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MPD gets new home at Business Park; Mayor issues State of the City address; Water line project advances

by J.D. Bailey on 06/23/20

MPD relocating to Harvey Couch Business Park, N. Jackson office to remain as sub-station

The Magnolia Police Department is getting a new home.

Approved unanimously Monday night by the Magnolia City Council, the former SAU Tech Welding Academy at the Harvey Couch Business Park will be renovated to serve as the primary home of MPD. The new location sits inside the Magnolia city limits and will serve as a major improvement over the department's current home adjacent to City Hall.

Finding a new MPD home has been on Mayor Parnell Vann’s agenda since he first campaigned for the job of in 2009.

“The one thing I remember when speaking to the then police chief was: ‘I need a new building,’” said Vann. “We have, for soon-to-be 10 years, been saving and preparing for that day to come.”

The building came open after SAU Tech recently ended its lease with the city. The welding academy had been in the building since 2011.

The 3.15-acre property was formerly owned by Magnolia Economic Development Commission, but when the nonprofit dissolved in 2018, all of its assets, including its physical properties, were granted to the city of Magnolia. The 18,664 square-foot building will now be renovated to house the Magnolia Police Department. The 103 Harvey Couch Blvd. building is situated between Icee of South Arkansas and Southwest Planning and Development District, approximately 0.3 miles from Hwy. 82 in Magnolia.

The northern half of the building was previously an industrial area, while the remaining portion was made up of classroom space. The property was built in 2005, according to Columbia County tax records, and is still in sound condition.

The cost of the renovation is estimated to be around $600,000, according to MPD Chief Todd Dew.

“The funds are sufficient to make the renovations that we need to get that building into a base of operations for the Police Department,” he said.

The renovation will be paid for, in full, out of the police department savings fund, according to Vann.

“We’re in a position where we can pay cash for this project,” he said. “No money comes out to the General Fund for this project. These are monies that we’ve saved and designated to a police station.”

Renovation plans were presented Monday night to the Council. The technical layout was provided by MH Construction Designs of Magnolia. The new station will include expanded office and storage space, a command room, a processing room, three holding cells, a training room, a radio room, an officer fitness center, a kitchen, a break room, showers and restrooms, evidence space, multiple rooms that can be adjusted for different uses, a dog training area, and over 50 parking spaces, many of which will be behind a secured area.

“Our [current] building is in bad shape,” said MPD Chief Todd Dew. “We have ceiling issues, electrical issues, plumbing issues -- it’s a task.”

The chief stated that future needs by police departments require better training and security, as well as improved evidence storage.

“With some of the mandated training that I foresee coming down, it would be a very high burden to the city to send multiple officers to school when we could send one officer to school and then he could train not only our department but other local officers as well,” Dew added. “That building would provide a basis for that and a place for that to happen.”

Dew added that current MPD officer morale was good, but the past six to eight months have been hard to get police officer applications.

The possibility of losing a downtown Magnolia Police presence raised some issues among the Council Monday, with Alderman Tia Wesson stating that some citizens without transportation often walk to the 206 N. Jackson station to pay fines.

The mayor and Dew both reassured the Council that the current MPD station will remain open and operational as a second MPD home and that the building will still be used for officers to write reports and meet with the public.

Police response times from the new station was also addressed by the Chief.

“There’s going to be officers moving in the city, no matter what,” he said to the Council. “Or they’ll be here (at the city hall complex).”

The N. Jackson building is set to get improvements with leftover funds from the new Harvey Couch main station renovation, according to the mayor.

“We will remodel and rehab (the current) building,” he said. “It will have a substation in it.”

Dew said Monday that he hoped the new Business Park station could be open and operational within a year. He also stated that he and Alderman James Jefferson have discussed hosting a "citizens academy" to would help the public engage with officers and let them learn what goes into regular police work. The new facility would contain ample space to host such an event.Mayor praises first-responders, Magnolia Utilities in State of the City address.

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STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS

With a 4-month delay in regular meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann on Monday night issued a belated, yet topical State of the City address.


The annual speech typically reviews local progress and happenings, but this year, the city official used the address to both praise city emergency personnel, especially Magnolia Police Chief Todd Dew and his department, as well as shed some light on the extensive work put in by the Magnolia Water and Wastewater Departments over the past 18 months.


Wearing a mask and meeting indoors for the first regular City Council meeting since March, the mayor began his address by talking economics and the coronavirus pandemic, saying that 2019 finances were “good,” but that the Magnolia Regional Airport is “down,” since few people are flying now. He also praised Magnolia Economic Development for bringing Texas CLT jobs to Magnolia and said the Magnolia Street Department is in “good shape” financially and only owes a debt on an overlay project from a few years ago.


