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City Council approves employee pay raises, condemns Kennedy Street home over danger to community

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.”

 

CCSO receives $82,000 grant to outfit patrol units with new computer tech; Quorum Court approves 2019 audit

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.”

2019 AUDIT 

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.

Mayor offers positive financial news, infrastructure and department updates in State of the City address

by 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.

INFRASTRUCTURE

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.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

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.”