Friday, March 28, 2008

TOP STORY > > Beebe asks state to help fund pound

Leader staff writer

The Beebe City Council Monday night approved a grant application that could bring in $150,000 to build an animal shelter on Dewitt Henry Drive, which would finally enable the city to move impounded dogs from pens located outside the city limits in Lonoke County.

If approved, the grant through the Arkansas Rural Development Commis-sion would bring money from the state’s general improvement fund to Beebe.

Mayor Mike Robertson said this week that there is grant money available and Beebe might as well be one of the cities that gets it.

He gives credit for the application work to Jackie Young, his assistant whohas taught herself how to write grants.

Young said she started working on the grant in February when she wrote a letter to Butch Calhoun, director of the Arkansas Department of Rural Services, asking to be allowed to request five times the $30,000 maximum allowed for state-funded, community enhancement projects.

With that permission granted, she asked local builders to provide estimates for the project which is expected to cost $170,000. Also included in the grant request that she mailed Tuesday was a petition signed by city residents and letters of support from Cong. Vic Snyder, Sen. John Paul Capps, Rep. Mark Pate and Lee McClain, a Beebe resident and newspaper owner.

It is common knowledge among longtime area residents that Beebe’s animal shelter is little more than a dog pound. Although Horace Taylor, the city’s animal control officer, often keeps the dogs longer than the 10 days allowed by city law and adopts many through a rescue organization, the pens where they are kept are about two miles outside the city and are not set up for viewing by people who might want to adopt the animals.

Young said the distance from the city also makes it more difficult for Taylor to respond quickly to complaints.

If the grant is approved, the shelter will be built beside Beebe Veterinary Hospital.

Young also has applied for a $7,000 grant from Lowe’s, a home-improvement store, to build a gazebo in the First Street Park, located near the health department and city hall. The local 4-H Club also is working on that project and plans to buy playground equipment.

Young said she is hopeful that both grants will be approved in the near future.

TOP STORY > > Applicants aplenty for police jobs

Leader staff writer

The Sherwood Police Department is enjoying a nice problem—too many applicants.

The city budgeted six new police positions for this year and the department had two officers of their 66-person force retire, providing eight openings.

Close to 100 people have applied to fill those positions, including 14 who are already certified police officers.

Lieutenant Cheryl Williams, a spokesman for the department, said the certified officers include applicants from the police departments of Jacksonville, Cabot and Pine Bluff, as well as deputies from Jefferson and Pulaski County sheriffs’ offices.

“We also have certified officers applying from Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and Alaska,” Williams said.

Hiring a certified officer does cost the city more, but gets the officer out on the streets quicker.

Williams said that a certified officer from within the state would have to go through a 12-week training period.

Sherwood training officers must learn the city’s streets, ordinances, policies and procedures before being able to patrol on their own.

For the police officers outside the state, the city would have to compare that state’s training curriculum to Arkansas’ curriculum. “If they are comparable, then the officer will only need to take a 40-hour course at the state police academy in Camden, and then our local 12-weeks of training. If the state curriculums are not compatible, then the officers must take the12-week academy course and then our 12-week local training,” Williams explained.

Those applicants with no police training or experience will need to take both the state’s 12-week course and the city’s 12 weeks of training.

All applicants will be ranked based on a written test. Those who pass the test will be considered for the eight openings.

“Last year, we had 50 applicants, but only 30 passed the written exam,” Williams said.

Sherwood pays a police officer with no experience about $30,000 a year, while those with experience can make up to $34,000 to start.

TOP STORY > > Funding for Sherwood corridor

Leader staff writer

Part of the $4 million in federal funds to buy property for the proposed North Belt will be used to buy needed land near Hwy. 107 and Brockington Road.

Randy Ort, a spokesman with the state Highway Department, said the money would be used to preserve the corridor for the North Belt in those areas that are being threatened by development.

Hwy. 107 and Brockington Road are one of those areas. Sherwood is holding off approving plans for development in that area until the federal government purchases what it needs for the North Belt, Ort explained.

