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Magnolia could see $2.25M boost to low-income housing over next 3 years; Renfroe Street to be extended into Hwy. 79

by J.D. Bailey on 04/26/22

Magnolia could soon be the recipient of more than $2 million in grant funds to help refurbish and upgrade dozens of low-to-moderate income housing structures in the city over the next three years.

The Magnolia City Council did its part Monday to help with the process, as the local governing body unanimously passed a resolution allowing and supporting the Magnolia Housing Authority to apply for a grant to rehab 180 units for lower-income, low mobility, and disabled citizen housing.

The grant is being applied for in conjunction with the Magnolia branch of BancorpSouth bank. The exact addresses of the housing units were not stated Monday, but the resolution indicated that they were located in a lower-income area of Ward I of Magnolia.

“The housing units are outdated, and are in need of repair or rehabilitation,” read the resolution.

With the passage of the resolution by the City Council, the local housing authority can now advance the project at no cost to the municipality.

“The Housing Authority stands on its own,” said Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. “They run under the umbrella of the city, and they are doing this all on their own. The city has not got anything in this.”

The city leader noted that the local BancorpSouth bank branch is assisting in securing the funding. According to bank officials, the local branch is the member bank sponsor of the project. The grant funds will originate from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, a Texas-based lender that awards millions in affordable housing subsidies every year to communities across the region.

“It’s a lot of money, and it’s a long-term commitment, but it’s absolutely worth it,” said Annette Pate, vice president at BancorpSouth in Magnolia.

In total, Magnolia Housing Authority could see up to $2.25 million invested into local low-income and disabled housing over the next three years.

“This could be huge for our community,” said Jan Hutcheson, executive director of the Magnolia Housing Authority. “It could be up to $750,000 for up to three years.”

Magnolia Alderman Jamie Waller reiterated Hutcheson’s statements and thanked everyone involved in helping provide what could be a multi-million-dollar boost to the city’s affordable housing network.

“This could be really big,” he said.


RENFROE STREET PROJECT

The Magnolia City Council on Monday also addressed local infrastructure at the southeastern tip of the city limits. 

In a resolution passed unanimously by the city board, a dead-end address at 1225 Renfroe Street was approved for purchase by the city. The transaction will help complete a thoroughfare project to extend Renfroe eastward into Fredrick Circle for easier access to U.S. Hwy. 79. The move will also provide better emergency service access to the street, which is currently cut off from any other access roads, according to the resolution.

The purchase price for the half-acre parcel was $5,000. The selling party was Gospel Truth Church.

“It’s a very narrow street -- really not even a street -- on that end,” said Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. “It will not only assist (police and fire access), but it will also provide some parking for the church for special Sunday events on our property.”

An older home currently sits at the city’s new Renfroe Street address, but Vann stated Monday that the structure will be removed to make way for the project. The narrow offshoot street sits approximately 100 yards west of Fredrick Circle in Magnolia. The municipal plan calls for the two streets to be connected.

“That (connection) is going to be on South Fredrick,” the mayor added.

Once completed, the small finger of Renfroe will contain an easy access point to Hwy. 79 South, which is located only about a quarter of a mile from the city street as-the-crow-flies.

Fredrick Circle has also been part of a city revitalization effort over the past two years. In 2020, the 2-acre area, which was previously deeded to the city by the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands, was razed via a controlled burn that cleared for future community projects.

“This will be an added bonus for where Ward I and II meet,” said Vann in his remarks to the Council. "This is going to be a good thing for the area."

In other Magnolia City Council news:

- Columbia County political candidate Allison Fitzgerald spoke briefly Monday to the Council and the attendees at City Hall. The Bussey Community resident is running for Columbia County Assessor. Fitzgerald, who has worked since 2016 in the Columbia County Collector’s Office, is running in the May primary election for the office. The county assessor's job duties include heading property assessments throughout Columbia County.

Historic Calhoun Community Schoolhouse gets $5K grant from Columbia County to help with roof repairs

by J.D. Bailey on 04/05/22

A piece of Columbia County rural history is getting a financial boost by way of the Columbia County government’s rural community aid grant program. Approved unanimously Monday by the Columbia County Quorum Court, the Calhoun Community Club, a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and the Calhoun Rural Fire Department were awarded a $5,000 grant to help preserve and restore a Calhoun Community architectural staple.

