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KZHE News Blog

Quorum Court mulls breaking current solid waste contract, absorbing collection into county-controlled service

by J.D. Bailey on 08/02/22

With only a year before Columbia County’s current solid waste collection contract expires, members of the Columbia County Quorum Court met this week to discuss possible options moving forward with the public service.

Over time, the county’s governing board has become increasingly agitated with its current contractor, GFL Environmental, Inc. (formerly WCA), and recently began brainstorming to find all possible options going into the next contract discussion. These talks have included the idea of heavily amending the current deal or even settling on a new contractor. They have also included the idea of the county taking over collection services itself, thus terminating the need for a contractor altogether.

“Everyone needs to be considering this issue, because (the contract) is going to be running out pretty quick,” said Columbia County Judge Denny Foster on Monday.

The county’s current contract with GFL Environmental ends on July 31, 2023. The extension window for the current deal, however, ends 90 days prior, which leaves the county with only about nine months to decide its next move.

The county government currently pays around $187,000 per month for contracted solid waste pickup services. This fee includes a fleet of waste trucks, a grapple truck, and one recycle pickup truck, as well as all drivers and equipment maintenance responsibilities. It also includes collection and solid waste dumping services at GFL’s landfill in Union County and recycle collection and dumping at Abilities Unlimited Recycle Center in Magnolia.

Although an extension of the current contract could still be in play, no one in the county's government expects the cost of business to be the same with such a rise in inflation and fuel costs since 2020. 

“I don’t know how high it’s going to be, but you can bet it sure isn’t going to go down,” said Foster.

According to Columbia County Attorney Becky Jones, the current contract is only two pages long (not including bid proposals) and does not spell out any remedies to issues the county JPs currently have with their solid waste provider.

“I’ve never seen a contract that’s only two pages,” Foster added.

Some estimates from county officials believe the basic framework of the current contract goes back to 1994 and has not been altered much since then.

Columbia County’s relationship with GFL Environmental dates back to at least 2015 when the county signed a three-year deal with the company. In 2018, the Columbia County Quorum Court voted to extend the contract another five years, or until July 31, 2023. If talks on Monday are any indicator, if the county does decide to move forward with GFL Environmental again, the terms of services would need to be addressed and improved to help resolve many of the current issues with the contractor.

“If we do not change (providers), I want to see some lettering in the contract for services to give us some leeway to charge against them for services we’re not receiving,” said JP Russell Thomas.

Currently, according to county officials, there is little or no recourse for the county to recoup the cost of trash containers broken by GFL Environmental during pickup, and there is little or no recourse for trash flying out of the trucks as they drive down the road.

To compound matters, the county last year, according to the county judge, spent around $80,000 repairing and replacing cans that were broken during collection.

If the county did absorb the services into its government, it would be funded by the local Solid Waste tax fund, which also pays for the current solid waste contract. The local government would also have full control over all aspects of the pickup, including hiring and firing drivers, buying or leasing trucks and equipment, funding repairs, cleaning and maintaining the fleet, and paying for the use of a nearby approved dump sight -- likely GFL's site in Union County.

This method, though, would not be without its own set of challenges and issues. It would put a much heavier workload on the county solid waste department and a supervisor and full driving staff and fleet would have to be acquired. But, with such an ongoing equipment shortage, collection trucks may not even be available to lease by the time the current GFL Environmental contract runs out next year.

“They’re saying right now it’s going to be 15 months,” said Foster. “… It’s so bad, we can’t even get parts to repair things right now.”

If the county does elect to take over the collection, it would not be foreign to the area. According to JP Oliver Thomas, chairman of the Columbia County Quorum Court's Solid Waste Committee, both Union and Ouachita Counties currently provide their own solid waste services.

"Union County has its own solid waste supervisor," he said, "but the county judge in Ouachita County said he oversees the service."

Columbia County also already has a bit of head start on the conversion, should it occur, because the county already owns all of its own trash collection containers -- a rarity among most local governments now.

“We’re one of the few counties that own their own cans,” said Foster. “That’s a plus for us (if we go out on our own).”

Columbia County also currently employs two grapple truck drivers in its local fleet to aid in local yard waste collection. The hirings were made in 2020, according to the county judge, to help offset the lack of collection production by GFL Environmental.

“That’s part of (GFL) duties, but they don’t have enough trucks to handle it properly,” he said. “I saw a problem, and I fixed it. You don’t want yard waste piling up in everyone’s neighborhood.”

