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County uses portion of federal aid to issue $1.5M in essential worker bonuses

by J.D. Bailey on 10/05/21


J.D. Bailey

With over $4.5 million in federal relief aid scheduled to be issued to Columbia County by next spring, the Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday voted unanimously to issue a set of “premium pay” bonuses for all current government employees who were staffed during the first 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The total amount of the payments will be just over $1.5 million, according to the local appropriation ordinance, and will be retroactively applied to employees for the hours worked from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2021. To be eligible for the bonus payments, which will be tabulated as overtime/premium pay, current county workers must have been continuously employed through the dates listed.

Since county employees have been deemed essential workers, they were eligible for the extra wages.

“The Quorum Court of Columbia County recognizes the need to provide resilience to our local government by providing premium pay to eligible workers retroactively to March 3, 2020,” the appropriation ordinance states.

The measure was effective Monday evening upon the passage of the ordinance. The retroactive wage increase set by the bonuses is not permanent, according to the county measure, and only applies to the stated period. 

The bonuses will be funded at no cost to the county. The grant monies used in the one-time pay increase were gained as part of the federal government's 2021 American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March. The $1.9 trillion aid bill included some $350 billion in direct cash infusions into city, county, and state governments across the U.S. to help offset any financial impacts and shortfalls of the coronavirus pandemic. The federal dollar amounts issued to each county were based on population and other economic factors, including HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program formula that examines the poverty levels of a community.

The amount for each local essential worker pandemic payment will vary among county workers, with employee pay scale and hours worked as the two determining factors, according to Monday’s measure.

The bonus payment structure breaks down as follows:

- Workers who made $14 per hour, the county government's minimum wage, will receive the largest bonus amounts with an additional $5.25 added per hour worked during the designated time period.

- Workers who made $14.01 to $18 per hour will receive an added $4.25 per hour worked during the designated time period.

- Workers who made over $18.01 per hour will receive an added $3.25 per hour worked during the designated time period.

- County Equalization Board members will receive a lump-sum payment of $100

- Quorum Court members will receive an additional $400, or 140% of their monthly per diem, for each meeting they attended from Jan. 1, 2021, through May 31, 2021.

- The County Coroner will receive $5,816, or 140% of his hourly contract rate, from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2021.

- The County Attorney will receive $4,900, or 140% of her hourly contract rate from March 3, 2020, through May 31, 2020.

Although discretionary spending of these federal dollars is largely left up to the local governments, the U.S. Treasury set certain guidelines and parameters on the aid package in March. According to the Government Finance Officers Association, a group that since 1906 has advised private-sector financial and accounting professionals, eligible uses for the federal relief funds include: revenue replacement for government shortfalls; COVID-19 expenditures or negative economic impact assistance to small businesses, households, hard-hit industries, and economic recovery; premium pay for essential workers; and investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Federal guidelines also state that all American Rescue Plan Act monies must be used by the end of 2024.

In May, the Quorum Court established the Columbia County Rescue Plan Fund as the deadline for the first half of federal funds neared. The remaining half of virus aid must be sent to counties by May 10, 2022, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The breakdown of Monday’s premium pay measure, which totals $1,509,288, is as follows:

(Note: All amounts include the totals for all the entire eligible workforce in each department or budgeted entity, plus FICA and APERS allotments)

    • County Judge’s office: $7,992
    • County Clerk’s office: $65,379
    • Circuit Clerk’s office: $61,632
    • County Treasurer’s office: $25,050
    • County Collector’s office: $52,648
    • County Assessor’s office: $67,936
    • Equalization Board: $538
    • Quorum Court: $20,270
    • County Buildings: $21,348
    • Scanning: $3,939
    • County Attorney: $4,900
    • Sheriff’s Office: $219,609
    • County Coroner: $6,261
    • Office of Emergency Management (OEM): $3,291
    • Veteran’s Services: $7,347
    • Rural Development Authority (RDA): $27,176
    • Road Department: $369,292
    • Recorder Cost Fund: $13,597
    • County Library: $84,718
    • Solid Waste Department: $146,893
    • County Jail: $222,318
    • County 9-1-1 Service: $69,798
    • Public Defender’s office: $7,347

With the premium pay bonuses set to be issued, the county government will still be left with over $3 million in expected aid that it must spend in the coming few years on infrastructure, essential worker pay, local economic aid, or revenue replacement.

As of Monday, there have been no public announcements on how or when the county plans to use the remaining federal funds, once they arrive.

On Monday, roughly 25 county employees were present in the Columbia County Courthouse in Magnolia to witness the passage of the $1.5 million appropriation ordinance. Once the voting was official, Columbia County Judge Denny Foster stated:

“I do thank y’all, and the county employees thank y’all, too.”

Following the statement, JP Jenny Marie Whitehead acknowledged the county workers in attendance and began a round of applause in their honor.

After the Quorum Court meeting adjourned, Columbia County Circuit Clerk Angela Keith issued a brief statement showing her gratitude for the retroactive wage increase.

“I just want to say, from the elected officials and the staff to the Quorum Court, thank you very much,” the county official said.