Specifically, the community aid will go toward funding a new roof at the Harvey C. Couch Historical Four Room Schoo House in Calhoun. The 2385 Columbia Rd. 11 East building was built in 1928 by one of the county’s most influential and important former residents, Harvey C. Couch. It currently serves as a training center for the Calhoun Rural Fire Department, but repairs are needed at the 93-year-old community hub for it to once again become a centerpiece in the rural community.

In total, the schoolhouse requires around $14,000 in roofing repairs. The county’s $5,000 grant will help cover the costs associated with the project, but the remaining $9,000 will be covered from the Calhoun Community Club’s savings account, according to the nonprofit. The Columbia County Rural Community Grant program operates via a special carveout in county tax collections. The program is intended to help underfunded rural communities in the county. Rural community aid grants are typically used to help purchase equipment and make repairs at rural fire departments and training areas in the county.

According to the Calhoun Community Club president, Jim Nicholson, the Couch Schoolhouse building needs quite a few repairs, but the cap of the structure requires the most immediate attention.

“We’re trying slowly to get to all the repair needs, but the roof is very important,” he said. “It’s 20 years old now.”

In a request letter to Columbia County Judge Denny Foster, Jim explained the Calhoun Community Club’s role and why the National Historic Registry site is beneficial to his small rural community.

“The purpose of the Club is to preserve the Harvey C. Couch Four Room Schoolhouse,” he wrote. “ ... The school has been donated to the families of the Calhoun Community.”

The Calhoun Community Club, which was founded in 1959, was previously issued a roof replacement quote of $13,470 for the roof repairs, but, that was six months ago, and prices have likely risen, according to Jim.

“It is anticipated that the contractor will want to update his quote,” said the club president’s letter to the county judge.

Once the roofing repairs are made, the Calhoun nonprofit will look to address the remaining infrastructure needs at the historic site. The group hopes that the Couch Schoolhouse can soon become a center for the small community once again, and that the Columbia Rd. 11 location will be able to host a variety of local celebrations and gatherings, including anniversaries, birthdays, and reunions.

The Couch Schoolhouse is also significant for its namesake, Harvey C. Couch, who was born in the Calhoun Community in 1877. The Columbia County native founded Arkansas Power and Light in 1913 and is widely considered a key figure in bringing electricity to much of rural Arkansas, as well as parts of Louisiana, and Mississippi during the early 1900s. Couch was also involved in early telephone systems in the state, according to the Calhoun Community Club.

To give back to his birthplace, the visionary businessman funded the construction of the Calhoun Community schoolhouse in 1928. By the 1940s, the property was turned over to the Magnolia Public School District. Demolition of the building was planned, but Calhoun Community efforts blocked the razing of the structure by obtaining status for the location on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Jim’s wife, Julie Nicholson, who is also involved with the Calhoun Community Club, elaborated on the scope of work needed at the schoolhouse.

“It just needs repairs,” she said. “ … Our goal is to get it up to code to be able to use regularly.”

Julie noted that some state grant monies may be available to help with the repairs as well, and those will have to be looked into further, but the group and the community are just grateful for the county's aid issued this week.

“We need to re-do the windows, and the door entrances, and some plumbing,” she added, “but this ($5,000 rural community aid grant) is such a great start.”

Columbia County Jail hires 2 new jailers, facility still needs 3 more; County JPs approve appointments to County Library, Equalization Boards

by J.D. Bailey on 04/05/22

The Columbia County Quorum Court this week discussed a variety of topics and passed a number of resolutions pertaining to local affairs. The subjects ranged from personnel at the Columbia County Detention Center, then pivoted to appointments on local government and public facility boards.

Business discussed this week included the following:


COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE 


Columbia County Justice of the Peace Rick Waller on Monday announced that the Columbia County Detention Center center had recently hired two new jailers. The facility was in need to even more personnel, according to the JP, but the inmate center has just brought on two new staff members to help fill the voids.