Nothing was decided at Monday’s meeting, but county officials said they hope to see the actual solid waste contract with GFL Environmental and discuss and expand its language soon. The JPs also said they will try to investigate more into Ouachita and Union County practices and expenses associated with providing their own solid waste services.

“I think we need to get the old contract out and see how many trucks we’re going to have to look at, how many additional drivers we’re going to find, what rate of pay, and everything else,” said Foster.

To try to help matters in the meantime, the county judge said Monday the he has thought about having county law enforcement issue littering violation tickets to GFL trucks if they continue to fling loose garbage onto the local roadways while driving.

"Would that get their attention?" Foster asked.

The current fine for commercial littering in Arkansas is between $100 and $1,000 for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders can be fined anywhere from $200 to $2,000, according to state law. 

The crime is a class A misdemeanor in The Natural State.

In other Columbia County News:

- The Quorum Court voted unanimously Monday to fund $90,000 in improvements at the Columbia County Detention Center. The monies will be moved from the county’s Special Projects Fund into the county’s Jail Budget to remedy issues at the facility. The improvements include sprinkler system repairs, the installation of a new fire alarm system, and the replacement of the facility’s door-lock and intercom system.

In another item, for the detention center, the Quorum Court approved a $20,000 appropriation ordinance to fund the housing of arrested or detained juveniles in facilities throughout the state. According to federal law, minors, unless specifically granted special permission by a judge, cannot be housed with adult inmate populations. And since the Columbia County Detention Center does not contain a juvenile facility, the inmates must be housed at the nearest minor-specific facility, at the cost of the county.

Currently, according to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster, most local inmates are being held at a juvenile facility in Jonesboro. Texarkana also has a juvenile housing center, but the property is currently full, according to the county official, and Jonesboro was the nearest facility with any vacancies.

- The Columbia County Circuit Clerk’s office was approved to apply for a grant through the Association of Arkansas Counties that could see the indices of all oil, gas, and mortgages scanned into an overall online service database to help ease the use of record-finding for research purposes. In total, around 75 large deed and record books could be scanned into the new online system.

The project will also require a new firewall program to be installed at the county office to help improve the security of its network.

In all, the total value of the grant could be north of $43,000. The record scanning would account for $39,995, while the firewall would be valued at just over $3,100.

The grant application was passed unanimously by the Quorum Court.

Former CCSO bookkeeper charged with theft, forgery, computer fraud

by J.D. Bailey on 08/02/22

A former Columbia County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) bookkeeper is awaiting trial for theft, forgery, and electronic fraud after a recent audit of the county found financial discrepancies in department.

The accused former CCSO worker, Cassandra N. Atkinson, was arrested June 6 after a months-long investigation into the matter, according to Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe. The Magnolia resident is alleged to have stolen just north of $32,000 over a 21-month period while employed as an office clerk at the local law enforcement agency. The 42-year-old has been charged with theft of property over $25,000, forgery, and computer fraud, according to CCSO records.

The matter was brought to the public’s attention this week during a Columbia County Quorum Court discussion on the county’s audit findings from two years ago. According to Loe, the alleged criminal activity was discovered last fall.

“We had an audit in September of 2021, and it showed the bookkeeper had embezzled funds starting in September of 2020,” he said Monday. “On September 15 of last year, (Atkinson) was terminated immediately -- by me.”

The county sheriff also noted that the proper authorities were contacted last fall, as soon as he was notified of the audit issues.

“I notified the prosecuting attorney’s office, I notified the Arkansas State Police criminal division, and I notified the county judge by phone when that happened,” Loe added.

Any arrests in the matter were delayed until February -- after the 2021 audit’s final results were completed, according to the sheriff. Once the state’s audit procedures were finished, the Arkansas State Police investigation began, and Atkinson was taken into custody in early June.

Loe stated Monday that, after meeting recently with the local prosecuting attorney, a trial for the former CCSO employee should be underway next spring.

“I anticipate it will be in March, April, May -- or somewhere around then,” he added.

Further public comments on the matter this week were limited, but Columbia County Circuit Court records show that Atkinson’s first appearance in court was held on July 27.

According to a court filing from 13th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Jeffrey Rogers, the former CCSO office clerk is alleged to have stolen a total of $32,478 from the county’s law enforcement office from Jan. 1, 2020, through Sept. 15, 2021. The prosecutor, in his arrest warrant request, accused Atkinson of swiping funds from the law enforcement agency's fine and bond accounts, then covering her tracks via CCSO's internal computer system.