A similar situation occurred back in 1994 when Sherwood development was approved through the area of the proposed bypass. Ort said the Highway Department was at the point of getting the project onto Metroplan’s transportation im-provement program list back then when the development occurred setting everything back 14 years.

The project is now on Metroplan’s TIP list and that allows us to go out and purchase areas that we need to protect the route, Ort said.

Metroplan, along with Sherwood has checked off on the proposed route for the 12.3-mile leg that will carry the bypass from Highway 67/167 westward along Kellogg Creek, over Highway 107 near Brockington to I-40 near Crystal Hill.

Jim McKenzie, with Metroplan, said with Sherwood making changes to its street use map to allow for the bypass, and the route being tweaked a little bit because of the lead mines just north of Sherwood, the project should start to move along. “We are expecting the Federal Highway Administration to sign off onthe route pretty quickly.” With that approval in sight, the state Highway Department has asked for $4 million in federal money to start buying the right-of-way that is “in danger of being developed” and that may prevent the highway from proceeding.

Ort said once the federal government signs off on the proposed route, which should be this summer, work can begin on the final design.

The Highway Department will hold hearings on the design so residents along the route will know where they stand.

The cost of construction of the second leg is estimated at $300 million, which does not include any money needed to acquire the land. The five-mile leg of the North Belt, stretching from I-40 and going northwesterly over Hwy. 161 to Hwy. 67/167, was completed about six years ago at a cost of $63 million.

Once the North Belt is extended westerly from Hwy. 67/167, then the Dupree family can proceed with its legacy plan—a large-scale development in the beanfield area of apartments, homes, shops and more.

Once the North Belt crosses Hwy. 107 then development in that area can start.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hill-man said highway officials and developers have worked out a plan that will limit the size of the proposed interchange in the area, and maximize the commercial potential.

Two major residential subdivisions and a 230,000-square-foot retail center are planned for the Hwy. 107/Brockington Road area.

TOP STORY > > Landfill meeting to hear neighbors’ views

Leader staff writer

An informal public meeting will be held Monday, April 14 in Jacksonville to discuss the proposed expansion of the landfill at the city’s south entrance.

The meeting, held by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), will be at 6 p.m. in the Jacksonville Community Center.

“My understanding is they want to meet with interested citizens,” ADEQ spokesman Doug Szhener said, adding that the meeting was called in response to comments the agency received during the public comment period last month.

ADEQ staff from its Solid Waste Management Division, which will decide if the landfill will be expanded, will answer questions at the meeting. If the permit is approved, the landfill would be expanded to almost three times its current size.

Waste Management, which owns the Two Pine landfill, will attend the meeting to answers residents’ questions.

That company wants to add 144 acres to the existing landfill at the intersection of Hwy. 67/167 and Interstate 440. Waste Management owns the land it wants to use to expand its 86-acre trash dump. The permit would expand the landfill to 240 acres with the capacity to hold 34.5 million cubic yards of trash. The company says it needs to expand because the dump at its current size will be full by this fall.

At a city council meeting earlier this month, Waste Management representatives said th original land marked for the landfill was disrupted by the construction of I-440, which cut into about 50 percent of the original dumpsite.

After ADEQ makes a final decision on the Two Pine expansion, the agency says anyone who comments during the meeting will “have legal standing to file an appeal of the permit decision, in accordance with procedures found in Regulation 8 of the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.”

It previously noted in a legal notice meant to inform the public of last month’s comment period that only people who submitted comments then would be able to appeal the agency’s final decision.

After the public comment period, the agency will submit a response to the information it has received.

“We usually reply with written form,” Szenher said about the the agency’s response. “There will be a written-response summary either before the meeting or handed out at the meeting itself,” Szenher said.

He made clear that the meeting is not a formal hearing.

“Primarily, from a legal standing, a hearing is one that requires legal notice as opposed to making an announcement,” he said.

A record of the meeting will not be made. A meeting, he said, will be a less formal discussion.

It’s mainly done for interested citizens to discuss the permit application.

The state agency received comments signed by about 40 complainants during the public-comment period last month.