He noted that cases have recently spiked in Columbia County.


“COVID-19 is alive and well,” he said. “Please stay out of groups. We’ve had a number of gatherings and a number of parties." 


PRAISE FOR MAGNOLIA POLICE DEPARTMENT


With recent civil unrest breaking out across the country over perceived law enforcement issues, the mayor heaped praise upon Magnolia Police Chief Todd Dew and his department. Vann said that when he came into office in 2009, there were issues within the department, but those have been resolve, in large part due to Dew and his officers. 


The chief's resume? includes 30 of years experience as well as training from the FBI, Arkansas State Police, Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, and the Arkansas Law Enforcement Academy in Camden.


“I think if you stack up Todd’s credentials, Magnolia is lucky to have a police chief with that kind of training, because there’s not many of him around the state,” said Vann.


The mayor noted that Dew is always open for discussion from the public and that his department holds multiple outreach events each year, including Shop With A Cop every Christmas, and Treat From a Cop on Halloween.


“People need to know the men and women of the Magnolia Police Department that protect them,” the mayor said.


To show transparency in the department, Vann noted that every MPD officer wears a body cam and every patrol unit has a camera active during emergency situations. The mayor said that anyone claiming to have had a problem with an officer should feel free to contact Dew to review the footage. 


To highlight some of the situations law enforcement and other city employees run into, the mayor stated that some of the foul language he’s seen and heard from local citizens is “atrocious.”


"No one deserves that,” he said. "We’re all human beings, and we should all be treated as such.”


Furthering his statements about local law enforcement, Vann issued police statistics from 2019. He said that, including SAU students, Magnolia Police officers patrol an area of around 15,000 people.


The statistics were as follows:


Total tickets and warnings – 2,660

Warnings tickets only – 2,017

Hard-copy tickets issues – 626


Demographic breakdown for the 626 issued tickets:


Asian American – 8

Unknown American – 42

Caucasian – 1,270

African American – 1,340



Most of the tickets, according to Vann, were issued from 7 to 10 p.m. The biggest reason for tickets issued is two-fold: tail light outage and loud music.


“Slow it down and keep it down,” he said. 


In 2019, the Magnolia Police Department made 340 arrests.


“Here’s the heartbreaking thing, the records will show that it’s roughly the same 400 people getting arrested over and over again,” said Vann.


The mayor noted that MPD sometimes deals with second- and third-generation family members during arrests.


“To those 340 people that went to jail, I would say that you need to change your life and change the people that you’re hanging around, or it’s going to happen again.”


As he closed his law enforcement remarks, the mayor implored any and every local church group or nonprofit organization to invite a Magnolia police officer to an event to better get to know and understand them. He also asked that citizens of Magnolia try to see the good in people and to try to live in harmony with one another.


“We’ve got to love and get along with each other,” he said. “This is our home, and what has gone on around this country must not come to our city. I won’t let that come to our city – our police chief, our fire chief, everyone, will not let that come to our city.”


MAGNOLIA WATER ISSUES


Magnolia Water underwent a major project in the past year by pumping thousands of dollars into the restoration of The Sterling Lacy Water Purification Plant to get city residents off of Sparta Sand water wells and back onto water from Lake Columbia. The wells have been running around-the-clock and supplying Magnolia residents with water for the past two years.


“The Sparta Sand water was depleting,” said Vann.


The project was lengthy and expensive. The city was aided by a $200,000 grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to help restore the water facility. The 30-plus-year-old treatment plant was built specifically to supply Magnolia residents with water from Lake Columbia, an abundant resource, and thus eliminating the need to overwork the Sparta Sand wells.


“We had some scary moments in ‘19,” said Vann. “I was afraid there were times that I was going to have to call for boil order, but God is good, and we made it through.”


The Magnolia Water office was also praised for its efforts after the implementation of a new billing policy. The new policy that began in November 2018 included moving the shut-off deadline from around 70 days to five days after your payment is due.


“Somewhere in 2018, we noticed that we were $200,000-plus in the red,” said Vann. “We had a lot of money in the street that we weren’t collecting. People weren’t paying, so we made a change.”


On Monday, the Magnolia Water office shut off 49 past-due customers, according to the mayor. That number wan an “all-time low.”


To go along with the new billing policy, the city began the installation of new “readless” digital water meters for all Magnolia Water customers. The technology now lets the local water office monitor meter activity. As of Monday, 99.5% of Magnolia Water customers were now on the new meter technology, according to the mayor.