“The defendant, who was in charge of receiving, receipting, crediting, and depositing money for bond and fines due to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department, forged accountings, receipts and deposit slips for funds and payments; however, instead of depositing the payments into the proper bond and fine accounts with the Sheriff’s Department, she stole and kept for her benefit the amount stated above,” the warrant letter said. “Additionally, the defendant used the Columbia County computer system used for maintaining and accounting of such funds to conceal the theft of the payments and fraudulent accountings.”

In all, Atkinson is facing three felony counts for her alleged actions.

She is currently out on bond, according to Loe.

Discussions begin for ‘entertainment district’ in Magnolia to allow open containers

by J.D. Bailey on 07/26/22

Could downtown Magnolia soon become an entertainment district? If local government discussions are any indicator, an answer from the Magnolia City Council may be here in the coming months.

Appearing before the city board this week, Magnolia Economic Development Director Ellie Baker gave the first glimpse of how the historic square could benefit from such a designation. If allowed, downtown patrons and restaurant-goers of legal age would be allowed to purchase and carry alcoholic beverages within a specified boundary, without violating any public container laws.

“In short, it allows a permitted restaurant to allow a patron to take their alcoholic drink -- in a certain sized cup that is branded a certain way -- out (of the establishment) and potentially to another location in the entertainment district,” said Baker this week as she spoke to the City Council. “… A lot of towns in Arkansas now have this, and they haven’t really had any trouble.”

The Arkansas State Legislature passed a law in 2019 that allowed towns to establish "entertainment districts" to help boost local tourism and businesses. Since then, entertainment districts have popped up all over the state. The sites range from urban and tourist centers such as Fayetteville, Little Rock, and Hot Springs to smaller towns such as Van Buren and even neighboring El Dorado.

“This is really a way for people to come to downtown Magnolia and enjoy whatever is happening,” Baker added. “That could include our Farmers Market or our Second Thursday Market, and people would be able to take their beverages with them.”

The move could also potentially add more business to downtown, according to the city official.

“I have spoken with Mountain Home, and they said two new restaurants have opened after adding and entertainment district,” she added.

Although open carrying of adult beverages within the district would be allowed, items such as bottles, cans, and outside drinks that weren’t purchased from specified vendors would not be permitted. There would also likely be restrictions on where legally-aged patrons could buy drinks.

“It would be very strict,” said Baker. “… This is not something that encourages drinking by any means. It just kind of creates a more inviting atmosphere.”

Parameters can also be placed on entertainment districts to help discourage minors from purchasing and possessing alcohol and limit drinking hours. In many districts, drinks must be in specially-marked cups and sold only through certain vendors. Time constraints can also be placed on entertainment districts, allowing alcohol to be served only during certain times and certain days.

According to Baker, her plans call for similar rules, but the final call is up to the city's legislative board.

"This Council can put any kinds of stipulations on (the district) that it wants," she said.

Temporary permits, according to Baker, could also be allowed for certain instances -- such as special events on the square. The Magnolia Blossom Festival currently allows for a similar permit, but the area that sells alcohol must be barricaded from the rest of the event. By designating downtown Magnolia as an entertainment district, such restrictions could be lifted.

“This would allow everyone just to walk within the district,” she added.

Since the district is just the planning stages and would still have to be approved by the City Council, Baker said Monday that she had no specific boundaries yet for map, but noted it would be similar to the main Blossom Festival area. She did note, though, that any church parking lots or properties should be off limits.

“I think that’s just not appropriate,” she noted.

She also added that Magnolia law enforcement leadership was on board with such a district.

“I have talked to the police chief … and it does have police chief’s stamp of approval on it,” Baker said. “There’s absolutely no way I would ever want to present this without his approval.”

Police Chief Todd Dew, according to Baker, has also suggested certain safety precautions for the district that could include additional video cameras for the area, as well as added police presence -- at least during the initial phases of the district, and additional signage for the area and its boundaries.

“It’s very doable what he’s asking,” she added. “I do appreciate our police chief understanding what value this could bring.”

Signage could also be placed on shops or venues that did not wish to allow patrons with drinks into enter their establishments, according to Baker.

Although this week’s address to the City Council was only informative in nature, Magnolia government leaders were encouraged research the success of entertainment districts in other towns and arm themselves with knowledge of all potential rules and procedures for such a district.

“It’s very easy to assume what the rules are, versus what they actually are, and what they can do for our downtown,” Baker added.

No one on the City Council this week specifically spoke out against the idea of an entertainment district in Magnolia, but Alderman Steve Nipper gave his opinion in favor of the matter.

"I fully support it," he said. "I would hope that places like The Loft and Magnolia Arts could be included as well."

The Final Hayride Show will be held June 17, 2023!