The landfill is near subdivisions Indianhead Lakes in Sherwood and North Lake in Jacksonville, and also Rixie.

Waste Management has been attempting to expand the Two Pine landfill since 2006. While it waits for its expansion application to be approved, it has asked ADEQ for permission to begin preliminary construction to expand the site.

“Sometimes we will authorize work for a qualifier with the party involved, but there’s no guarantee that a final permit will be issued, they might have to undo or abandon the work,” Szenher said.

That letter was received Thursday morning and the agency has not yet looked into the request permission to begin wetland mitigation construction and other work that according to Szenher, ADEQ “would have to authorize in absence of the permit approval which is still pending.”

TOP STORY > > Baker is saluted by JPD

Leader staff writer

After serving as the Jacksonville police chief for the past three years, and working on the force for more than 30 years, Chief Robert Baker has retired.

The reins of the department have been temporarily passed to Capt. Kenny Boyd, a 20-year veteran.

As Baker was enjoying his retirement party Friday afternoon and sharing stories and shedding a few tears with friends and fellow officers, city officials were working to find a permanent replacement.

From an initial pool of 17 applicants, a committee, which includes Mayor Tommy Swaim, Jill Fourqurean, the city’s human resource director, and Jay Whisker, the city administrator, has narrowed the search down to three.

The three include one applicant from the Jacksonville Police Department andtwo from within the state. Two of the three are currently police officers and the third recently retired.

Fourqurean said that the committee has interviewed the three finalists, and that the final decision will be up to the mayor. “I hope to make a decision in the next week or so,” said the mayor, who added that Boyd, who did not apply for the chief’s position, would do a fine job in the interim.

Fourqurean said, “We are hoping not to have much of a gap between the chief’s departure and the new person starting. But our emphasis is on getting the right person.”

Baker was appointed chief in Feb. 2004. It was his second try for the job. He had applied two years earlier, but the city decided to go outside of the department and hire a retired Air Force officer, Wayne Ruthven. Ruthven was chief less than two years before deciding to move on.

As chief, Baker headed a department with a $6 million budget and 88 full-time employees, including 69 sworn police officers.

Baker plans to stay in the area and devote more time to his family and his two hobbies—astronomy and genealogy. “As much as I love those two, I don’t expect to stay out of work long,” Baker said.

The chief joined the city’s force back in 1977 and before he was an official officer, he spent six month as an auxiliary officer.

So how did a young man from Litchfield, Minn. end up on the Jacksonville police force? “Uncle Sam,” Baker said. “I served four years in the Air Force and Little Rock Air Force Base was my last stop, and I just stayed.”

Baker said he believes he is leaving a well-run department that is more professional than it once was. “Our officers are working diligently every day to solve, stop and prevent crime,” he said.

TOP STORY > >Jacksonville is upbeat

According to the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Gravel Ridge voters should consider what Jacksonville has to offer them when they vote on the annexation issue Tuesday:

Jacksonville offers the residents of Gravel Ridge a well-managed, financially stable community, which has received awards for its fiscal management for the past decade.

Jacksonville will offer a warm welcome to the citizens of Gravel Ridge.

Jacksonville is in better financial condition than Sherwood.

Gravel Ridge voters will be wise to look beyond current tax rates to the long-term financial impact of joining Sherwood.

Sherwood has recently made significant financial obligations that will ultimately cost all citizens of Sherwood.

The old North Hills Country Club is likely to cost Sherwood taxpayers $5 million or more. The city promised developers in the recent 2,000-acre annexation area $2 million for a wastewater transmission line.

Sherwood has recently been fined $17,400 by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for repeated violations in their wastewater treatment facilities.

These included violating the limits for fecal coli form bacteria (a serious pathogen) and failing to notify the ADEQ about releasing 100,000 gallons of raw sewage into Silver Creek.

Eventually, Sherwood will be forced to fix problems in their system and this is likely to be a multi-million-dollar project. If Sherwood uses bonds to finance any of the projects, costs will escalate due to underwriting and lawyer fees and interest on the bonds.

Ultimately Sherwood residents will bear those costs.

