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KZHE News Blog

Magnolia City Council approves sale of former Blewster home, Home Health clinic for $70K

by J.D. Bailey on 10/26/21

The Magnolia City Council on Monday unanimously approved the sale of the former Magnolia Regional Medical Center Home Health clinic at 833 N. Washington to local business owner Laura Cowell. The property, which was also a residential address of former Magnolia Chamber of Commerce director and First National Bank president W.C. Blewster and his wife, Agnes, until 1997, was selected for a high bid of $70,000.

The deal still needs to be closed upon in the next 30 days and a final resolution on the matter next month, but Crowell’s previous plans called for a major transformation of the property to serve as the local Edward D. Jones financial planner’s new office location. The Magnolia resident currently operates a business location at an E. Main Street shopping center near the intersection of N. Dudney Street.

The city-owned N. Washington Street property was initially set to be sold in September, but a three-week public bidding period was placed on the project by the Magnolia City Council to block any perceived notions of unfairness or favoritism from the local governing board. Crowell, who initially wished to purchase the former MRMC Home Health clinic, is the wife of sitting Magnolia Alderman Steve Crowell. And although the city official was not present during discussions on the property sale this week nor last month, the City Council still elected to place a specified waiting period for any other public bids.

“I think we’ve done our due diligence and done all that we can do,” said Magnolia Alderman Jamie Waller on Monday. “Mrs. Crowell’s bid has the higher bid, and will probably be the better suit for the city anyway.”

Magnolia City Inspector David Nelson stated this week that the property had received five calls -- one after the Oct. 18 deadline -- during the bidding period, and only one party wished to view the parcel.

“Not a whole lot of action on it -- for whatever reason,” he said.

The only other bid on the property came from Magnolia Resident Kayla Higgs for $30,000.

Public records do not indicate when the home was built or its assessed value, but they do show that the property was sold to Magnolia Hospital in 1997 for $183,000.

With the sale now approved by the Council, the property is expected to be rejuvenated and remodeled over the coming months into a vibrant new office space. The building, which has been used only for storage by MRMC over the past few years, had become somewhat overgrown and unsightly.

Crowell, ahead of the potential sale of the property last month, told, “It is a lovely home with so much potential and would fit my needs for expansion of personnel and additional space. I intend to honor the history of the home with a tribute area to the home and the Blewster family. We are very excited to have the opportunity to improve the lot and keep the area growing with homes that are well cared for.”

The City Council will still need to vote again on the final closing of the N. Washington property in November, but the move should be all but a technicality by then, according to advice from the city attorney’s office. The mayor also noted that he will double-check with Crowell to see if her plans are still set to proceed as originally planned last month.

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.