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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.

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.