Ed: This post has been updated to include a comment from Justice B.J. Johns.
By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
With a full 11-member quorum present, Clark County justices of the peace moved swiftly Monday through a packed agenda. The April meeting drew a crowd nearly 20 residents, more than a dozen of them child advocacy professionals in attendance for a proclamation declaring April as Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month.
Here’s a rundown of the April 2023 meeting:
Justices approve per diem increase for themselves
In an 8-3 vote, justices gave final approval of an ordinance establishing a per diem increase, a move that puts an additional $100 in their own pockets for attending each monthly meeting.
The raise, proposed by District 4 Justice Albert Neal (D-Arkadelphia), is the first for Clark County Quorum Court members in 25 years. The previous per diem payment to justices was $200; Neal last year had lobbied to add $50 ($250 total) per meeting, but fellow justices wouldn’t acknowledge his motion.
This time around, however, Neal was victorious in securing enough support for the raise, which he said was “very past due.” Noting that the state law that caps the maximum per diem raise will increase in 2024 from 3% to 10%, Neal added, “if we don’t raise our per diem we are gonna be way, way behind” other Arkansas counties.
Three justices voted against the increase: Wayne Baumgardner (R-Gurdon), Garry “B.J.” Johns (R-Amity), and Jenna Scott (R-Joan). Justices who cast dissenting votes gave The Arkadelphian varying reasons for their opposition.
Baumgardner said his decision was based on the included health insurance in JP earnings. “Clark County is one of the few [in the state] that pays health insurance for justices,” he said. “With our health insurance included in our pay, I voted against it.”
Johns said his reasoning was twofold: “I don’t think it’s right to give myself a raise,” he said, “and there are other things in the county more deserving of funding.”
While Scott admitted justices deserve a raise, she said she had conflicts with awarding JPs when county employees should be compensated more. “It’s not my place to vote for a raise for us,” she said, “when I feel like our law enforcement and our jailers are underpaid.”
Livestream ordinance heads to final reading
Meetings of the quorum court appear to be headed to a TV or computer screen near you. A proposed ordinance establishes a livestream service that would televise the public meetings, which would likely be broadcast on the county’s newly relaunched website.
District 2 Justice Michael Ankton (D-Arkadelphia) is the sponsor of the ordinance. He said that a quorum court’s livestream services are mostly unregulated by state law. Ankton fielded questions from fellow justices before the court voiced approval of sending the ordinance to its third and final reading at the next meeting.
District 8 Justice Garry “B.J.” Johns (R-Amity) inquired of pricing, and District 5 Justice Jimmy King (R-Arkadelphia) asked about compliance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Ankton told Johns he would present pricing options during final discussions in May, and told King that so long as recordings were kept for a year the livestream would be compliant with FOIA.
NAACP’s Bell wants tax guidelines back
Bruce Bell talked at length during the March meeting about an apparent lie the black community was fed by supporters who campaigned to renew the 1/2-cent economic development sales tax.
Bell, who leads the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, isn’t giving up his argument. He said he has yet to hear back from any of the justices or county Judge Troy Tucker since he last pleaded with them to re-establish a set of guidelines that would allow retail businesses to apply for and receive incentives from the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County.
When supporters campaigned for the tax, black congregations were told there would be money available to the retail sector — particularly minority-owned businesses — under the “new tax” collections. Both the quorum court and EDCCC approved a set of guidelines and an application for retail businesses, but that became moot once a Little Rock law firm determined the Arkansas Constitution does not allow retailers to tap into tax collected for job creation.
“What can we do … to try to make this thing work before it gets off the track?” Bell said of re-establishing guidelines that would allow incentives for retailers. Bell later told The Arkadelphian in a telephone interview that he was not implying legal action against the county or EDCCC but rather that the NAACP would seek attention from state or national media.
Bell wants the quorum court to explore options to bypass written state laws, arguing that litigation against the county would be unlikely if retailers were incentivized equally. He called out Shelley Short, CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, saying she was mainly responsible for reversing the guidelines when she recruited T.J. Lawhon as the EDCCC attorney.
