Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> NLR gift balances Sherwood budget

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

A text message from one city hall to another conveyed the news that North Little Rock would be giving Sherwood a gift of $470,000 in electric utility revenues. Both councils met Monday night, and word of the gift came as the Sherwood meeting was coming to a close. It was all the council needed to act on the one remaining item on the agenda, the proposed 2010 general-fund budget.

The $18.36 million budget – 4.4 percent less than the amount approved for 2009 – passed unanimously to a smattering of applause.

“This is the first general fund budget in several years that no reserve funds were committed,” said Mayor Virginia Hillman after the vote. “Thank you, North Little Rock.”

North Little Rock Mayor PatHays proposed the transfer of North Little Rock Electric revenue funds to Sherwood as part of his 2010 budget. The amount equals 10 percent of the $4.7 million in additional electric utility revenues North Little Rock will use this coming year to meet expenses. Hays reasoned that since 13 percent of the utility’s customers live in Sherwood, then Sherwood also ought to get a share of the revenues to help out in this tough economic time. The North Little Rock City Council went along with his idea.

Also approved were the 2010 budgets for the street fund ($1.59 million), wastewater utility ($1.28 million), police drug fund ($10,023) and the advertising and promotions commission ($576,000).

The council voted unanimously to create five new positions to staff the city-owned golf course, The Greens at North Hills. The positions and salaries are as follows: full-time golf pro ($36,667), full-time park maintenance generalist ($24,750), full-time park maintenance worker ($18,920), full-time pro shop cashier ($18,920) and part-time park maintenance worker ($9,975).

Funding will begin in February and is included in the 2010 city budget. Salaries, taxes and benefits for the new positions will cost $147,948.

During budget discussions in the fall, Mayor Hillman and the city budget committee agreed that a hiring freeze was necessary to balance next year’s budget. When asked about that this week, Hillman said, “The thing about it is, when it (the golf course) opens in the spring, it is going to have to be staffed correctly. I acknowledge that we are going to have to have new people, but it couldn’t come at a worse time.”

About the new positions, Alder-man Becki Vassar, who is also chair of the city’s personnel committee, said, “We should have done this months ago, back in the spring,” when other positions for the golf course were approved, “but we failed to see the need at the time.”

What may be the first of several annual wastewater rate increases was approved unanimously by the council. The new rate, applicable to all residential, commercial and industrial customers, will be $3 per 100 cubic feet. The minimum charge will be $12. Bills will be based on a customer’s winter water-usage average. Currently, the rate is $1.69 per 100 cubic feet.

When the new rate goes into effect Jan. 1, it will be the first increase since 1996. For the last several years, the utility has dipped into reserves to pay for operations and maintenance.

City engineer Ellen Norvell has warned city managers that big-dollar sewer system improvements in the next few years will draw down reserves. The city must begin implementing a plan to replenish those funds so that the money will be there when future repairs are needed.

The increase will only put the utility “at break even,” Alderman Charles Harmon pointed out. “It will take additional increases to begin to replenish the reserve fund.”

About the need for the rate increase, Alderman Kevin Lilly, who serves on the city’s sewer committee, said, “We can’t continue to operate the system at a deficit. A rate increase is our only option.”

“Prior to this, we were at about the 13th percentile – one of the lowest in the state,” Hillman said regarding the increase.

The new ordinance also includes provisions to penalize industrial customers for discharges that exceed legal limits for biochemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids, pH range, fats, oils and greases, cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanide, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, zinc, arsenic, selenium, boron and molybdenum.

The charges shall be based on sample test results of the utility and apply to non-residential customers whose daily discharges equal or exceed 25,000 gallons of wastewater or may contain restricted toxins or pollutants.

Other council business included refinements of several ordinances to better conform to current practices or improve enforcement. Revisions to an existing ordinance regulating pawnshops will help the police track stolen goods received by pawnshops and other lenders.

“It is just to tweak it so we can enforce it better in a timely manner,” said Police Chief Kelvin Nicholson.

The ordinance applies to about seven Sherwood businesses. They will be required to update electronic records on received property every five days, reducing the number of “skipped numbers and lost tickets,” Nicholson said.

Changes to the ordinance regarding residency requirements for the advertising and promotions commission now formalize what is already allowed – that one not need to be a Sherwood resident. The ordinance requires that to serve on the commission, a person must be a member of the tourism industry and reside in Pulaski County.

The council passed resolutions to reappoint restaurant owner Danny Gilliland to the advertising and promotions commission and to appoint Joffrey Clark, who works for Regions Insurance Group, to the city’s retirement board. Hillman is stepping down from the board to make room for Clark.

“Now two people with financial expertise” are on the board, Hillman said, which is what is needed for the body to tackle some tough issues in the coming year.

The council approved a resolution enabling the city to go forward with an application to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for a grant of up to $100,000. The money could be used at The Greens at North Little Rock for youth golf programs as well as maintenance or improvements.

“I feel we will be successful in getting at least a portion of the grant,” Hillman said.

In order to meet federal requirements, the council passed four ordinances that will make it possible for Gallery Support Innovations, a Sherwood firm, to qualify for a grant from the Arkansas Community and Economic Development Program. The $50,000 grant will pay for software and is expected to add 10 new jobs at the firm which produces interior hardware for corporate and commercial aircraft.