Berry reflects on 2020, says Eureka Springs in recovery stage

Tuesday, February 16, 2021
Butch Berry

Eureka Springs is moving from the response stage to the recovery stage for the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Butch Berry said Monday, Feb. 8, during the annual State of the City address.

Berry reflected on how last year began, saying the city’s sales tax was up between 18 and 20 percent in January 2020. It looked like it would be an “incredible year” for the city, Berry said, but then the pandemic hit.

“All of a sudden, it became a reality for us in March … a lot of the fear of the unknown,” Berry said. “To be honest, I was scared to death, almost as bad as when I first took over as mayor and I was told by the finance director we had about three months reserve left until we ran out of money. But in this case, we ran out of business.”

The first thing he did, Berry said, was create an emergency task force that met at the fire department. Berry said the task force included firefighters, physicians, assisted living administrators, school administrators and “anyone who had groups of people.”

At that time, Berry said, Dr. Dan Bell said it would be the last time the group would meet face-to-face for a long time.

“With those words, the pandemic became a stark reality in our community and every meeting since has been conducted virtually,” Berry said.

Berry said everyone at his office worked to establish communication with the community about the virus, sending out executive orders from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and directives from the Arkansas Department of Health.

“Some of these directives were confusing,” Berry said. “A lot of times, they were contradictory by the next meeting, the next time a directive came out. We really weren’t sure what our new reality was except on a day-to-day basis, but it was important to us to share this information as quickly as we could to keep everyone informed.”

Berry said he placed a moratorium on large public gatherings, which is still in effect and will be “probably until June of this year.”

Berry remembered seeing hotels, restaurants and shops shut down during the early days of the pandemic and thanked local banking institutions for helping the businesses stay afloat.

He retooled city government and services to remain open throughout the pandemic, Berry said. While some support his decisions and some do not, Berry said, everything the city did was for the “greater good” of the community. Berry thanked all the “public servants and departments and commissions” that served the city during 2020.

Berry described the finance department’s experience during the pandemic, saying the city had to forecast new financials with “no projection tools or models to predict how municipal funds would be affected by this pandemic.”

“We simply prepared for the worst-case scenario … which included tightening already sparse expenditures,” Berry said.

Berry said the city identified funds that could be liquidated and instructed department heads to wait to rehire employees that were furloughed. When people retired, Berry said, the city didn’t hire anyone to replace them.

“I will say we did good. We didn’t lay anybody off,” Berry said. “There was nobody that was fired because of the pandemic.”

Berry said finance director Lonnie Clark worked with the council to keep “very close tabs” on the budget, with a budget workshop every month. While the city had to make some changes to its budget, Berry said, it’s still on track with the financial strategy set in place in 2018. Berry said the city paid off the 2010 water and sewer bond on Dec. 1, 2020, ahead of schedule.

“We’re still on track to pay off the 2008 sewer and water bond ahead of schedule in 2025,” Berry said. “We ended the year with $1.2 million in general funds at the end of December 2020.”

Also at the meeting, the council approved a proposed ordinance to rezone 38 Prospect to C-3 Quiet Commercial on a first reading. The council then approved a proposed ordinance to rezone 44 Armstrong to C-1 Commercial and a proposed ordinance to rezone 46 Armstrong to C-1 Commercial on first and second readings.

The council approved an ordinance to accept the Pine Crest Subdivision on all three readings, also approving the emergency clause. The council then approved a proposed ordinance to vacate the eastern half of an alley in the Freeman Addition on a first reading.

At the end of the meeting, Berry said the city will be receiving 400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine per week starting on Feb. 15. Berry said the city will focus on people on the Phase 1B waiting list first before moving on to those on the Phase 1C list.

“This is what we’ve been told but don’t hold your breath,” Berry said. “We’ll still see what happens. It still seems like we’re having some issues with what happens with the vaccine, but … we feel good that we’ll have the doses coming in from the state.”

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