The Hempstead County Quorum Court met Thursday, July 25 and received updates on several issues, including the state of progress of assistance and road repair following massive flooding in the northern part of the county, contributing factors to the county’s cash shortfall earlier this year that required borrowing of funds in order to meet the county’s payroll, the status of Deputy Greg Huckabee, progress of the new courthouse location and more. The monthly meeting was shorter than usual, and the JP’s had no ordinances on the agenda to consider.
The Hempstead County Court holds its standard monthly meetings on the fourth Thursday of each month and the meetings are open to the public. The meetings are also live streamed here at SWARK.Today. The meeting for August has been scheduled for Thursday, August 29 due to schedule conflict issued on the fourth Thursday.
Judge Crane updated the JP’s on where the county currently stands in recovering from the recent heavy flooding as a result of the remnants of Tropical Storm Barry upwards of 16” of rain on the region last week.
Judge Crane said the assessment of the flood damage is at least $500,000. The judge said if it reaches the standards to be set out by FEMA for a Federal Disaster, the county could get additional financial assistance from the Federal Government.
Crane said that the county road and sanitation crews have been working hard on cleanup and road repair but there is a severe shortage of equipment. Judge Crane said that there is only one functioning dump truck in the county right now, with two in the shop and one lost in a crash last year. Crane did say they expect delivery of two new ones soon thanks to the Quorum Court’s previous approval to purchase. Crane said that one of the county’s excavators also recently went down. JP Steve Atchley told the Quorum Court that much of the problem with the current equipment was due to it not being properly maintained in the past. He assured the other JP’s that Judge Crane and Superintendent Richard Kidd are on top of it and are making sure that the operators are trained to properly maintain and take care of their equipment.
Judge Crane thanked the Sheriff and all the deputies for their assistance, being the tip of the spear in dealing with the flood, identifying damage, clearing roads and helping to keep the citizens safe. Crane said he was thankful that, with the massive amount of fast-moving flood waters, no one was seriously injured and there was no loss of life as a result of the flooding. Judge Crane also thanked the Bengin Fire Department for their response and assistance and the members of the community who came out and assisted.
Judge Crane said they are supposed to be informed Monday on whether the county will be receiving additional assistance from FEMA. He said that once funds are available, the plan is to rent equipment that is needed but not currently in the county fleet and to bring in additional workers to assist county road crews in getting roads repaired as quickly as possible.
Judge Crane said that there aren’t any locations on any of the county roads that cannot be reached but that there are still some culverts out and that many of the roads, though passable, still need additional work to get to the state they need to be in.
Judge Crane thanked the citizens of Hempstead County again for the assistance and their patience as progress is made.
Sheriff James Singleton asked the members of the Quorum Court to keep Deputy Greg Huckabee and his family in their prayers. Huckabee, Sheriff Singleton said, has worked with him for 20 years and has always been a huge help because he was willing to do things that others didn’t want to do. Huckabee, who is a fixture of the Spring Hill community, was named Citizen of the Year by the Spring Hill Class of 2019 during their commencement ceremony in May. Huckabee was praised for always being on the frontline of whatever the community was facing and for having a positive impact on the lives of so many of the young people in Spring Hill. Sheriff Singleton informed the Quorum Court that Huckabee, who has been having medical problems, was sent home recently and put in hospice care.
JP Jay Laythrop asked if there was any information on the status and timeline for the county to repay money that was borrowed to meet payroll.
In response, JP Ed Darling told the Quorum Court that repayment will happen, but it is not going to take some time.
Darling told the Quorum Court that the county ran into the cash shortfall at the beginning of 2019 for a couple of reasons. Darling said that the budget for the last two months of 2018 was made based on the previous 10 months. Darling said around a $400,000 cash carry-over going into the new year, but many county departments ramped up their spending, almost completely wiping out the expected carry-over. Darling said this caused a cashflow problem but that in the first six months, county department’s finances are in much better shape going forward.
