coming months. The plan, which would completely overhaul the city’s zoning laws and regulations, was a multi-year project in hopes of improving Magnolia’s layout for the decades ahead. Aside from a complete change in zoning, the plan also calls for city signage regulations to go from only a few paragraphs in the current city code, to more than three pages of laws in the new plan.

The Garver plan still needs to be looked over by the city attorney’s office to make sure all of the potential new rules are Constitutional and within the parameters of state laws. The Garver issue will likely be brought back to the City Council in early 2021.

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