County's financial straits offset good news -- Strides muted by setbacks in a year to forget finances in black -- for now
We look back on the year 2003 with a sense of relief that it's nearly over. For eastern Carroll County, it was a year of some positive strides muted by serious setbacks. And while crime was the headline-grabber many weeks this year, the major debate in barbershops and over coffee was about money.
Here, then, is a brief recap of the year that was:
Gov. Mike Huckabee's initiative to overhaul the state's education system by consolidating districts with fewer than 1,500 students immediately hit a wall in counties such as ours. In a meeting in late January, all the county's school superintendents met with State Rep. Phil Jackson to voice their opposition to the plan. As the year progressed, the governor's plan underwent radical surgery, but was still facing an uphill battle in the legislature, which is now in session to hammer out a court-ordered school system overhaul.
Ah, January! It was a forgettable month, in that the county suffered snowfall after snowfall, shutting schools and businesses and bringing all but the most crucial industry to a halt. The nastiness continued well into February with major snows on the ninth and 25th.
On Jan. 21, the Jail Oversite Committee met to begin finalizing jail plans. It revealed that the facility would house 98 inmates and would be constructed in a fashion that would allow for future expansion. After months of wrangling over details and costs, excavation began on Aug. 8. A one-half cent tax, approved by voters, will fund construction and operation of the jail, which is expected to open in January, 2005.
In February, Berryville announced that it would proceed with water and sewer installation into the 600-acre annex to the west. Mayor Tim McKinney expressed optimism that the improvements to the west would draw new businesses to town, creating new tax revenues and new jobs.
In February, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism cited Berryville's Main Theater as one of only 20 in the state that has survived unchanged for the past 50 years.
Bad news came to Green Forest in March, when Automatic Castings announced it would cease operations at the plant there, costing 77 employees their jobs, and the community a payroll estimated at $2 million annually. The company, which made die-cast aluminum parts for various industrial customers, had been in Green Forest for 30 years.
The looming county budget crises reared its ugly head in March, when the Quorum Court was told by County Treasurer Cindy Collins that the general fund reserves had dropped in half from the previous year and that carry-over funds would not be available to fund day-to-day county operations. The court decided to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze.
Child abuse and neglect in Carroll County led a foster parent recruiter to put out a plea for 25 foster homes in the county in March.
It was revealed in May that Carroll County would be the setting for a Billy Bob Thornton movie entitled "Chrystal." The movie crew worked day and night around the county during the summer to film the independent film, and everyone now awaits its release at the Sundance Film Festival. Scores of locals were enlisted to help in the filming, and many will appear in the final cut.
In June, in an on-going effort to save a piece of history, Green Forest's old railroad depot was moved to a 12-acre parcel of land the city purchased for parkland projects.
In June the Quorum Court enacted a long-debated vicious dog ordinance. The ordinance defined a position for enforcement to operate out of the sheriff's department and expended funds for kennel space. But just weeks after being hired for the position, Ed Rambo, a former sheriff's deputy, resigned, citing lack of support and communication. The position remains unfilled and the ordinance to protect Carroll Countians from vicious animals is still going unenforced.
Gov. Mike Huckabee visited the county on July 18 to certify Berryville as an Arkansas Community of Excellence. The certification provides guidance from the Arkansas Department of
Economic Development in expanding local business, industry and in determining community issues which need to be addressed and solved.
Green Forest City Council voted to offer $85,000 to Cox Health Systems in July to purchase the building which once housed the Wallace medical practice. The deal was eventually sealed, and the city immediately began moving the overcrowded police department into the 2,536-square-foot building. In October, City Council members toured the new police headquarters, which had been renovated with the aid of trustys and volunteer time of police department employees.
On July 18, the county's monetary crisis had reached a point that required action -- either cut county operations drastically or find new money, as in sales tax. The Quorum Court chose to opt for the latter, suggesting that a one-cent sales tax would alleviate the situation and allow all functions of county government to continue without cutbacks.
Had the voters of Carroll County approved the tax, it would have generated about $2.8 million in funds, with the county getting 60 percent while the county's cities shared the remainder. The odds were stacked against it.
Carroll Countians still remembered having passed a half-cent sales tax to fund the new county jail. Some quarters had argued that the jail had turned into far too expensive a project and that monies from it, were the county fiscally responsible, could help alleviate the pressing financial situation. There was the looming threat of a state sales tax to help fund the new state education reforms, whatever they might turn out to be. And there was the general feeling, it seemed, that if everyone else in the county had to tighten their belts, then so could the county. In November, voters turned down the tax vote by a margin of two to one.
The Quorum Court, faced with the reality of no new money, devised a plan that would require county workers to go to a four-day week, essentially shutting down county business on Fridays. That plan was shelved in favor of cutting positions and looking for less expensive medical insurance for county employees.
In late July, The Green Forest Fire Department received a $70,000 federal grant to purchase a new air packs (breathing devices) for firemen and turnout suits, some of which were 30 years old.
U.S. Rep. John Boozman visited Green Forest in late July as part of a month-long tour of the district to listen to concerns of Arkansas farmers.
In September, the Green Forest City Council voted to place a ballot question before the voters, hoping they would approve a plan to create a city aquatic park, which would have included a large pool, a wading pool, a kiddie pool, lounging areas and a concession building. The council asked for a three-quarter cent tax to fund construction and a one-quarter cent tax for operation of the facility. The tax initiative failed in the November election.
Meanwhile, Berryville and Green Forest Schools were also asking for voter approval of their millage plans in the school elections in September. Both districts, under state law, were required to meet a 25-mil minimum for school operations and maintenance. That required a 1.16 mil increase in Green Forest, while there was no new money required in Berryville. Both millage plans passed.
In early November, Carroll Countians were offered a chance to get a free flu shot at the Berryville Community Center. Four thousand doses were available, and the project was to test the county's ability to handle an emergency situation involving inoculations. All went smoothly, with more than 1,600 locals getting the shots. But by December, it was obvious that a different kind of flu was invading Carroll County and much of the nation. An especially virulent -- and early -- strain of influenza was taking its toll across parts of the nation, and was causing major absenteeism from schools. Hospitals were reporting an inordinate number of cases.
An early Christmas "gift" to the county was announced in December, when the Arkansas Highway Department confirmed that a $10-million-dollar four-laning project on U.S. Hwy. 62, somewhere between Berryville and Alpena, would get underway within the next two years.