“We’re down three jailers now, but we were down five,” he said.

In another bit of good news for the jail, Waller, who heads the Quorum Court’s Jail Committee, stated Monday that the Arkansas State Legislature recently increased the amount paid per inmate housed -- from $32 to $40. In a separate announcement, the committee chairman noted that each full-time law enforcement will now receive a one-time bonus payment of $5,000.

“This will be just a single occurrence,” said Waller.

The one-time bonus, however, does not apply to the newly-hired jailers at the Columbia County Detention Center. Since the employees are not considered certified law enforcement officers, jailers are not included in the state payment program. Their annual salary is approximately $32,000, according to Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe.

On the vehicle side of the agency, CCSO is looking to now rejuvenate older patrol vehicles instead of purchasing new ones. The price and availability of new stock during a global automobile shortage have both contributed to the new approach.

“We’re going to try to refurbish some vehicles,” Waller said. “We’ll be looking at new engines, new transmissions, etc., because new vehicles are over $35,000 now.”

The price for new patrol vehicles only a year ago was around $29,000, according to a county department report issued last month.

Inflated fuel costs are also a concern for the Sheriff’s Office. With local regular unleaded costs hovering around $4 per gallon, fuel costs have almost doubled over last year, when, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average gallon of gasoline in Arkansas was about $2.65. Since April 2020, when gasoline averaged $1.53 in the state as lower demand hit amid coronavirus fears, fuel costs are up almost $2.50 per gallon, or about 161%.

“Everything is going up, so we’ve just got to try to do the best we can,” said Waller.

To apply for positions with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, call 870-234-5331.


BOARD APPOINTMENTS

Columbia County Library


Magnolia resident Tommy Fallin, Sr. was appointed unanimously approved as a new member of the Columbia County Library Board. The longtime local businessman will replace outgoing board member Mike Epley, who recently resigned from his seat on the county panel, had been a part of the group since 2019.

Fallin’s appointment began immediately upon passage Monday evening. His term is set to expire on May 31, 2024.

The Columbia County Library Board oversees and approves major decisions in the local library system.

The 2057 N. Jackson library in Magnolia lends out books, DVDs, and periodicals to around 25,000 local residents at no charge. Its collection includes over 140,000 volumes and circulates approximately 79,000 items per year, according to Library.org., an online national public library information source. The public building also provides free internet access, as well as educational sessions and programs for children and adults, and contains information on Columbia County history and genealogy.

The Columbia County Library is funded, in part, via a 1-mill tax on county property owners.


Columbia County Equalization Board


Two appointments to the Columbia County Equalization Board were approved Monday. The first approval came as William Smith, a sitting board member, was re-appointed to the local panel. His new term will last five years, according to the resolution passed this week by the Columbia County Quorum Court.

The other appointment by Quorum Court this week saw Debbie Neill approved as a new appointment on the equalization board. Both decisions were unanimous among the present Justices of the Peace.

Columbia County Equalization Board consists of five members. They are appointed via a majority vote from the Quorum Court.

The Columbia County Equalization Board was created in 1955 upon the passage of Arkansas Act 230. State code notes that board members should consist of local real estate owners familiar with county property values. Once appointed, equalization board members serve five-year terms as “qualified electors” on the panel.

The primary duties of the equalization board, according to the Arkansas Assessment Coordination Division, includes reviewing assessment values placed on local properties by the county assessor, as well as serving as an appeals panel for local property owner disputes on certain assessments.

In other Columbia County News: 


- Jerri Lephiew, the agricultural agent at the Columbia County Cooperative Extension Service, announced Monday that she had taken a similar position in Lafayette County, and that she would be vacating her post in Magnolia on April 16. The longtime local University of Arkansas Division of Agricultural and Research Extension employee this week thanked Columbia County Quorum Court members for their support of her office over the years.

“They’ve had some transition over there, and I have accepted their offer,” she said. “… I appreciate everyone (in Columbia County), and I appreciate my time here.”

The process to find a new agent in Columbia County is already underway, according to Lephiew.

The next 
Columbia County Hayride is 
May 14, 2022!