By Rick Kennedy, managing editor
In what was their first official meeting since being sworn on January 2, the Hempstead County Quorum Court had a number of topics and presentations, extending their session nearly two hours long on Thursday night.
In addition to their regular business, the Justices heard formal presentations and viewed exhibits from Hope Police Chief J.R. Wilson, Hempstead Bicentennial Chairman Richard Read, and Hempstead County Sheriff James Singleton.
The first item of agenda addressed, however, was the 2017 Legislative Audit findings. Justice Ed Darling, who has also served as the Quorum Court’s Finance Chair the past couple of years, said two findings had noted common posting errors, which he said didn’t affect the finances of the county.
Then, the Justices heard there was a finding on former County Judge Haskell Morse and the use of his county-owned truck stemming from an incident that occurred in 2017.
Darling said, “I have no comments on that at this time as the situation is under investigation by the county prosecutor’s office.”
In an unusual move, the Justices voted to accept the audit findings “with the acknowledgement of the open issue,” as Darling said it.
As expected, the Justices followed-up on two financial measures from their January meeting. First, the transfer of $3,000 to the road budget, dedicated to the Shop Superintendent’s salary, and approving a $6,000 transfer of funds provided by the 8th North Task Force to the county dedicated to the salary of Capt. M.C. McJunkins, who happens to oversee the operations of the 8th North Task Force.
After their business and transfers, the rest of the meeting was largely devoted to the presentations and exhibits by Wilson, Read, and Singleton.
Wilson’s presentation proved to be the most concise and to the point of them all. Wilson came before the Justices, citing the expansion of the city’s office space in the Hempstead County Law Enforcement Center, which houses both the Hope Police Department and the Hempstead County Sheriff’s office.
Wilson said, “In law enforcement, the City of Hope and Hempstead County have had win-win relationship, and have shared many aspects of law enforcement for our citizens.”
Wilson cited mutual aid arrangements as well as common dispatching, housing of prisoners, and their shared office space at the Law Enforcement center.
Wilson said the Hope Police Dept. has been working on an expansion for its personnel of approximately 1,843 square feet, enough to accommodate up to 10 offices.
“We can use four offices right now, and an interview room,” he said.
Wilson added that the city wasn’t expanding personnel, and that the new addition would not require plumbing, as would be needed if additional bathrooms were being added.
Wilson also emphasized that the HPD expansion would come at no cost to Hempstead County, saying “This is all city-funded in the city budget, at no cost to the county.”
Because the City and County are both located in the Law Enforcement Center, over the years, such items as utilities have been split by the agencies. Wilson said a new agreement could be drafted by City Attorney Joe Short and forwarded to Christi McQueen, who as Prosecuting Attorney, also acts as the county’s legal advisor.
The Justices gave their approval to Wilson for the office expansion.
Read’s presentation dealt primarily with the Hempstead Time Capsule, which he had originally conceived and developed in connection with the Hempstead County’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2018.
The Bicentennial Commission, which acted as a private entity separate from county or city governments, had originally voted to have the Time Capsule buried, Read said in this comments to the Justices.
Read, however, maintained “We bury the dead out of respect. This is a live and living testimony to our future generations. We shouldn’t bury it; we should be celebrating it.”
Read advocated that the Time Capsule being incorporated into a wall within the new Hempstead County Courthouse’s design. He also said such a wall could be a “showcase for the county and for our history. This is a prize.”
Read said that time capsules are fairly rare in the United States, citing Yale University and the University of Connecticut as some of the few places that have them.
Read had some cleverly constructed miniature exhibits of both a burial box and wall-studs for his presentation. He maintained that the cost of burial or incorporating into a wall would “likely be about equal.”
Read conceded that no funds or budget had been allocated by the Commission for disposition of the Time Capsule itself, although the capsule structure had been completely paid for by private donations and funds.
Since the capsule was completed, it was revealed in Thursday’s meeting that it has been stored in the basement of the current courthouse, and it will remain for safe-keeping there until it is relocated to the new courthouse grounds.
In concept, the Justices agreed with Read that the Time Capsule should be inside the new courthouse and not buried. Some Justices suggested it could be placed as an exhibit within the lobby.
After Read’s presentation, Justice C. David Clayton asked him about a “monument” that was currently placed outside Farmer’s Bank adjacent to the flag pole. Clayton wanted to know who paid for it, and he said the monument was in need of several corrections, including his own name and Circuit Clerk Gail Wolfenbarger’s.
As previously reported on SWARK Today, the monument was the subject of controversy in the community and an intense discussion during the last finance meeting of the Bicentennial Commission. See link at: https://swark.today/?p=5401
As he did then, Read maintained “I believed and I understood that the Commission had agreed to spend $550 on a blank slate.”
Read said that the Commission had paid the bill for $1,00 to Smith Monument, but he also maintained that the inscription on it was unauthorized and he didn’t know who was responsible. The monument also contained a reference to a courthouse dedication on December 15 that Read said didn’t actually occur.
Justice Cherry Stewart, who also was a member of the Bicentennial Commission and was also at the Commission’s last finance meeting, expressed similar sentiments as she did before, saying “We paid the vendor for it; it is not correct. We should take it back and have them correct it.”
The final presentation was Singleton, who provided the Justices with an 18-page report detailing the activities of the Sheriff’s Dept. over the past year.
The highlights of the report presented by Singleton were:
• The Sheriff’s Department covers 730 square miles within Hempstead County, and that backup for most deputies is between 30-40 minutes away.
• In contrast, Hope City Police cover 10.3 square miles within city limits, and have up to four patrolmen on duty.
• A Blevins school resource officer has been established and paid for through a cooperative effort and funding with the Blevins School District. Singleton noted that Blevins is almost a 30-minute drive north of Hope.
• The Sheriff’s Department had 33 vehicles, but didn’t actually own but 22 of them. Seven, he said, were property of the state of Arkansas, while two vehicles included an armored unit and military surplus Humvee and another was a donated 40-foot RV, which has been used as a “mobile command center.”
• The Sheriff’s Department as put over 379,000 miles on the patrol cars, and they were changing their own oil in house.
• Of crimes in Hempstead County, Singleton noted 116 against children of various types, ranging from prostitution to abuse to welfare issues.
• In juvenile crime, Singleton said the county is spending approximately $100,000 annually to house and incarcerate juveniles in places like Batesville.
• Crimes in Hempstead County resulted in over $400,000 of reported stolen property, with approximately $39,000 successfully recovered.
• Hempstead County had approximately 1,606 prisoners in the past year, but Singleton also said recidivism, also known as repeat offenders, is a whopping 75-percent. Singleton noted that one offender was in and out of county jail nine times over the year.
• In keeping prisoners, Singleton said they county is responsible for their well-being, including feeding, clothing, and medical. He said the county had approximately $319,000 in medical bills, but thanks to initiatives by Governor Asa Hutchinson, the county paid Medicaid reimbursements, so county paid approximately $22,000.
• Singleton said the county had implemented an in-house GED program for the inmates and is working with UAHT on programs that could help provide inmates with training and skills to get a job when they leave detention.
• Singleton also noted the public service and recent death of longtime jail administrator Johnny Godbolt, and he requested a resolution from the county honoring Godbolt’s service. County Clerk Karen Smith said a county “Proclaimation” could be drawn up and presented at a later time.
By Rick Kennedy, managing editor