Tuesday, August 23, 2011

TOP STORY >> State won’t rescue cities like schools

Leader executive editor

Cities across Arkansas are going broke in the double-dip recession. Alexander down in Saline County is questioning a former bookkeeper about shortages in two city funds.

Even a well-run city like Jacksonville had to dip into its reserves to balance its books.

It gets much worse elsewhere in Arkansas.

The phones at Gould City Hall were disconnected last week. No one answered the phone at the police department or at the ambulance service.

Gould is named after the 19th Century railroad robber-baron Jay Gould. No wonder the town is broke.

We asked the governor’s office if the state might take over the financially distressed town, the way the Education Department took over the troubled Pulaski County and Helena-West Helena school districts.

The answer is a definite no.

“We hadn’t found a statute regarding municipalities that was similar to what you had referred to regarding school districts,” Matt DeCample, the governor’s spokesman, told us.

The public schools closed in Gould seven years ago. Students go to nearby Dumas and Star City.

Gould (population 1,100) has no tax base to speak of, so it can’t afford public schools even with support from the state.

Gould has a gas station-convenience store and a clinic, which is run by the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns.

The library is open twice a week. The summer reading program offered kids cake and juice. People go there mostly to use the computers and just to cool off.

The air conditioning is turned off for part of the day to save money. A recent storm blew part of the roof off and buckets around the library catch the water when it rains.

The Southeast Arkansas Regional Library runs the library in Gould, so it’s not bankrupt like the city, but it’s not exactly flush with cash either.

Speeding tickets helped keep the town afloat, but a state law put a limit on how much money towns could make off traffic tickets.

It was easy money, some of it probably going into officials’ pockets, especially if the fines were paid in cash: A cop making $15 an hour can bring in 20 times that much in fines.

But, like the rest of the economy, business isn’t what it used to be — not since the legislature told communities they must find more honorable ways to fund their budgets.

After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from speeding tickets, Gould went broke. The IRS filed liens against the city. Most suppliers want cash on delivery.

The city council made worldwide headlines when it passed ordinances banning groups from gathering in Gould.

Maybe because of its financial problems, Gould’s city council went off the rails last month and passed ordinances meant to supercede the U.S. and state constitutions. Residents couldn’t form new organizations or meet in groups without the city’s approval.

The council was acting like the Taliban. They stopped short of telling the women to cover their faces, but the town’s residents were scared.

A couple of hardliners even beat up the mayor.

Residents were afraid to speak out, but the newly elected mayor is outspoken and says he’ll clean up the town.

Mayor Earnest Nash Jr., who was allegedly attacked by relatives of a council member, says both he and the town will recover. He’s doing fine now, but he was pistol-whipped last month by a couple of thugs who have now been indicted for assaulting the mayor.

They were mad at Nash for opposing a couple of ordinances that banned any new organizations in town or groups holding meetings. You couldn’t form a new church or hold a prayer meeting without council approval.

The mayor thought the ordinances were crazy and unconstitutional.

The ordinances have since been repealed. A lawyer for the Arkansas Municipal League says the town needs a city attorney who could teach them about the finer points of constitutional law.

Nash, who is an Army National Guard veteran and a preacher, says he will not be intimidated.

“They’re not going to scare me off,” he told us recently. “They can’t stop me from meeting with my constituents.”

Gould is broke, and so is Alexander. There will be many others. But unlike the failed public schools, these cities will flounder on their own. No state rescue is in the cards for them.