The move was instituted by the Magnolia City Council largely to help stop water theft. The new meters can track, down the gallon, water usage from a remote location. Any tampering with the water meters will result in a $300 fine, according to Vann. He asked that no one remove or tamper with the water lids.


“We can’t give water away, because we go out of business,” said Vann, “and if we go out of business, the whole town is out of water.”


In his closing remarks, the mayor again thanked all city employees for their work and asked both his friends and enemies alike to pray for him to make good decisions for the city.


“Whether you love me or not, I’m going to keep working hard,” he said. “God bless Magnolia, and God please bless America.”



……………...

Council votes to move forward with cast-iron water line replacement project

A project first announced a year ago to combat water discoloration in parts of Magnolia took another step forward Monday night as City Council members voted unanimously to move into the bid-gathering stage for a large-scale, multi-million dollar project to replace outdated, cast-iron water main lines throughout some central and southwestern sections of the city. The aged metal lines are subject to corrosion buildup and have caused numerous complaints by citizens since early 2019.

The areas identified for water line replacement last year included Lawton Circle, Highland Circle, Hazel, Joy, Lawton, Partee, and Monzingo. But in the year since the project was first announced, water discoloration has been discovered in other areas.

“As we took a closer look, we realized -- based on complaints from water users -- that we needed to expand the focus of our project,” said Franks during his statements to the Council.

The areas of Calhoun, W. Main, Kelso, N. Height, Virginia, Ross, Doris, Clay, Pecan, and parts of S. Madison, S. Jefferson, and S. Washington in the city’s southwest quadrant were identified as additional problem sections. Alderman Tia Wesson stated Monday that she had received a complaint of water discoloration at W. North Street, as well.

“These areas are largely cast-iron water lines,” Franks added.

Existing cast-iron lines will be abandoned for new, non-corrosive water lines to be laid in city ditches. The plan already has approval from the Arkansas Department of Health. Franks estimated earlier this year that the project's cost would be around $2.8 million. That figure was based on bids received six to nine months ago, prior to the coronavirus outbreak. The cost now, Franks estimated on Monday, should be less.

“We feel -- and we’ve seen projects that have been bid in the last 30-45 days -- that prices will be less than several months back,” said Franks. "There’s a lag on the projects available to bid. The contractors are hungry for projects.”

Franks noted that material costs are approximately the same as before the outbreak, but contractor labor costs and profit margins are less than previous estimates. He did not know exactly how many companies would bid on the project, but said now is the time to begin advertising.

Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann stated Monday that the city can foot the bill for the project by refinancing and extending a city bond for an additional one to two years.

Franks noted Monday that there are other sections of the city with cast-iron water lines, but he did not have a definitive enough answer as to how much. He also said that those areas could be problematic “down the road.”

In other City Council News:

– Mrs. Cory Barnett was unanimously approved to be a member of the Magnolia Airport Commission.

– The 2020 Census deadline is now Oct. 31. As of now, the national response rate is 62%. The state's rate is 56%, while Magnolia’s response rate currently sits at 52%, and Columbia County as a whole is 49.4%.

Alderman Steve Nipper, who heads the Magnolia City Council’s Census efforts, noted that much of the local census outreach was performed via mail and telephone calls. In Columbia County, the number of people who have responded by internet is 26.5% so far, while Magnolia’s internet response rate is 34.7%. To improve Census awareness locally, print, billboard, radio, social media and sticker advertising campaigns have begun.

Census enumerators on or by Aug. 11 will begin knocking on doors of local citizens who have not responded to the 2020 Census. The Census count directly affects how much state turnback funds Magnolia and Columbia County receive. According to Nipper, the city of Magnolia’s general fund and Street Department funs will receive a total of $1,000,020 this year.

“If we have the same population [as the last census], that’s $12 million over 10 years for our community,” said Nipper.

– The Council voted unanimously to amend the 2019 Magnolia City Budget. The amendment comes after the final numbers for last year were above previous predictions.

“There are certain items that [auditors] want to be amended to exact numbers,” said Kim Newell, treasurer for the city of Magnolia.

The city official noted that last year’s city sales tax numbers were budgeted for $1.8 million and the numbers actually came in at $1.909.

County elects to remain with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield as health insurance provider

by J.D. Bailey on 06/16/20

J.D. Bailey


The Columbia County Quorum on Monday night voted nearly unanimously to remain for another year with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield as the county’s health insurance provider. The vote passed the Court by a 9-1 margin. Justices of the Peace Marjie Blair, Penny Cook, Annette Pate, Jason Ray, Burnie Sharp, Lynn Story, Oliver Thomas, Russell Thomas, and Rick Waller all voted “yes” on the motion. JP Steve Lee was the only “no" vote. JP Terry Williams was not present.