RELATED: EDCCC hires new attorney
Bell argued with Justice Jenna Scott over the legality of the guidelines. In 2022 Scott took issue with campaign promises that weren’t kept following the tax’s 2021 passage. On Monday, Scott called the reneging of the guidelines a “misunderstanding” and said the county would apply its laws according to the state’s constitution.
“I hear what you’re saying, but they messed up out there,” Bell replied, pointing at Short.
Broadband coming to all of Clark County
County Judge Troy Tucker introduced representatives of South Central Connect LLC, an Arkadelphia-based Internet service provider that has pledged to provide high-speed broadband Internet to every corner of the county. The county worked with SCC to apply for and receive a $1.6 million grant to expand the services, particularly to the southern reaches of the county.
Colby Wells, CEO of SCC and its parent company South Central Electric Cooperative, said every Clark County citizen who has traditional electric service will have the option of broadband services, although when appears to be the unanswered question. First, SCC does not yet have the details of its requirements for the federal grant; and second, some areas where SCC is expanding are not part of South Central Electric’s grid. It is in these areas where SCC will either install underground or attach to Entergy’s lines.
SCC manager Jamie Farrell said customers will have the option to choose from one of three high-speed Internet packages: 100 megabytes per second, 500 mps or 1 gigabyte per second, as well as TV and phone services.
The company has completed 85% of its underground installation in Gurdon, with completion there by July before expanding to Beirne and Whelen Springs.
In Dalark, residents should be able to connect to SCC’s services by the end of April, Farrell said.
The only Clark County residents who will not have broadband access are a very limited number of people who live off the electric grid. SCC estimated that five households are not connected to that grid.
Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention
April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. Stephanie Hrabal, executive director of the Percy and Donna Malone Child Safety Center, said that the center to date has served more than 1,200 children in its five-county area. Last year the center served 169 kids, and has served nearly 80 so far this year.
To aid in the process of battling child abuse is a multi-disciplinary team of law enforcement investigators, Department of Human Services workers, Court Appointed Special Advocates and the prosecuting attorney, to name many of them.
Celeste Davis, director of the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, also spoke, adding that there are currently 38 children in foster care in Clark County. Of those, 16 are currently assigned an advocate, with a goal of pairing each foster child with a CASA advocate.
Justice Jimmy King, whose career is in education at Arkadelphia Public Schools, applauded the ongoing efforts from the services.
READ MORE: Child Safety Center a refuge for victims of abuse, neglect
Clark County gets good audit report
Finally, Tucker told the court that Clark County received a good audit report from the Legislative Audit for the 2021 tax year.
There were no negative findings in the audit, Tucker said. The court accepted the audit report in a voice vote.
Categories: City & County, Slider
I agree with the Republicans who opposed the per diem increase. I think they should put more money towards paying county employees a living wage, especially when it comes to public safety. You’d probably make more money at McDonald’s than working for the county…
I really do hope the livestream ordinance passes. I know Republicans are always going to ask, “how are you going to pay for it?” about everything, but it doesn’t really seem like this is going to be costly. If we can afford to give $2M to a well-off megacorporation (whose CEO said inflation is good) to make unhealthy food pumped full of unnatural chemicals, then we can surely afford to livestream QC meetings — but I wonder if price is really the issue, or if they just oppose transparency…
I’m probably the most anti-tax person who ran for JP in 2022, but I don’t think you can just “bypass written state laws” or ignore the state constitution. Clark County citizens were obviously lied to (the government lying? They NEVER do that… and there were totally WMDs in Iraq, and the CIA totally wasn’t spying on American citizens without a warrant, etc…), but I’m not sure if there’s a way to petition for a re-vote on the tax if it was already approved. If there is, I’d sign it.
Broadband expansion, helping kids, and the good audit report are great news. We have South Central Connect up here in Amity and it’s better than anything I’ve ever used before. I’d definitely recommend getting it.
There’s a lot of opportunities to move Clark County forward, but I think there’s also a lot more that needs to be done in 2024 and beyond.
Would dearly love internet in Caddo Valley! South Central has buried cable up to the road I live off of, then stopped. A worker told me that they are doing Bismarck next, and after that, I might be able to get hooked up. Have lived in the same place for 24 years and can’t get reliable internet. Very frustrating, as I live a quarter mile from where the cable stops!