In other Columbia County Quorum Court News: 

- A funding measure was passed to replace two air conditioning units at the Columbia County Detention Center. In total, $16,353 was transferred from within county insurance budgets and into a machinery and equipment fund to pay for the project.

- A resolution was passed designating Southwest Arkansas Planning and Development District, Inc. as the grant administrator for an Arkansas Community and Economic Development Grant. If the grant is approved, the funds will be used to replace the roof of the Columbia County Library.


- The county’s funded it's portion of a joint rescue truck purchase with the City of Magnolia. In total, $88,862 of public safety aid grant funds were spent on the project -- which represented roughly half of the cost of the new emergency vehicle. The truck, which is staffed 24 hours per day by the Magnolia Fire Department, is used in automobile extractions and accidents.

- Darrell Chatelain was re-appointed to the Columbia County Rural Development Authority for another five-year term. The RDA is the governing board, made up of five commissioners, that oversees the maintenance and administration of Lake Columbia.

City puts former Home Health office, Blewster home up for sale, Council places special parameters on bid process; $637K sewer treatment project accepted

by J.D. Bailey on 09/28/21

The City of Magnolia has put a historic N. Washington home up for sale.

Announced Monday as part of a motion passed by the Magnolia City Council, the former Magnolia Regional Medical Center Home Health office at 833 N. Washington Street will be sold within the next month.

The sale, however, is no ordinary bid auction by the city. On Monday, the Council voted unanimously to place a host of parameters and special qualifications on any potential buyer of the former Agnes K. Brewster residential property.

The issue was brought before the Council this week, after Magnolia business owner Laura Crowell, who is also the spouse of sitting Magnolia City Councilman Steve Crowell, recently offered to purchase the property from the city. The Edward Jones Investments financial advisor currently holds an office at an E. Main Street rental complex but plans to renovate and convert the city-owned N. Washington property into an office facility for her firm. According to Magnolia Alderman Jamie Waller, the plan will help brighten up the corner lot. 

“A business office would be a good use of that building,” he said.

The sale of the property could have passed Monday with a simple majority City Council vote, but the local governing body elected to delay the transaction and offer a public bidding process before pulling the trigger on a deal. The reasoning for the delay, according to Alderman Jamie Waller, was one of public trust.

“I know they’ve got a great plan for this property, and I think it would be great for the city,” he said. “… but I feel with Steve (Crowell) being a Council member, to make sure everyone is covered … I feel it might be worthwhile to at least put it out to the public that this (property) is for sale.”

The city official did not wish to disclose Crowell’s proposal to the public, citing a potential disadvantage to the party in a potential bidding process, but Waller did say that if no one else made an offer on the property in the allotted timeframe, he hoped the city would move forward with the sale to the local financial advisor.

Steve Crowell was not present at Monday’s City Council meeting to speak further on the matter, but, according to Waller, his wife’s plan for the former Blewster home would be extensive.

“The (Crowell) offer is based on the fact that they are going to have to put so much work into this building, and I’m sure there will be a lot of work,” he said.

Alderman Steve Nipper agreed with Waller’s sentiments about advertising the sale of the building to the public before a deal can be reached.

“I like (the Crowell) offer and what they’re doing, but I feel like the rest of the public needs to know about this and at least have a chance to make a bid on the property,” he said.

To combat any displays of favoritism and make sure the property is not sold to a party that will not invest in improvements, the Council passed a motion that allows bids to be accepted for the purchase of the N. Washington property until next month. The bids, though, must follow a strict set of rules to qualify for approval.

“We have to figure out what will be the best return for the city,” Waller added.

The bidding factors include all of the following:

    • Formal bids amounts for the purchase of the property, plus an estimated cost of improvements at the location must be submitted to the city by Oct. 18.
    • The Magnolia City Council will review the bids and approve a sale at its regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 25.
    • A business plan for future development of the property, as well as a timeline for the property and budget must be submitted as part of a bid package.
    • Full financing for the purchase of the property must already be secured. If a loan is to be taken out for the transaction, a letter of approval from a lender must be secured and submitted, and the estate transfer must be fully paid for within 45 days of the bid approval.
    • Future plans for the property must fall within proper zoning requirements in the city.
    • The city will not automatically accept the highest bid for the sale of the property. The local government will instead evaluate which plan best improves and benefits Magnolia.

Columbia County tax records do not indicate when the home was built, but they do show the former Blewster property was sold to Magnolia Hospital in 1997 for $183,000. There is no publicly assessed value on the property, since the former Home Health location is tax-exempt.

The property is currently used for storage by Magnolia Regional Medical Center, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. The local hospital, however, broke away from the city government last year and formed an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Because of the separation,  the N. Washington Street property still technically belongs to the former government-associated Magnolia Regional Medical Center, which, by default, is controlled by the city, and means the municipality can now do with the location as it pleases.

According to Magnolia City Attorney Mike Boyd, the local government has no obligation to even bid out the home for sale. The city, with approval from the Council, could sell the N. Washington home to Crowell without going through any traditional bidding, but, once it enters into the process, the parameters must be the same for all parties.

