Wed December 06, 2023

By Jeff Smithpeters

Hope Board of Directors approve 2024 budget, award Christmas bonuses, sign agreement with Ritter Communications
The first December regular meeting for the Hope City Board of Directors was called to order last night at the same time a holiday concert was starting just across the way in City Hall's Klipsch Auditorium. But during its hour-long meeting the board was not distracted from making decisions. First, the directors passed the 2024 Budget Resolution. Next, it made official its decision last month to provide end-of-year bonuses to city employees. Finally, it signed off on a franchise agreement with Ritter Communications. 

After the invocation, the pledge of allegiance and the approval of the November 23rd meeting’s minutes, Mayor Don Still opened discussion of the 2024 Hope city budget resolution. Changes made since the budget was presented last month include having to retain the traditional health insurance plan, since the deadline has passed to enroll employees in what is called the enhanced plan. Of the budget, City Manager J.R. Wilson said, “We see this as our marching orders. If we have an issue, we come back to the board.” 

City Attorney Randal Wright read a resolution that listed the categories of Revenues totalling $18,522,704 and Appropriations totalling $18,522,704.  The budget is required by Arkansas law to be balanced. 

The budget resolution passed unanimously. 

Next, the board considered a resolution to use proceeds from the second payment to the city of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed by President Biden in March of 2021. A total of  $994,358.65 was received by the city, of which an estimated $120,000 will be used for $1,000 bonuses for full-time employees and $500 for part-time employees who are eligible. The 2024 budget does include a cost-of-living adjustment of five percent for city employees. 

Later in the meeting, an attempt was made by Directors Steve Montgomery and Kiffinea Talley to provide Wilson with a bonus, but Wilson said he would be receiving a bonus anyway because of the arrangement whereby he gave up benefits he would have received as the city’s police chief and took on the position of city manager. A motion to go into executive session to provide the bonus was allowed to fail. 

The next agenda item after the bonuses resolution was unanimously approved was a consideration of a nonexclusive franchise agreement between Hope and Ritter Communications. Before its passage, Wilson enumerated the ways the standard franchise agreement had been amended to allow the city to enforce its rules. Among these is the requirement for Ritter to get a permit prior to starting work near a city right-of-way.  Directors asked about other potential issues and whether they were covered by the agreement.  The Sixth Street project was referred to often as a negative example about which the director and manager seemed to be in consensus that the city did not have enough enforcement mechanisms.  

Under the terms of the agreement, Ritter will pay a franchise fee of 4.25 percent of the gross revenue it collects from city subscribers. 

Hope Water and Light’s General Operations Manager Russell Cornelius said Ritter was providing fiber internet services only to commercial customers. 

The agreement was passed unanimously by individual voice vote by the board under an emergency clause so that it goes into effect immediately.  

In the City Manager’s Report, J.R. Wilson said a couple places in the Streetscape project were being brought into Americans With Disabilities Act compliance. This represents the last work needed to complete the project. 

He reported on the process that Hope Public Schools’ move to build an animal educational complex must undergo prior to being approved. It first must be approved to rezone the property that would be used for the facility by the Hope Planning and Zoning Commission for special use.  Residents living within 400 feet of the planned facility would be invited to speak at these proceedings. 

If the rezoning is approved, the city board would need to vote in favor of changes to the city’s Animal Control ordinance to allow for the animals to be brought into the city limits. Wilson said Superintendent of Hope Public Schools Jonathan Crossley told him the school wanted to begin this process. 

Wilson said the city would be looking for assistance from the state of Arkansas, which funded and oversaw the Sixth Street Project, to address drainage issues near the Hope Academy of Public Service’s front entrance. If assistance is not forthcoming, the city will address the issue on its own. 

Wilson provided an update on a 2020 lawsuit against the city filed by a parolee whose car was searched for drugs and was found on those grounds to have violated his probation. The city’s attorney has filed for summary judgement. Wilson said he had read the filing and found no problems with it and was optimistic the city might be struck from the lawsuit. 

Director Mark Ross mentioned a driver visibility issue on South Spruce and East Third because of parked cars not allowing for an adequate view of oncoming traffic down East Third. 

By consensus, the directors opted not to meet December 19th due to its proximity to holiday activities.