Friday, March 18, 2016

TOP STORY >> House member target of council

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville City Council on Thursday unanimously condemned dilapidated apartments owned by outgoing state Rep. Donnie Copeland (R-North Little Rock).

Aldermen also voted 5-4 to amend a 2009 ordinance that allows pass-through water charges by outside utilities.

Copeland’s condemned apartments are located at 1511 Nina St. He has 30 days to demolish them or bring them up to code.

Police Chief Kenny Boyd told aldermen this issue had been before them last October, and he was under the impression that the owner would update either Code Enforcement or the council about his progress on improving the property.

“Nothing has been done...One thing I want to point out is that (Parks Director) Kevin House does a really good job of bringing a lot of tournaments into Dupree Park and the backside of that property is what they see when they exit out,” the chief said.

Code Enforcement Officer Charles Jenkins said there are structural issues with the building and, according to the previous owner, it would cost $20,000 to repair its foundation.

The only change he could see, Jenkins noted, was that the bottom apartments had been cleaned and the stairwells had been removed to prevent access to the upper floor, for safety.

Jacksonville has spent $301.94 on a title search and advertising public hearings. That doesn’t include hours he’s worked on this, Jenkins added.

Copeland also spoke. He clarified that the property is not occupied and apologized for a misunderstanding. He said he thought he had 90 days to come back before the council.

He said he’d tried to get several structural engineers to come out, and was finally able to get one he knew from Louisiana who is licensed to work in Arkansas to take a look.

Copeland explained that he wants to confirm the cost to fix the foundation, and noted that the $20,000 estimate was “prohibitive for investment.”

The engineer wanted to further research the property so that a plan of action could be drafted, and it’s difficult to get the bank to look at the apartments with all the notices posted on it, the owner continued.

He also said, “I have no desire to be a slum lord. I have no desire to have something that is unsightly to Dupree Park or the neighborhood. I will add that we couldn’t even go in the backyard of the property this past week because the neighbor has four pit bulls that are on itty bitty ropes and they’re constantly jumping at you.”

Copeland continued, “We want the same thing. We want a first-class, quality property. It’s looking like that property is probably going to need to come down and be leveled and something nice put in its place. But I would like to get the structural engineer’s full report before we move forward.”

Traylor asked whether Copeland offered, at the meeting months ago, to come back to the council, and the state representative said he had.

The alderman also said, “So you did know you were supposed to have already taken care of this?” Copeland answered, “Yes, sir.”

Traylor noted, “But you don’t have anything, other than something you got Sunday, three days before the meeting.”

Copeland said he needed a loan to improve the property and getting the condemnation cleared up was like “the chicken or the egg” argument.

He added that he had hoped to have more done, but had difficulty getting people to look at the building, and said he wanted an educated opinion on whether it should be razed because the previous owner is not a structural engineer. Copeland also said the property was in bad shape before he owned it.

Jenkins pointed out that he’d owned the property for over two years and the previous owner had retrieved that estimate from a professional.
 In other business, the proposal to limit pass-through charges for water to being no more than 2 percent and once per year follows Central Arkansas Water’s support of Sherwood’s request to take about 1,240 acres of service territory from Jacksonville Water Works. The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission is still mulling whether to grant or deny the request.

The ordinance is a compromise because, originally, it would have eliminated all pass-through charges. Revising the original proposal was Alderman Mike Traylor’s idea.

Traylor, who voted for the ordinance, and Alderman Terry Sansing discussed it before the vote.

Sansing voted against the measure. He explained, “I think this council mistakenly abdicated its right to set the rates for the citizens of Jacksonville, for the water commission. What we’ve got to remember is this is a public utility. It’s a public utility that’s supposed to do the best for Jacksonville.”

Sansing, who believes the council should vote on every rate increase, added that the commission had done its job, which is to secure abundant water resources for the city, and that the new ordinance would not affect the city utility’s 10-year contract with CAW.

But, “we need to look at some of the citizens things like this affect on an individual basis,” he continued.

Sansing told the council that Pulaski County Special School District-provided figures show 70 percent of the students in Jacksonville are receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

He said that means 70 percent of the city’s families are struggling. Sansing also noted that Metroplan has found that poverty in suburbs has continued to go up in Jacksonville.

“This is not a slap at the commission. I think we need to recognize that it is our responsibility to see and know what the rates are going to do and to understand our constituents and how they are affected by even small changes in rates,” the alderman emphasized.

Traylor responded by saying that is the reason the ordinance puts a cap on pass-through charges. He noted that the last rate increase passed was six cents per 1,000 gallons — about a quarter a month for an average family that uses 4,000-5,000 gallons. “It’s not a rate increase. That’s why I’m for it,” Traylor said

He said at an earlier council meeting that the utility is absorbing these increases, not passing them on to ratepayers.

And Sansing previously pointed out that the Jacksonville utility found out three months after an agreement was signed with CAW that the price would go up 35 percent over the next several years.