Rural water agency tabled

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 ~ Updated 2:46 PM

CARROLL COUNTY -- The quorum court abolished a public facilities board created two years ago, and tabled the last reading of a proposed ordinance which would create an agency to provide water to rural parts of the county.

At the quorum court's meeting Friday morning, the justices of the peace unanimously approved the repeal of ordinance 2008-14, which had created a public facilities board.

A similar ordinance had passed on two readings when Carroll County News pointed out that a public facilities board for water had already been created by the 2008 ordinance.

Board members were never appointed, however, and no actions were taken on behalf of that agency. The 2008 ordinance differed in some respects from the current ordinance, and it could not be amended, because the ordinance created an independent agency.

The JPs discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a public facilities board. JP Harley Barnum introduced Brian Moore, a vice-president with Engineering Services, Inc. of Springdale.

Moore said a public facilities board can only be approved by a county or city government. A water district or association can be created by any group of citizens.

Moore said a water association would be able to exercise eminent domain, like the public facilities board, but would not have the same advantages in obtaining initial funds.

In Madison County, a public facilities board "has worked really well," he said, receiving some $13 million in funds over the past six years.

Funds from Community Development Block Grants and the United States Department of Agriculture have helped to keep costs for users low, Moore said.

He explained that water associations can serve the same function as a public facilities board. "It's like driving a Ford or a Chevy," he said, "both will get you there." 

JPs Frank Renner and Shannan Griffith both reported receiving calls concerned about the creation of a public facilities board. Renner said the county would have no control over a public facilities board, and he advocated for an agency which the county could oversee. He also mentioned that in Benton County, cities provide rural water.

Other JPs stressed that the county could never be responsible for debts incurred by a public facilities board.

JP Tom Riddle said, "We tried to set this up with the best people we could find, to get water at the cheapest price." 

Barnum said he agreed with the need to offer rural water, but he questioned the methods. "We as a court have not done a good job getting information to the people," he said. "They've been seeing and hearing stuff and believing it." 

He said, "The rumor mill has been rampant," and he suggested tabling the ordinance for a month and pursuing a public meeting.

By a vote of 8-3, the JPs voted to table the third reading of the ordinance, and a resolution to appoint board members for the agency was also tabled.

Closing courthouse

A resolution was on the agenda to place an item on the November ballot to close the Western District Courthouse in Eureka Springs.

The resolution included a clause noting that a ruling by Circuit Judge Kent Crow declaring that the county has only one judicial district has been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. JP Tom Riddle asked for a legal opinion from Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser. "Is it appropriate to do this when something is before the supreme court?" he asked.

Closser answered by pointing out that the item would not be suitable for the ballot, because it would not be legislative in nature.

JP Ron Flake, who sponsored the resolution, explained that he did not learn Closser's opinion until after the item was placed on the agenda.

Flake said he had also contacted Mark Whitmore, chief legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, and Whitmore agreed with Closser.

He agreed to withdraw the resolution, but said he still considers it important to find what the people of the county think about continuing to operate a courthouse in Eureka Springs.

He noted that if Crow's ruling is upheld, State Sen. Randy Laverty has promised to sponsor legislation affirming two separate judicial districts in the county. When Laverty appeared before the quorum court in April, he said he would not follow through with his proposed action if the people of the county did not want it.

"It would be beneficial to the legislature to know how the voters feel," Flake said, and he suggested a poll as an alternative way to assess the sentiments of voters.

Flake admitted that it is difficult to determine the cost of operating the Western District courthouse, but he estimated a cost of $150,000 to $250,000 per year.

"Holding court there is a very expensive proposition," he said, although he agreed the county should keep an office there to issue wedding licenses.

JP Don McNeely pointed out that Berryville's courtroom was barely adequate for the crowd who attended this meeting. "We need a better place," he said, although he quickly added that he would oppose a tax increase to fund a new courthouse.

Loan for airport

The quorum court authorized a short-term loan to provide funds for the new terminal project at the Carroll County Airport.

The Arkansas Department of Aeronautics has approved two grants which will provide $347,000 for the project.

The commission will provide $76,000 in matching funds, for a total of $423,000, which will cover the cost of the terminal, a new well, and site work.

An unsecured loan provided by Community First Bank will provide $175,000 to fund the construction until grant funds are received.

County Judge Sam Barr explained that the Carroll County Airport Commission could not sign a loan without authorization from the quorum court. He also pointed out that most of the money will be spent with local contractors.

Elected officials from the county and its cities, along with the general public, are invited to a formal groundbreaking for the new terminal project at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 22.

Pay hike for jailers

Although it was not on the agenda, a pay raise for jailers was discussed. During the period for JPs' comments, Griffith announced her intention to place an item on the Aug. 20 agenda to raise the pay of jailers.

Jail Administrator Archie Rousey said jailers have heard for several years that they would receive substantial raises once the mortgage on the detention center was paid.

He said the starting pay for jailers is lower than any other county department, and lower than other counties with a facility of similar size.

Rousey said the detention center has operated below its budget for the last three years, while bringing in money by housing prisoners from outside the county.

Treasurer Cindy Collins said the sales tax revenues which support the detention center have declined. "It's not my job to be popular, just to report what's in the county coffers," she said.

Collins explained that paying off the jail's mortgage only means that the county will not have to continue subsidizing the jail from the general fund.

"Yes, they deserve a raise," Collins said, but she placed a higher priority on making sure the county can meet its existing expenses.

"I can't tell you in good conscience we can do this," she said. "We have to have enough money to make payroll." 

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