Darling said that there has also been around $750,000 in rollbacks of the country’s share of sales and use tax revenue. Darling said that while things like tax free back-to-school shopping bills passed by the state legislature do result in large rebates being filed from companies like Atwood’s and Walmart, it doesn’t account for the massive decline in sales and use tax revenue coming in from the Department of Finance and Administration. Darling said that there is also an $11,000,000 + construction project going on in Fulton that will have rebates expected in the $750,000 range.
Darling said that the county general budget has budgeted around $2,300,000 and has $2,100,000 to operate. Darling said that he will be in meetings with department heads and working on solutions to avoid a shortfall in the future. Darling said that there needs to be some sort of central oversight established to ensure that money is available for the different departments’ purchases and that those within the county who have been making the calls on spending need to understand that just because money is budgeted doesn’t mean that it is necessarily on-hand and available when they make purchasing decisions.
Darling said that there are enough adjustments that can be made within what is available to the county that salaries, bonuses and jobs of county employees won’t be affected.
County Extension Office Relocation
Terrie James of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Office in Hempstead County addressed the Quorum Court about what options the office has on relocating once the current courthouse is closed down. James said the Extension office takes up about 2000 square feet in the current courthouse and there is no plan for the office to relocate to the new facility at the former Farmers Bank location downtown.
James said the agreement in place between the county and the University of Arkansas to have the Extension Office located in Hempstead County requires that the county provide a location for the Extension Office, including rent and maintenance, which is why it has been historically located in the Hempstead County Courthouse.
James informed the Quorum Court that there are options, including possibly the UAHT campus or the Experiment Station but that rent, and utilities could potentially cost the county between $12,000 and $25,000 per year if the office has to locate at a non-county owned building.
No action was required at this time but will be in the near future. James said she wasn’t clear on the timeline for the relocation and she is being proactive to find what options are available to the Extension Office in the county before the deadline gets too close.
New Courthouse Progress
After being asked by JP Jay Lathrop about progress on the new courthouse location downtown, Judge Jerry Crane told the Quorum Court that bids for the renovations of the building will be accepted soon and that they anticipate that the courthouse can be relocated by April of 2020.
Crane said that there have been questions about money for financing from some but that the county does have money for the renovations. Crane said they will be getting more updates on the construction bids at a meeting next Tuesday.
HPD Building Expansion
Hope Police Chief J.R. Wilson and Architect Jeremy Stone presented plans for the expansion of the HPD’s side of the Hempstead County Law Enforcement Center on South Washington. Wilson informed the Quorum Court that the city approved the plans and project and he was there to inform them of the situation, answer any questions they have and to seek their blessing on moving forward with the construction.
Questions about the cost of increased utilities and other expenses that will come with approximately 2000 square foot expansion. The current agreement between the city of Hope and Hempstead County that was made in 1994 had the city forgo local sales tax and the county would incur the maintenance and expense of the building. Wilson said that utilities are billed to the county and the city pays the county their part based on square footage.
Wilson told the court that the new expansion would primarily house the Criminal Investigation Division and has space to allow for future expansion.
After fielding questions for the JP’s, Chief Wilson was given the verbal approval of the Quorum Court to move forward with the expansion.
JP David Clayton told the other members of the Quorum Court that he wants to reach out to the Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation to come speak to the Quorum Court. Clayton said that the loss of the Georgia Pacific plant in Hope is a huge blow to the community but the he knows the Economic Development Corporation is working hard to get more businesses into the county. Clayton said that if the other members are fine with it, he will reach out to the director and see if Economic Development can give quarterly reports, at least, to the Quorum Court so that they can stay informed on the work they are doing for the county.
Thanks to County Employees
JP Cherry Stewart said that she is very proud of the employees of Hempstead County and she thinks that the Quorum Court members should draft a letter to send out to them to express how proud they are of them and how much they appreciate all that they do.