KZHE News Blog
by J.D. Bailey on 01/11/22
The Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday approved multiple issues during its regular January gathering.
These issues include the following:
JP PER DIEM INCREASE
Columbia County Justices of the Peace on Monday voted unanimously to issue themselves a compensation boost. The move came after the local governing body voted to amend the county ordinance that sets the per diem rate and annual per diem ceiling rates for attending county government meetings. The rate, which is now $440.17, is closer in line with other counties in Arkansas with roughly the same population as Columbia County, according to one official.
The previous per diem rate was around $280 and has not been amended since the end of 2018. Monday’s vote was passed with an 8-0 vote. Three JPs — Russell Thomas, Penny Cook, and Jenny Whitehead — were not present.
JPs in the state cannot be paid a monthly salary, according to the Association of Arkansas Counties, and are instead reimbursed for their civic services on a per diem, or “by the day,” basis. Since the county officials cannot be paid a standard salary, they are instead reimbursed for attending meetings and traveling to civic gatherings in their personal vehicles.
The bare minimum per diem allowed for JPs in Arkansas, according to state code, is $125. Counties in the state typically stick to a per diem in line with other counties of similar size, but Columbia County’s JP per diem was not up to date for current conditions, according to the ordinance passed Monday.
“The Quorum Court of Columbia County has found and determined that [the ordinance] which sets the per diem compensation to be paid to Justices of the Peace and sets the rate of reimbursement to Justices of the Peace for use of privately-owned motor vehicles in the conduct of county affairs, is antiquated and should be amended to coincide with the compensation currently appropriated for Justices of the Peace for the 2022 calendar year,” said the county document.
The JP per diem rate is typically issued on a per month basis since the Columbia County Quorum Court gathers for its regular session only one day every month. The JP pay increase, according to the ordinance passed this week, cannot exceed $5,282.04 per year. When extrapolated out over 12 months, the rate equals $440.17 per month.
County JPs can, however, miss up to one meeting per year for emergency or personal reasons and still be compensated their regular per diem, according to the ordinance.
The new rate took place immediately upon the passage vote by the Quorum Court on Monday.
WALKERVILLE VFD GRANT
The Walkerville Volunteer Fire Department was issued a $5,000 community grant after a passage vote by attending members of the Columbia County Quorum Court.
The move came after a request letter was sent to the county government in May requesting aid for two new sets of turnout gear for the community fire department.
“This grant would greatly help us in providing the necessary protection when called out to fires,” said Walkerville VFD Fire Chief Jeff Gaddis in the request.
The cost of each new set of gear is approximately $2,500, according to the fire official.
The vote to approve the community aid grant was unanimous among the Quorum Court.
CCSO BODY SCANNER ARRIVES
Announced Monday by JP Rick Waller, chairman of the Quorum Court’s jail committee, the new body scanner purchased last month for the Columbia County Detention Center will be installed on Tuesday, Jan. 11, and training will commence after that. The equipment purchase, which cost $174,000, according to the county, was approved in December by the Quorum Court. It was funded by federal COVID-19 relief aid monies.
According to Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe, the scanner is similar to those used by federal TSA agents and can detect body temperature swings to help mitigate the spread of viruses and illnesses in the county jail system. The technology can also help detect potential foreign objects being smuggled into the facility.
COUNTY INSURANCE INCREASES
Building Insurance on county properties is going up, according to County Judge Denny Foster. The exact cost of the increase is not known yet, but the county leader said Monday he estimates building insurance premiums will increase by approximately $23,000 per year.
Workers’ Compensation for the county is also set to increase at an even greater rate, according to Foster. The county official estimates that the annual rate will increase from $42,000 per year to $77,000 per year, or about $35,000.
“We’re still working on that, though,” he said.
by J.D. Bailey on 01/11/22
After calls of delayed or missed recycle pickups recently to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster’s office, regular routes should now be back on track, according to the local official.
Foster noted Monday that complaints have all but disappeared lately.
“The recycle calls about pickup have gone down tremendously over the past eight days,” he said.
The reason for the improvement is simple: Waste Corporation of Arkansas (WCA), the county’s contracted solid waste collection firm, has the proper amount of drivers again.
“They’ve finally got a full staff on board,” Foster added.
Columbia County JP Oliver Thomas, who also chairs the Quorum Court’s solid waste committee, did state Monday, however, that recycle pickup had not been collected at his Luther Street home in Magnolia for quite a few days.
“As far as pickup, I haven’t seen them at my house,” he said. “But, I take my recycle to the (drop-off) station anyway.”
Although driver shortages have been the primary causes for solid waste delays, according to Foster, the position is not an easy one to fill. WCA is currently advertising help-wanted ads across the web for additional drivers. The job posting even recently offered a $4,000 sign-on bonus to new drivers, but few potential workers seem interested.
“I don’t know if they had any bites,” said Foster, “even with the bonus offer.”
According to WCA job listings, a truck driver needs to be at least 21 years old, possess a Class A or B commercial driver’s license, and have at least one year of truck-driving experience or have a certification from an accredited truck-driving school. A driver also needs to meet certain DOT standards.
The driver shortage is not a local problem, either. Nationwide, companies are finding out that hiring qualified truck drivers is not an easy task. Although some publications claim the driver shortage is overblown and has existed for years, other outlets report that there are as many as 60,000 fewer truck drivers on the road in the U.S. than there could be.
