During today’s Lions Club meeting, held as usual at the lunch hour at the club meeting house on North Hervey, Hempstead County Judge Jerry Crane, as that meeting’s guest speaker, gave a state of the county speech and a candid description of what being the county judge is like.
First, Crane spoke of the way the people of the county had responded to a fundraiser held to help defray costs for his wife’s cancer care. “What got me,” he said, “Were the people who were there that had cancer. They needed help, too.”
He mentioned that after the benefit his wife had had second thoughts about receiving money from some who gave. “But you know, when someone wants to give, when somebody wants to help, you’re taking away their blessing when you refuse it,” Crane said.
Next, Crane said he characterized the county government as “moving forward.” He said, “The thing that I see about this community we work together. We may not always agree. We may not always like the same thing, but we still come together.”
He praised the Hempstead County Quorum Court for allowing a budget sufficient to support the county’s efforts in the Road Department and the Waste Department.
Turning to the transition into the new courthouse, Crane praised the building’s beauty but pointed to what he called “growing pains,” including problems with the air conditioning that a county employee James Hollis works to fix by use of an app on an Ipad. “That’s unreal, but that’s the way it is now,” Crane said.
Still, Crane said, a new courthouse was much needed, because of the older one’s contamination with mold and its other structural problems.
Crane then pointed to the eventfulness of his now four-year-old tenure as County Judge which began with flooding in the northern part of the county. But he said the usual costly process of continuing to replace dislodged culverts after repeated flooding had come to an end thanks to the help of Road Department Superintendent Richard Kidd who came up with the solution of cementing the culverts into the ground. “They will not come up,” Crane said.
He said that being in office was an experience of having one problem pop up after another, but when county workers were on site and could not go eat, it was Lion Steve Montgomery, owner operator of Hope’s McDonald’s franchise who helped. “He would send the burgers,” Crane said.
Often county workers brave dangerous conditions, Crane said. “My hat’s off to Steve for helping us out in the county when we’re out there. The men can’t leave. They’re out in the hot weather. Like I said, it is a dangerous job. There’s things that go on when you get out there that you can get hurt. Big cottonmouth snakes and things like that. They’re out all the time.”
Crane said he was thankful to the Quorum Court for voting in favor of salary increases for county workers, which has increased morale and also allowed the county to deter an exodus of its best workers. “If they leave, believe me, they’re getting something a lot better. But we’re, where we need to be with our salaries, and the Quorum Court, as always giving us what we need. They don’t try to hold anything back if the money is there, but they’re good stewards of the people’s money in the county, they try to make sure we’re going to have the money for the future,” Crane said.
The next hurdle budget-wise, is the cost of fuel, which Crane acknowledged has caused costs to go over what was budgeted for the first time in his tenure. He mentioned talking to County Clerk Karen Smith about transferring funds from other budget categories to pay for the county’s fuel needs.
Updating existing facilities and equipment was a need Crane saw when he took office. He said thanks to the Quorum Court, the county had a good budget able to finance upgrades, which were especially needed to the County Shop, which had one of the lowest safety ratings in the state. Thanks to those efforts, Crane said, the rating was much improved, as was the morale of the workers there.
In the realm of street improvements, Crane referred to Avenue B: “I remember when it used to be gravel all the way up.” He explained that more roads were being asphalted and graded without the county having to contract the labor, thus saving county funds. The state, Crane said, pays 80 percent of the costs of many road improvement projects, with the county paying the 20 percent remainder. This has allowed a lot of much-needed road work to be done.
Concerning what would be done with the old courthouse, Crane said there had been no discussion on the matter, but he cited the example of the Roosevelt Veterans Administration building in Little Rock, which, because of the difficulty of asbestos and mold remediation and other expenses required to demolish it, still stands.
Sheriff James Singleton has the preference, Crane said, to use the site of the courthouse for a veteran’s park, an idea Crane said he also likes and which “would be good for the community.” He also said Donna Rosenbaum had come forward as a volunteer to work as a veterans’ service officer. “She’s a Gold Star member,” Crane added and said she is currently undergoing the training to assume the role.
Crane mentioned another volunteer opportunity for safe drivers who want to help veterans. “If any of you want to drive with them, there’s plenty of driving. We need people to help run veterans to Little Rock,” he said.
As an example of how he has had to learn on the job, Crane told of an attempt to solve the problem in which a woman who moved to the county from Louisiana had complained of the dust from a gravel road being so bad it was getting into her morning coffee. Crane, meanwhile, met a man calling himself the Road Doctor who said he had a way to reduce the dust raised by passing cars on gravel roads by means of a chemical applied to the road. “He actually wore a coat and everything. And looked like a real doctor,” Crane said.
But the result of the doctor’s remedy in Hempstead County was a worsening of the complained-about road to the point of causing vehicles to slide around on its surface and even become stuck. Crane said it took a month to restore the road. “Thank God, we got our money back,” he added. “So I’m still learning.”
Though Crane acknowledges occasional days when “you want to pull your hair out,” he said that he had confidence the county is moving forward. “We’re going to see things change and it’s all for the future, for our kids,” he said in closing.
During the same meeting, Lions Treasurer Debbie Marsh accepted an award from SWArk.Today to the Lions Club for Best Civic Organization as voted on by SWArk.Today readers. Also a new member, Gary Martin of Guernsey who currently works at Old Washington State Park was inducted and pinned.