The move to remain with Blue Cross and Blue Shield will add an estimated $40.23 to each county employee’s monthly premium, due to the insurance provider raising its rates. The county’s premiums are set to increase 7.94%. The total annual cost for the new plan is expected to be $662,126.40. The figure accounts for the 95 full-time county employees currently on the county’s health insurance coverage.


The county workers, however, will not be burdened with the extra costs. The Court passed a second motion Monday that will have the county foot the bill for the extra premium amount. 


“Since we can't give raises this year, I think we ought to go ahead and pay the premiums," said Cook.


The majority of the other JPs agreed, voting by a 9-1 margin in favor of the motion. JP Steve Lee was the only dissenting vote.


The extra premium costs will be covered through transfers within departments, according to County Treasurer Selena Blair. The funds are primarily made up of extra Worker’s Compensation monies.


The only major changes in the new plan include an increase in in-network, out-of-pocket maximums and deductibles. The new plan will also see lower specialist office and urgent care visit costs, as well as most prescription medication costs.


The breakdown for the county’s current Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan versus the new Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan is as follows:


Current Rates New Rates


Physician Office Visit: $35 $35

Specialist Office Visit: $75 $70

Wellness: 100% 100%


In-patient hospitalization: Remains the same (Coins after Deduction)

Out-patient hospitalization: Remains the same (Coins after Deduction)

Emergency Room: Remains the same (Coins after Deduction)


Urgent Care Facility: $75 $70


Prescription Drugs


Tier I: $12 $10

Tier II: $50 $40

Tier III: $70 $60

Tier IV: $70 $120


In-Network Benefits



Deductible:


$2,000 (single)/$6,000 (family) $2,000 (single)/$4,000 (family)


Out-of-Pocket maximum:


$4,000 (single)/$8,000 (family) $6,000 (single)/$12,000 (family)


Member Co-insurance: 20% 20%



Out-of-Network Benefits


Deductible:

$2,000 (single)/$6,000 (family) $6,000(single)/$12,000 (family)


Out-of-Pocket Maximum:


$16,000 (single)/$32,000 (family) $14,000 (single)/$28,000 (family)


Member Co-insurance: 40% 40%

Lifetime Maximum: Unlimited Unlimited



The Quorum Court decided to stay with Blue Cross and Blue Shield after a presentation from Keith Walley, a representative from Gallagher Insurance, Risk Management, and Consulting. The other option would have changed the county over to an all-new health insurance provider, United Health Care (UHC). Walley noted that UHC tends to have higher increases than Blue Cross-Blue Shield from year-to-year.


The UHC plan had some advantages over the new Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan -- slightly lower office visit costs and lower out-of-pocket maximums -- but the monthly premiums would have been nearly $13 higher. The hassle of switching providers and the unknowns of a UHC were also major deciding factors.


“Having gone through a change, from one company to another, I’m not a big fan of that personally,” said Ray. “… I like history of Blue Cross and Blue Shield. They know us.”


Ray also noted that UHC is not “widely accepted” in the area.


The handful of employees in the audience on Monday were asked their opinion on the matter. All agreed with Ray’s sentiments. They stated that they would rather remain with their current provider instead of changing over every part of their health insurance and medications to a new company.”


“I love Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield,” said one employee.


Had the UHC plan been chosen, every county employee on coverage would have been automatically signed up for prescriptions through CVS Pharmacy -- a company that has no store in Columbia County.


County talks frustrations with solid waste contractor

by J.D. Bailey on 06/02/20



With citizen complaints continuing to roll in over the lack of regular brush and bulk pickups in the county, many local justices of the peace, as well as County Judge Denny Foster, on Monday night vented their frustrations with Columbia County’s contracted solid waste pickup provider, WCA (Waste Corporation of Arkansas).

JP Oliver Thomas, who represents District 7 and chairs the Columbia County Quorum Court Solid Waste Committee, highlighted numerous areas of the county where, he said, solid waste pickup services have been neglected.

“I’m not exaggerating, any place you go in the city [of Magnolia] or in Waldo, there is debris,” he said. “I get calls about it, and I contact our contractor, but they don’t do anything.”

Thomas on Monday afternoon, ahead of the Quorum Court’s regular monthly meeting, drove throughout Waldo’s Roselawn Street, Hwy. 371 N. between Waldo and Magnolia, Hwy. 98 West from Waldo, and the area of Olive and Parkway Street, as well as Jackson Street and Calhoun Streets in Magnolia, to see firsthand the complaints.