Driver staffing issues aside, recycle containers in Columbia County are still sometimes filled with non-recyclable goods, according to the Quorum Court Solid Waste Committee head.
“This week, we talked to the recycle station, and they’re dissatisfied with how much trash and how much garbage is in the recycle contents there,” said Thomas.
The station referred to in the comment is the Abilities Unlimited Recycle Center at 223 W. University Street in Magnolia. Unlike some counties and solid waste providers, WCA does not sort contents of the blue-container recycle pick-up. Instead, the contents are dumped at the Magnolia recycle center, and the workers at the local facility then sort through the contents and sell what they can.
Abilities Unlimited has typically only been able to recycle the following:
- Corrugated Cardboard
- High-density plastics (found in most milk jugs and detergent containers)
- Clean paper goods (no toiletries), plastic soda bottles,
- Aluminum cans.
The recycling center also disposes of old electronics, but a fee is typically included as part of the process.
For more information on which goods can be recycled locally, call the Columbia County Judge’s Office at 870-234-2542 or the Abilities Unlimited at 870-234-2558.
by J.D. Bailey on 12/28/21
The City of Magnolia needs more police officers. And the 2022 Magnolia municipal budget hopes to address the issue.
On Monday, the Magnolia City Council unanimously passed a balanced spending budget for next year. The multi-million dollar budget measure included annual raises of $1,000 for all Magnolia Police Department officers. The pay increase, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann, hopes to attract new officers to join the force, as well as help entice current law enforcement members to stay on with the agency.
“We’re short a few police officers,” he said. “We could always use a few more.”
To help address the shortage, base pay for a Magnolia Police Department patrol officer is now $40,000 per year. Two years ago, the figure was $38,000.
Including Chief Todd Dew, the $1,027,900 Magnolia Police salary budget for 2022, includes 22 full-time officers, two part-time officers, two office workers, and two school resource officers. The latter of which, however, is not budgeted to be paid for by the city next year.
To help entice new officer sign-ups, the city recently embarked on a regional job outreach effort that includes relocation benefits such as no-costs for moving and housing.
“We’ll move you, we’ll pay you, we’ll house, and, if you qualify, we’ll give you a take-home car,” said Vann. “It’s first-come, first-serve, and we have ads out all over the state and in other states. It’s a legitimate offer.”
Currently, the most desperate officer needs are for female police. The mayor noted that male officers cannot search female suspects and that it is always a good practice to have female officers present when transporting female arrestees. MPD currently staffs only two female officers, according to the mayor.
“There are just as many bad women out there now as there are bad men,” Vann added. “You’ve got to have female officers.”
Magnolia lost one female officer recently to the Southern Arkansas University police force. The departure was the first one “in a while,” according to the mayor.
At $40,000 annually, plus a police pension, the local patrol officer job pays significantly more than it did previously. Just eight years ago, in 2013, starting pay for an MPD patrol officer was barely above $29,000. In 2017, the starting pay rate was around $35,000.
When asked if employing fewer officers at higher per-capita pay could be a solution to the city’s shortage, the mayor stated that the idea is reasonable, but, in the end, a police department needs numbers more than anything -- especially today.
“I used to be opposed to three units going to one call, but that’s not enough anymore,” he said. “When a handful of officers arrive on a scene and the whole neighborhood is out asking them why they are there, you need more people. Somebody called us, so we need to be there.”
Ideally, the mayor said he would like to see five units per night on patrol throughout the city. Although crime has not risen drastically in Magnolia as it has over the last two years in some metropolitan areas across the U.S., there are still plenty of police calls to attend to on a daily basis.
“The thing is, it’s the same people we’re arresting over and over and over,” Vann added.
All local emergency services, however, are not short-handed right now. In fact, the Magnolia Fire Department, according to the mayor, has actively certified five to six staff members as EMTs since the agency took over countywide accident rescue services late last year. MFD, which also added $1,000 per year in salary to all of its firefighters in the 2022 budget, responds to multiple accidents every month in its new rescue truck that just arrived in the summer, after almost a year of waiting.
In total, the Magnolia Fire Department employs 13 full-time firemen. Base pay for a firefighter, according to the 2022 budget, is $33,800 (up from $32,800 in 2021). The total salary budget for MFD next year is $616,700.
City workers were mostly also approved for $500 raises next year, but some employees could receive less.
The mayor, who has an annual salary of $70,000, according to the 2022 budget, is not set to receive a raise over his 2021 pay. The city treasurer is not set for an increase, either. Other ranking officials in the city government, including the city building inspector and city attorney, are set to receive $500 per year increases in 2022, according to the budget.
In all, the city is expected to generate $4.775 million in revenues next year for its General Fund. The figure is down slightly from 2021 ($4.862 million), due mainly to the elimination of the city’s 1 mill millage, which accounted for $200,000 last year.
Even with the slight decrease, the city should still be in good shape financially, according to the mayor.
“We were able to cut property taxes and add raises for our workers, and still be OK,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
2022 budget revenue items of interest include the following:
• City Sales Tax - $2,125,000 ($2,000,000 in 2021)
• Economic Development - $710,000 ($660,000 in 2021)
• Franchise Fees - $644,400 ($635,000 in 2021)
• County Sales Tax - $325,000 ($300,000 in 2021)
• State Turnback - $180,000 ($190,000 in 2021)
• General Fines - $125,000 ($110,000 in 2021)
• Beverage Tax - $25,000 ($15,000 in 2021)