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Council discusses audit committee testimony, approves water rate hikes

By John Miller, 11/21/17 9:55 AM

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PRESCOTT – Is the Prescott City Council hiding behind executive sessions to avoid publicly addressing embarrassing or controversial situations?

At the November council meeting Monday night, once all other business had been dealt with, Councilman Bobbie Brown asked to talk about Prescott Mayor Terry Oliver’s testimony before the legislative audit committee recently, as she had attended the meeting in Little Rock.

The committee, Brown said, repeatedly asked Oliver about why the employee in question, Connie Beard, was hired for a second city job, Code Enforcement Officer, having left her prior position, administrative assistant at the Prescott Police Department, under questionable circumstances.

Oliver said he explained the timetable for the change had nothing to do with missing money.

However, before Brown could continue, Councilman Jerry Hightower began calling for an executive session saying this was a personnel issue. It was pointed out, not only had this issue been addressed in an open session, it had also been reported on by the media and was not a personnel issue. Hightower, either ignoring or failing to understand Brown’s initial statement about wanting to talk about Oliver’s testimony, said it involved the hiring and potential firing of a city employee. He was supported by City Attorney Glenn Vasser, who said all employee matters should be discussed in executive session, also ignoring Brown’s statement about wanting to talk about the mayor’s testimony.

It should be pointed out actions by neither the mayor, nor any member of the city council, can be discussed in executive session as none are employees of the city. None were hired by the city. None can be fired by the city. All actively sought public office and were duly elected by the people, and elected officials are not protected by executive session under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

In other business, the panel approved two ordinances, each raising the rates to water customers. A public meeting was held prior to the regular meeting, where it was explained the rates must be raised in order to obtain the loan required to pay for the project. Overall, the project will cost $3 million, but $300,000 will be forgiven and considered a grant, leaving the city to pay $2.7million. The funding will come from the Arkansas Natural Resource Commission’s revolving loan program.

Perry Nelson, superintendent of the Water and Sewer Department, said the rates will be raised $2 per month per meter for customers of city and rural water, while water usage will go up from $1.75 to $2 per 1,000 gallons used above the base amount of 3,500 gallons per month. He said this is a minimal increase on a big project. The last rate hike, he added, was in 2012.

The project will see the 16-inch main from the treatment plant to the Little Missouri River and Firestone replaced. The current main was installed in 1964, and will be replaced with a combination of PVC and ductile iron pipe. This, he added, will be a 30-year loan.

Kiron Browning, with A.L. Franks Engineering of Texarkana, said the next step will be to draw up the facility plans, which are due in either April or May of 2018. Ground will likely be broken, he added, in either late fall or early winter 2018.

The rate increase, though, will go into effect immediately to allow the department to raise 1 percent of the overall cost for depreciation funds, which will be placed in a separate account to be used for future projects.

Both ordinances were approved with 7-1 votes, with Councilman Tommy Poole the lone dissenter.

The passing of the ordinances was followed by the approval of a resolution allowing A.L. Franks to submit the facility plan and environmental information to the ANRC.

Jamie Hillery, executive director of the Prescott-Nevada County Chamber of Commerce, updated the council on the Chamber’s upcoming plans, mostly dealing with the holiday season. She said Breakfast with Santa, an open house, the Christmas Parade and Christmas on the Square are all coming up. The theme for this year’s holiday events is “Santa’s Workshop”. Donations, she continued, have been collected for the Chamber’s “Stuff the Box” program, which will provide 250 area children with boxes filled with socks, gloves and personal hygiene items, given out during Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 9. She added several motorcycle clubs joined together and brought around 100 toys and $100 Saturday, which were donated to the Chamber to be given to the area’s needy children during the holiday season. Hillery said the Chamber will work with schools to determine which children will get these gifts.

Hillery also told the council there will be two ribbon cuttings in December. On Dec. 12, a ribbon cutting will be held for Yours Truly/Prescott Flowers, while Southern Graphics will host a ribbon cutting on Dec. 19. Both will be held from 9:30-11 a.m. at the respective businesses.

Christy Higgenbotham addressed the council concerning the Imagination Library program began by Dolly Parton. The program provides free books to children from birth to age five regardless of the family’s financial status. However, parents must sign up to receive the books through the mail. It takes $25 per child per year to provide the books, she said, and the organization requires communities have 60 percent of the funding needed before it will be approved. She pointed out the local group is close to this figure, adding there are around 500 children in the county in this age group, but full funding requires $12,500. Funding, she added, isn’t a one-time thing, but must constantly be done to continue receiving the books.

All donations, she added, are tax deductible. Anyone interested in making a donation can send it to the Prescott Alliance Community Development Association, P.O. Box 505, Prescott, AR 71857, or contact the Nevada County Library.

Vasser said it’s unconstitutional for the council to donate public funds privately, but added, any and all members of the council can donate as individuals.

Satarra Williams presented a petition requesting Third Ave. be renamed in honor of Sandra K. Evans, who died on Oct. 28, saying she was active in the community in several areas. The council had no problem with this, but was informed it would have to be done by ordinance. The panel voted to have Vasser draw up an ordinance to change the name of Third Ave. to Sandra K. Evans Ave. This will be addressed at the December council meeting.

Brown asked the status of the city hiring Online Energy Exchange for billing purposes. Larry Jones, Jr., said he received a proposed contract from Vasser and will examine it before bringing it to the council next months. It was pointed out, this will not affect current customers of Prescott Water and Light, but will affect new ones.