Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

TOP STORY >>Economic department doesn’t pay off for city

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

Following Jacksonvillle’s lead, Sherwood’s economic development department is no more.

Urged by Aldermen Steve Fender and Becki Vassar, the council voted 7-1 Monday night to drop the department’s funding from next year’s budget.

“I’ve got to call her (Linda Nickle) and let her know she doesn’t have a job before she reads about it in the newspaper,” said Mayor Virginia Hillman after the city council meeting.

Hillman, along with Alderman Butch Davis, pushed hard to keep the department alive, but lost.

Vassar questioned a number of other line items in the budget, especially the need for more police officers and patrol vehicles.

In the end, no vote was taken on the city’s proposed $18.36 million general fund for 2008. “I’d like to have us just discuss the budget tonight and vote on it at our December meeting,” the mayor said.

The council agreed, but still voted to eliminate the economic development department, saving the city $76,940.

After Hillman opened up the budget discussion among council members, Fender very quickly said the city needed to get rid of economic development. “We’ve tried to make it work for 12 years and I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress. The concept is not working. How long do we have to go on with this?”

He added that it was the council’s “charge to spend taxpayers’ money wisely” which brought chuckles from the audience.
Vassar said she also had problems with the program. “Jacksonville did away with it and the chamber took over the responsibilities. It has never performed like it is supposed to. We are not getting the return for the money,” she said.

According to the city’s own Web site on the office of economic development, the city has attracted more than 900 full-time jobs and 300 part-time jobs in the past 16 months.

The mayor said the recommendation to cut the program was hasty.

“If this has been a problem for so long, why is it now just an issue?” the mayor asked. She added that the current person had just been in the position full-time for two years and progress had been made.

Hillman added that in Jacksonville the person connected with the chamber who was working on economic development had left and Jacksonville is looking at recreating a city position again for that job. “They don’t have a proven way either,” she said.

Fender held to his position and made a motion to eliminate the department, Vassar seconded the motion and the council approved it 7-1.

Vassar then went on and questioned the need for more police officers. Addressing Police Chief Kel Nicholson, she said, “When we gave you three officers last year that was supposed to be it. What has happened?”

The chief simply said more crime. The mayor added that crime was up.

“It’s higher than it used to be. If we don’t act now, we will never regain that low crime rate. Do we want to compare us to our lower rate of 10 years ago or to Little Rock?” she asked.

Nicholson also said the new officers were needed in preparation of the opening of the Wal-Mart Supercenter and the annexation of 2,000 acres north of the city.

“Wal-Mart means increased hours and man power, and depending on how those 2,000 acres are developed will stretch our services,” he said.

The chief also made it clear, “If we don’t need the money, we don’t ask for it.”

Vassar also questioned the need for eight new vehicles for the police department. Nicholson said he doesn’t ask for the vehicle, but lets the city mechanic decide when vehicles need to be replaced.

Alderman Davis said the mechanic verified that the police vehicles to be replaced “are wrecks.”