By joining Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge voters will save $60 per year on trash pickup and see their service increased significantly with twice-a-week pickup on household trash, once a week pickup for yard waste and once- a week recycling. Jacksonville has a senior center that provides transportation for senior adults to the center for activities and meals as well as Meals on
Wheels to seniors in the area.

Jacksonville has an excellent park system, and a professional police and fire department.

Quicker response times will mean greater protection for the homes and lives of the families in Gravel Ridge. Jacksonville will provide more police per capita and has committed to working cooperatively with the Gravel Ridge Volunteer Fire Department to improve service.

Jacksonville has an excellent park system, which includes a water park and community center. Jacksonville will provide more police per capita and has committed to working cooperatively with the Gravel Ridge Volunteer Fire Department to improve service.

You’ll be a part of a great community with good people who want you to join with them in making it an even better place to live, work and raise a family.

TOP STORY > >Sherwood hopes it wins

Former Sherwood Alderman Tom Brooks makes the following arguments on why Gravel Ridge voters should support annexation with Sherwood on Tuesday:

To the residents of Gravel Ridge: Tuesday’s election is of conflicting feelings. They must choose between going to Sherwood or Jacksonville, when many would have preferred to be left alone. Jacksonville took this option off the table by their sudden effort to grab Gravel Ridge to enhance their tax base.

Sherwood offers a choice. It is a cleaner city with much lower taxes.

Sherwood hopes the residents of Gravel Ridge will choose Sherwood and grow with us. Sherwood, in addition to much lower taxes, will keep the excellent Grave Ridge Volunteer Fire Department and provide funds to man the fire department 24 hours a day, possibly improving the fire rating and lowering home insurance rates.

Sherwood’s crime rate and incidents of crime are much lower than Jacksonville’s and Sherwood has pledged substantial police services to Gravel Ridge. The Wall Street Journal has named Sherwood as one of the best cities in America to live in.

Several people have asked if their address will change. The answer is no.

For many years, Gravel Ridge youth have been involved in our sports programs. In fact, several Gravel Ridge residents serve on the Optimist Club board, which runs the ball program at one of the finest sports complexes in the nation—McReynolds Park.

For the past several weeks, Sherwood residents, including Mayor Virginia Hillman, who grew up in north Pulaski County, have walked door to door in Gravel Ridge with Gravel Ridge residents, answering questions about the annexation.

Sherwood has a close working relationship with the Little Rock Air Force Base and three Sherwood community leaders have been named honorary commanders. Also, sever Sherwood residents serve on the base’s community council.

We feel Sherwood offers the best remaining choice for Gravel Ridge residents.

Gravel Ridge will keep its identity, without being a cash cow for Jacksonville.

As one Gravel Ridge business owner recently put it: Jacksonville has the front entrance of the air base, Sherwood should have the back entrance.

TOP STORY > >Gravel Ridge to decide its fate Tuesday

Leader staff writer

On Tuesday, eligible Gravel Ridge voters will make their ways to one of three polling sites to decide the fate of their 2,500-acre rural community.

By the end of the evening, Gravel Ridge will be either a part of Jacksonville or a part of Sherwood.

Eligible voters may cast their votes from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at one of three sites:

Kellogg Valley Baptist Church at 9516 Bamboo

Sylvan Hills United Methodist Church at 9921 Sylvan Hills Hwy.

First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge at 14322 Hwy. 107

Early voters may cast ballots Monday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock.
So far, 38 Gravel Ridge have cast early votes.

Both cities have sent out mailers urging Gravel Ridge residents to vote. The mailers expound on why one city is better than the other.

Regardless of the outcome, most residents won’t notice many changes.

Addresses and utilities will remain the same. There’ll be a smooth transition from county deputies patrolling the area to city police. Both cities have said they plan to make use of the county’s substation in Gravel Ridge.

The volunteer fire department will remain intact and be the primary responder for emergency calls in the area.

So what will be different?

Both cities have a 2-cent hamburger tax, while the county doesn’t. So, soon after the vote, no matter which way it goes, restaurants in Gravel Ridge will have to start collecting the hamburger tax.

