Friday, March 21, 2014

TOP STORY >> Absent assessor raises eyebrows

Leader staff writer

Lonoke County Assessor Jack McNally rarely attends monthly quorum court meetings, which has not gone unnoticed by the quorum court members who collectively represent all Lonoke County residents.

McNally’s absence Thursday night was especially noticeable because he was the center of much of the discussion.

It started when JP Matt Sanders asked why the hearing for the grievance filed against McNally by Therese O’Donnell, his chief deputy, had not been heard last week after being rescheduled twice.

McNally told The Leader that he had accepted the resignation that O’Donnell had offered many times but others said privately that she was fired.

“Was there actually an illegal termination?” Sanders asked, and Geoff Thompson, the county’s attorney, responded that neither party alleged any wrong- doing.

“I just want to make sure the employees are being treated properly,” Sanders continued.

Thompson had already explained that the complaint against McNally was under negotiation at the request of both McNally and O’Donnell, and that he expected a resolution within 10 days.

Thompson said last week following the last canceled grievance hearing that O’Donnell would likely go to work for another elected official and that, until the complaint is resolved, she will continue to draw her salary.

JP Mike Verkler compared the negotiations to the circuit court, where 75 percent of cases are resolved without going to trial.

And JP Mike Dolan, who has been on the quorum court longer than any other member, assured Sanders, who is in his second year, “The employee’s rights were protected.”

Quorum court members also discussed a $3,900 expenditure from the assessor’s $10,000 tax-relief fund. The money in the fund is supposed to be used to make homeowners aware that they are eligible for a homestead tax credit of up to $300 on the house where they live.

The JPs questioned McNally buying a $3,900 computer program from Data Scout that shows if tax payers are claiming the credit in more than one county.

JP Bill Ryker said it wasn’t the quorum court’s job to micro-manage elected officials’ budgets, but there was the matter of the purchase of six size 4X shirts from the assessor’s budget that seemed questionable. The shirts could only have been for one person, he said, but did not specify that McNally was the only person in the assessor’s office who would wear that size.

Ryker said McNally would need to find 20 violations of the homestead credit to pay for the program, perhaps an unlikely number, and the fund needed to be looked at more closely during the next budget process.

No one except Ryker commented on the shirts, but JP Tim Lemons said it seemed to him that the program from Data Scout was for policing not promoting the credit. Verkler agreed, saying it was definitely not what the state law that created the fund had intended.

In other business:

• The majority of quorum court members agreed that the Lonoke County Museum should be paid for cataloging and storing old county documents. The amount tentatively agreed upon was $6,000 a year, possibly paid by the month.

Maintaining the records is the responsibility of the elected department heads, such as the circuit clerk and county clerk, where they were initially filed. Therefore, the elected officials will be asked to pay the museum for the service from their budgets.

State law allows the county to contract for services that the county is unable to provide. Museum officials were asked to draft a “workable contract” for the service the museum provides and to make the county documents available for public view.

Museum director Sherryl Miller told the quorum court that, starting in April, the museum will be open six days a week from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. “We’ll be open more hours than the courthouse,” Miller said.

JP B.J. Weathers voted against paying the museum for keeping the old county records contingent on the contract with the county. He argued that the museum is a nonprofit and that, if the county pays for its services, other nonprofits will also ask to be paid for services they provide.

Last year, the quorum court voted to discontinue collecting voluntary taxes to support several nonprofit agencies after state auditors said the practice violated state law, according to several opinions from the state attorney general.

The quorum court also passed:

• A resolution recognizing the Lonoke High School basketball team for its 50-39 win in the Class 4A semifinals against Nashville and a resolution recognizing the high school for hosting the tournament. The Jackrabbits lost the championship to Brookland.

• A resolution accepting a $31,000 state general-improvement grant for the Mountain Springs Volunteer Fire Department to build two bays at the fire station.