“It’s really up to (the City Council) to decide the how and the who and the how much to sell the property for,” said Boyd. “As long as you treat everyone with the same set of factors, you’re fine.”

The Crowell plan, however, still has a good shot at winning the property. On Monday, Vann stated that the local business owner already has financing for the property, as well as a detailed plan for the building.  She can also finance it and begin work on the office project immediately, should Crowell be the selected bidder. 

“She could write us a check tomorrow,” said the mayor.

In closing discussions on the property, Waller reiterated his excitement for the future of the property, but again stated why the sale is being delayed.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for them and for us,” he said, “but particularly with another Council member, I think we need that extra layer to maintain a level of trust with our constituents and show we are doing our due diligence.”

The City of Magnolia is expected to issue contact information for any potential bidders on its social media pages, as well as place a “for sale” sign in the front yard of the 833 N. Washington property. Showings for the property will be handled via the Magnolia city inspector’s office.

...

In other Magnolia City Council News: 

- The Magnolia City Council unanimously approved a bid for a sewer and wastewater project originally scheduled for 2019. The endeavor will see improvements at the Magnolia Wastewater treatment plant facility, as well as sewer lines near Jackson Street. The city received only one bid for the project at $637,485. The lone bidder was RBIS, LLC of Texarkana.  The cost of the project, according to civil engineer Andy Franks, of A.L. Franks Engineering, was only $1,000 over the original 2019 prices. 

- A business item originally set to be discussed Monday pertaining to the 2020 Water Audit was tabled until next month. 

MFD displays new rescue truck for Quorum Court; County revises paid sick-leave policy

by J.D. Bailey on 09/08/21

Columbia County’s newest emergency service vehicle was on full display Tuesday evening in downtown Magnolia. 

The brand new Magnolia Fire Department rescue truck was hand-delivered from Pennsylvania in August after more than a year of planning for and retrofitting. The Dodge Ram 3500 quad cab is now one of the most advanced emergency vehicles in the local fleet and was shown to the Columbia County Quorum Court at the Magnolia square by Magnolia Fire Department Chief Greg Pinner. 

“It’s a state-of-the-art truck,” said Russell Thomas, JP for Columbia County District 3.

The project was a joint purchase between the City of Magnolia and Columbia County governments. The cost, which totaled around $180,000, was split among the entities. The Magnolia Fire Department now operates the truck 24-hours-per-day and travels to accident calls around the county.

County rescue services were formerly handled at no cost to the county by the Columbia County Ambulance Service, but the private company announced in 2019 that it would be exiting the service and focus on traditional ambulance response.

The new vehicle has been totally retrofitted for vehicle accident rescues. It contains battery-powered cutting and spreading extraction tools capable of removing an accident victim from a crushed car or truck, often referred to as “Jaws of Life” devices, as well as a foam flame retardent tank to help extinguish vehicle fires. Other tools, such as bolt cutters and tow-straps are also contained in the rear shell of the truck.

Last month, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann said that a front-bumper winch will be coming soon to the vehicle.

“Those guys (MFD) have already done some pretty great things in our city and county with the truck,” he said.

According to Thomas, Magnolia-Columbia County rescue services responded to six incidents in August. Of those, three occurred in the city of Magnolia, while the other three calls took place in the county.

COUNTY LEAVE REVISION

The Columbia County Quorum Court on Tuesday approved a revision to its COVID-19 sick-leave policy for county employees.

The measure, which passed unanimously by the court, specifically deals with and repeals an emergency ordinance passed in March 2020 after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a public health emergency with the arrival of the coronavirus into the state. In last year’s ordinance, the county permitted any employee a period of paid administrative leave if he tested positive for COVID or was symptomatic and seeking diagnosis for the virus. The policy also allowed for paid time off if an employee had been in close contact with someone with the virus.

The leave time was determined by CDC and Arkansas Department of Health recommendations, according to the 2020 ordinance. 

In the old policy, there were no limitations set on how many times a worker could be placed on leave for the virus.

The new ordinance passed Tuesday states that, if an employee has already been placed on paid administrative leave, he can qualify for a second period of paid time off only for a new exposure or diagnosis if the episode occurred at the workplace. The number of days off will also be determined by a worker's healthcare provider recommendation or that of the Arkansas Department of Health.

Employees who do qualify and receive paid leave for coronavirus must also now provide documentation for their illness. To qualify, an employee must show evidence of a positive COVID test or a written note from a healthcare professional, and a written note from a professional releasing the employee out of quarantine. If a county worker is placed on paid leave while showing signs of the COVID or he is seeking a diagnosis for the virus, he won’t be able to return to work until a release recommendation from a healthcare pro is provided.

A worker who qualifies for paid leave due to close proximity of a COVID-positive individual, will also now be required to indicate the date of the contact, where it occurred, and whether the worker has seen a healthcare professional or consulted with the Arkansas Department of Health. If employees wish to take off for any other reasons other than those stated in the revised policy, they will be subject to the regular county rules for vacation and time-off, according to the ordinance.

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