Jacksonville also has a two-cent sales tax, while Sherwood doesn’t, and if Gravel Ridge joins Jacksonville, the added two cents per dollar will be collected on all sales.

But if they go with Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge residents will save about $60 a year in sanitation fees, plus have more trash pickups. By going with Sherwood, Gravel Ridge residents will see no increase in their property tax. With Jacksonville, most residents will see about a $60 a year increase.

Jacksonville was the first to annex Gravel Ridge and set an election date. Sherwood soon followed suit.
When cities initiate annexation procedures as Jacksonville and Sherwood did, both the city and the affected area must vote on the issue.

Jacksonville’s annexation vote—which included Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge voters only—was Feb. 5.

In that election, 3,319 votes, or 66 percent, were for the annexation, and 1,733 votes, or 34 percent, against annexation, but about 70 percent of the Gravel Ridge voters were against the idea.

Sherwood’s vote to annex Gravel Ridge—which included Sherwood and Gravel Ridge voters only—was March 11. In that election, 1,764 votes, or 82 percent, were for annexation and 386, or 18 percent, against. Even the Gravel Ridge residents approved of the annexation.

For absentee ballot information or other voting questions: individuals may call the Pulaski County circuit clerk at 340-8683.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TOP STORY > >Annexation to be voted on Tuesday

Leader staff writer

Early voting has started for Gravel Ridge residents, and the question they must answer at the polling sites is: Do they want their community to be part of Jacksonville or part of Sherwood?

Through 4 p.m. Tuesday, just 14 residents had cast early votes.

The election is set for next Tuesday. It is open only to registered Gravel Ridge voters. On Tuesday, voters may cast their votes from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at one of three sites:

Kellogg Valley Baptist Church at 9516 Bamboo;

Sylvan Hills United Methodist Church at 9921 Sylvan Hills Hwy.,

First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge at 14322 Hwy. 107.

Early voters may cast ballots through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at either the Jack Evans Senior Citizens Center at 2301 Thornhill Dr. in Sherwood or Jacksonville City Hall, 1 Industrial Dr. in Jacksonville.

Early voters may also cast ballots through Monday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock.
Tuesday’s vote is the third and final election to determine which neighboring city gets the 2,500-acre community of Gravel Ridge and its 3,500 residents.

Jacksonville was the first to annex Gravel Ridge and set an election date. Sherwood soon followed suit.

When property owners or communities adjacent to the city limits ask to be annexed, that city’s council must approve the annexation before the property becomes part of the city.

But when cities initiate the annexation as Jacksonville and Sherwood did, the issue must be voted on by both the city and the land slated for annexation.

More Gravel Ridge voters have favored joining Sherwood than Jacksonville.

Jacksonville’s annexation vote—which included Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge voters only—was Feb. 5. In that election, 3,319 votes, or 66 percent, were for the annexation, and 1,733 votes, or 34 percent, against annexation, but about 70 percent of the Gravel Ridge voters were against the idea.

Voters at the First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge cast 594 votes, or 63 percent, against annexation, while 341, or 36 percent, were for it.

At the Kellogg Valley voting site, 195 residents voted on the issue and only 19, or 10 percent, favored the idea of annexation.

At Sylvan Hills Methodist Church, the voting was substantially less, but much closer. Just 21 people voted on the issue, with 11 of them against annexation and 10 for it.

Sherwood’s vote to annex Gravel Ridge—which included Sherwood and Gravel Ridge voters only—was March 11. In that election, 1,764 votes, or 82 percent, were for annexation and 386, or 18 percent, against. Even the Gravel Ridge residents approved of the annexation.

Tuesday’s vote is for Gravel Ridge voters only. If most voters decide to be part of Jacksonville, the community will become part of that city within 30 days. If the voters go for Sherwood, they will become part of that city within 30 days.

For absentee ballot information or other voting questions: individuals may call the Pulaski County Circuit Clerk at 340-8683.

