Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

TOP STORY >>Council gets schooled in city matters

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Problems with city finances and traffic congestion were just two of the topics covered by the speakers at an eight-hour workshop Saturday in Cabot that Mayor Eddie Joe Williams hosted for the city council. Williams has promised to make getting both under control a priority and used the workshop to introduce his plans to do so. Clerk-Treasurer Marva Verkler, who is back in control of city finances after being stripped of her duties by the former mayor and council, thanked Williams at the end of the 20 years with the city, she had never attended a meeting that was more helpful, she said. Williams, who is well aware that he is in the honeymoon phase of his administration when almost everyone is willing to listen to his ideas, also used the workshop to promote working together as a team, a concept that he intends to foster in part by appointing council committees to work on the issues that will go before the council as proposed ordinances. Since each committee is made up of five council members, an ordinance that leaves the committee with unanimous approval of its members will pass the full council.

Getting the council to help identify the top five priorities the city government should address now and in the next four years during a slot of time near the end of the workshop did not go as smoothly as it was clear the new mayor wanted it to. But after some hesitation, the council finally produced a list that included all the problems that he says he intends to work on: traffic and streets, accurate financial reporting, drainage and potholes.

FINANCES

Finance Director Dale Walker used the word “broken” to describe the city’s purchasing and financial programs. Spending in November and December was out of control, he said, the extent of which is still being discovered. Walker now works for the clerk treasurer instead of the mayor, a change that he told the council he is pleased with. “Marva and I have been working together undercover for a year now, anyway,” he said, adding that together they will identify and fix the problems. So far, they have found one $50,000 payroll that came out of the human resources department that was not recorded, so the $150,000 deficit he had earlier identified is actually $200,000 and growing. In addition to excessive spending, Walker said he and Verkler had found several purchases of more than $1,000 that were not approved.

Walker’s disapproval of the past administration drew criticism from Alderman Teri Miessner, who said that was in the past and it was time to move on. Verkler stood up for her new employee saying the actions are past, but her department must now deal with the results. Alderman Ed Long, who is back on the council after a two-year absence, commended Miessner for her comments. Walker was responsible for overseeing the finances during Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh’s administration and therefore must bear some of the responsibility for problems, Long said.

TRAFFIC AND STREETS

Two projects that stalled last year will move forward in 2007, Williams told the new council. The access road built by Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman to take shoppers from Highway 5 to Wal-Mart will open sometime in the spring. The city has $2 million in bond money to work on roads and Williams says some of it will help pay for 1,300 feet of pavement inside city limits and for a bridge over the ditch where the road now ends. The city also will work with Troutman who offered last year to replace seven old and dangerously narrow bridges on First Street with culverts for about $7,500 each. Williams told the council members that he would have Troutman replace one bridge and if the culvert worked well, he would ask him to replace the others. Williams said he believes some relief from traffic congestion is attainable at no cost by changing the timing of traffic lights. He also wants big ticket improvements like the reconfiguration of the access ramps onto the freeway and the extension of Willie Ray Road to Austin. But the cornerstone of his long term plan to ease traffic congestion is a railroad overpass near Polk Street paired with a north interchange between Austin and Cabot.

Critics of the plan, including a Lonoke County traffic committee, say an interchange in that location will do little to ease traffic congestion. But Williams says it will keep school buses off the railroad track and it will help with traffic in downtown now and with future growth on Highway 38. And he intends to move forward especially since the overpass has been approved for federal funding and $400,000 already spent would have to be paid back if it is not built. A $28 million bond issue approved by voters and financed by the continuation of a one-cent sales tax includes $800,000 for the city’s part of the overpass that was estimated at $6 million, but Williams said that price has gone up 30 percent and the city doesn’t
have enough to pay for it now.

Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, which distributes federal highway money, spoke during the workshop about federal funding for road projects. The big news he brought is that there is not nearly as much federal money available as there once was. So growing cities like Cabot will need to get behind proposed state legislation that would allow counties to levy up to 10 cents per gallon tax on gasoline. “If the infrastructure is inadequate, people are going to choose to live elsewhere,” McKenzie warned. Williams said later that what cities will have to do is choose projects that will give the most relief with the federal money that is available. “We have to get the biggest bang for the buck,” he said.

DRAINAGE AND POTHOLES

Jerrell Maxwell, the city’s new public works director, told the council that he is already working on major drainage problems with simple fixes like cleaning ditches, and that filling potholes is next. “We must work smarter and be better stewards of the city’s money,” Maxwell said.

COUNCIL COMMITTEES

To ensure that every council member is included in the decisions made for the city, Williams has assigned all eight to three different committees. The committees are to meet twice a month for a total of six committee meetings and one full council meeting every month. Since traffic is the problem that every resident of Cabot faces, the Public Works Committee is arguably the most important. Alderman Ed Long, who has six years of experience, will chair that committee, and Alderman Eddie Cook will be one of the members.

Cook asked last year, when the city council was considering replacing the bridges on First Street, who
had made that project a priority. The mayor said from now on, Cook will know the answer to that question. Other members of the committee are Becky Lemaster, Virgil Teague and Tom Armstrong. Cook, who has an interest in finances and was the unofficial chairman of the budget meetings late in 2006, is chairman of the budget and personnel committee. Also on that committee are Miessner, Lemaster, Ken Williams, Lisa Brickell. The mayor chose Ken Williams, a former city attorney to chair the Fire and Police Committee for his legal expertise. Other members are Armstrong, Brickell, Teague and Miessner.