“This debris is not just momentary,” Thomas added. “The [WCA-Columbia County solid waste] contract says that it will be picked up all over the county once a week; that is not happening.”

The solid waste chairman also had some blunt words for the county’s contractor, essentially saying that the county and its taxpayers are upholding their end of the bargain, but the solid waste provider is not fulfilling its part.

“The citizens of Columbia County deserve a little bit better help,” he said. “...Over $187,000 per month that the citizens pay to WCA. If they’re not complaining about their salary, then we shouldn’t be complaining about services. There is no alignment between what they promised and what we’re getting.”

The county signed a five-year solid waste contract with WCA in August 2018. The Houston-based company, which is otherwise known as Waste Corporation of America, has hauling, landfill, and transfer station operations in 10 other states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida. The firm has been Columbia County’s solid waste pickup provider since 2015.

Thomas said Monday that the contract, he believes, does not contain any judicial consequence language for WCA if it does not fulfill its promised services. Thomas noted that the agreement only stated what services WCA would be responsible for, saying that it was more of a “trust” contract.

County Judge Denny Foster on Monday echoed Thomas’ and other JP’s frustrations with WCA. He said his office receives dozens of calls per week over solid waste issues and that the county has already spent $11,781 this year repairing 322 damaged green curbside garbage cans. The total cost included parts, labor, and mileage. Each wheel costs $6.95 to replace, the axle costs $6.95, and the lid is $19.95, according to the Judge. Last month, JP Jason Ray stated that the wheels on his two-week-old cans were broken off, due to WCA trucks harshly handling them.

WCA is not responsible for fixing the damaged cans, according to Foster. Since the bins are technically county property, the county is responsible for fixing and maintaining them, thus footing the bill. The Judge also said that this year alone, 73 cans have “gone missing." They are replaced at $53.97 per can.

To help remedy some of the brush and debris pickup issues, a resolution was presented Monday before the Quorum Court that would have funded an additional grapple truck operator. The driver would have been a county employee and would have driven a grapple truck that the county already owns. The motion, though, failed to pass by a narrow 6-5 margin.

JPs Marjie Blair, Penny Cook, Steve Lee, Jason Ray, Burnie Sharp, and Russell Thomas, voted “no” on the resolution, while JPs Annette Pate, Lynn Story, Terry Williams, Oliver Thomas, and Rick Waller all voted “yes.”

The resolution would have doubled the county's brush- and bulk-pickup abilities by having two grapple trucks running at once throughout the county, instead of one. Grapple trucks are able to pick up bulk debris loads. The additional Class B CDL-rated driver would have made a salary of $31,200 per year.

The primary issues the dissenting voters had with the resolution included the county having to make up the slack for services that WCA is already contracted to perform, as well as the amount the additional driver would have been paid.

Foster noted Monday that he knew the county should not have to add a driver of its own and that those contractual issues could be addressed at a future Quorum Court Solid Waste Committee meeting, but, at some point, the piling debris needs to be removed from county addresses.

“I want [WCA] doing their part, too, but I’m tired of stuff laying there two months without being picked up,” he said.

Foster, during discussion on the resolution, also noted that the county “has got to do something to get [WCA’s] attention."  He was attempting to mitigate some of the bulk debris complaint-calls and get the county cleaned up.

“I know it’s not the county’s responsibility if you read the contract with WCA, but their contract is not being fulfilled by them, therefore we get 20 calls a day about the bulk buildup.”

The judge also mentioned renegotiating the contract. JP Russell Thomas said it looked as if WCA was in breach-of-contract already by not fulfilling its negotiated terms.

JP Steve Lee added that the county’s solid waste contractor prior to WCA, Get Rid of It, had many of the same issues discussed Monday, but, “there comes a time when someone’s got so to say ‘not anymore.’”

One of Blair’s main issues with the resolution brought before the Court on Monday had to do with salaries. She stated that the county had tried to keep many county jobs in a similar pay range and that she did not believe a grapple truck operator should make more than a county jailor or another truck operator. The difference in pay between the operators was roughly $1,000 per year, according to the JP. Foster noted that the grapple truck requires a CDL-rated driver, and that necessitated the extra pay.

Although the Quorum Court could not come to a consensus on the resolution Monday, the members did agree that a Solid Waste Committee meeting would be required soon to further hash out the issues with WCA.

“This is nothing new with WCA,” said Williams. “I think we need to form a Committee meeting, decide what we’re going to do, approach WCA, and say, ‘enough is enough of this shit and let’s move on.”