TOP STORY > >C-130J fleet grows to 14 at base

Leader staff writer

About this time last year, Little Rock Air Force Base’s 41st Airlift Squadron received its first C-130J Super Hercules. On Friday, the squadron received its seventh aircraft from Lockheed Martin and is scheduled to receive a total of 16 C-130Js.

The new J model brings the base’s count of C-130Js to 14 — seven other ultra-modern C-130Js with the 314th Airlift Wing are used for training at the base.

Between the squadron and the wing, the base should eventually have at least 23 C-103Js valued at $1.5 billion.

The 41st AS, the newest unit of the 463rd Airlift Group, standing up at LRAFB from Pope Air Force Base, N.C., last April following the base realignment and closure process, is deployed in Southwest Asia on its first combat deployment.

Lt. Gen. John L. Hudson, commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, delivered the plane to LRAFB.

“It is a great honor to deliver this new C-130J to our warfighters in the 463rd Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base,” Hudson said during Friday’s delivery ceremony.

“The J-model is not just another 130. It brings vastly improved capabilities in terms of range and payload and its ability to conduct the mission to fight and win the global war on terror. It’s a huge advancement,” Hudson said.

The C-130J is the latest addition to the C-130 fleet and will replace aging C-130Es.

The C-130J incorporates state-of-the-art technology to reduce manpower requirements from a five-person crew to a three-person crew – two pilots and a loadmaster, lower operating and support costs, and provides life-cycle cost savings over earlier C-130 models.

Generating significantly greater operational effectiveness and efficiency than the older C-130s, the J flies farther, faster and with more payload and higher reliability.

“This increased capability is critical to our mobility arsenal and to our airmen fighting the global war on terror,” the general said, adding the $65 million per plane is “money well spent by American taxpayers to get this capability.”

Lt. Col. Michael Jones, the 463rd’s deputy commander for inspections, described the arrival of the newest planes as a turning point for the C-130J and the 41st AS.

“It’s been just over a year since we received our very first C-130J. Shortly thereafter, we stood up the 41st Airlift Squadron. In that period of time, we’ve received now seven airplanes, and just last month we deployed the squadron to OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom),” Jones said.

“Tremendous, tremendous feat to have accomplished all that — not only standing up the squadron and receiving airplanes, but preparing for war and doing that in 10 months. You folks made it look easy. It’s a huge challenge to do that and it was something that was made to look very easy.

“Congratulations to all of you for doing that,” Jones said.

The new J model expands the tactical airlift role and brings capabilities and improvements over the older E and H model aircraft, Jones said.

“I’m simply awed by the capability, as a career tactical airlifter, that the C-130 brings and talents of the folks maintaining and flying the aircraft,” he said.

“Through combat airlift, we’re making a huge difference in the speed and efficiencies of the C-130J. It is the one piece of advancement in the C-130 that will help efficiently and speedily win the war on terrorism,” he added.

The C-130J aircraft “will help you meet that challenge, giving you another asset to train on and prepare for combat. Certainly it won’t be long before she (airplane) herself goes off to combat and deploys as we increase our commitment to the CENTCOM (Central Command) AOR (Area of Responsibility),” Jones said.

TOP STORY > >Payday lenders could change loan practices

Leader senior staff writer

“We’re going out of business,” said an Arkansas payday lender last Friday in response to the cease-and-desist letters Attorney Gen. Dustin McDaniel mailed to the operators of 156 payday lending stores in the state.

McDaniel ordered the lenders to stop making the high-interest loans and to stop collecting payments on the loans they already have out.

But, said the lender, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “I’ll turn my stores into pawnshops. Then people will have to bring me a TV or something of value to get a loan.”

He said that unless the law had changed recently, Arkansas pawnshops can charge 1 percent a day, which at 365 percent a year would approximate the same interest rate the payday lenders charge.

He said there were probably about 1,000 people employed in the payday business in the state and so 1,000 jobs are on the line.

In his Tuesday news confer ence, McDaniel acknowledged that the businesses would not disappear overnight. He said some would restructure in an attempt to avoid the law, some would operate without a license, some would fold and some would fight in court.

“The truth is that this will be a long and difficult effort,” McDaniel said.

Typically, payday lenders advance loans of say $300 for two weeks with a payback of $350, which is an annual yearly percentage of more than 300 percent in a state that has a 17 percent usury cap.

The lender said he had not yet received a letter from the attorney general’s office.

Payday lenders “are just going to find another method to do it,” the lender said, and consumers would just find other—perhaps unregulated—ways to get emergency cash.

“The market’s always going to be there,” he added.

“Why wouldn’t the consumer advocates sit down with payday lenders and work out something that’s real good for the consumer that the payday lender can live with,” he asked. “Banks do the same thing.”

He apparently was referring to overdraft protection fees and bounced check fees that can sometimes cost more than the high-interest payday loans.

“Payday lenders have about five different kinds of customers,” he said. “The habitual customer is going to put himself into bankruptcy. That’s the one Hank Klein (founder of Arkansans Against Abusive Payday Loans) is trying to protect. I have that same problem with the cycle of debt. Why not fix the law so that a person can’t do the loan except five or six times a year? It’s meant to be used in an emergency.

“Regulation is better than no regulation at all,” he said. “The (attorney general) and the police can’t keep up with everything.”
“I’m 100 percent in the payday lending,” he said. “When they put me in the ground, they can put payday lending on my marker because I’m proud of my profession.”

Letters were sent to 30 offices of Advance America, including one in Jacksonville and one in Searcy. Also in Searcy, Payday Now received notice. Also sent cease-and-desist letters were Cash Mart in Gravel Ridge, Cash Now of Arkansas in Cabot and Cash Now of Arkansas in Sherwood. Another Sherwood store, Partners Check Service, was sent a letter. Simpson’s Buy and Sell LLC of Lonoke was sent a letter.

The military has prohibited payday loans and has instituted easy-to-obtain loans on base. Credit unions have also introduced small, legal loans that also help customers start a savings program.

Pawn shops in Arkansas are not regulated by any particular agency, according to Gabe Holmstrom, spokesman for the attorney general. They do, however, have to comply with the state Constituition, he said.

Presumably that would include the state’s 17 percent usury law.

TOP STORY > >U.S. judge keeps all parties in land suit

Leader staff writer

Does a federal judge’s ruling Thursday in the lawsuit involving the North Hills golf course mean Sherwood must pay at least $5.1 million for the defunct 106-acre country club? Does it mean that the purchase agreement signed by Ron Campbell and Roy Marple is still valid? Or does it just mean that the trial moves forward?

The attorneys for Campbell and Marple and the owners of the property, Club Properties, speaking mostly off the record, said it means the trial moves forward. Sherwood City Attorney Stephen Cobb pretty much agreed.

Richard Browning, the attorney for Campbell and Marple, said, “My clients are stuck in the middle. All they wanted to do was to buy and develop the property.”

Stuart Hankins, attorney for Club Properties, believes the judge’s decisions strengthen his client’s claims.

Campbell and Marple had offered early last year to buy the property for $5.1 million and develop it into a high-end gated residential community, but a six-month building moratorium that the city council slapped on the property killed the deal, according to Campbell and Marple.

Through their attorney, Browning, the pair asked the judge to be dropped from the lawsuit because the city’s actions voided their contract with Club Properties.

Federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele denied their request Thursday. The judge also threw out the pair’s request to disallow testimony from a title company employee.

The denials mean Campbell and Marple are still defendants in the case, which is set for trial April 21.

The judge has set aside an entire week to hear arguments in the case.

Club Properties, which owns the golf course acreage filed the suit last year saying Sherwood’s moratorium and other actions by the city undermined its efforts to sell their property at a fair price.

Club Properties included Campbell and Marple in the suit because they want the pair to stand by their $5.1 million offer on the property.

After the six-month moratorium expired in October, Club Properties went before the Sherwood Planning Commission with their own residential development plan for the property.

The commission has delayed any action on those plans because the city is currently without a city engineer.

In the meantime, the city council has voted to use its eminent domain powers and condemned the property.

Under this time of condemnation, the city takes over the property and a judge decides at a later date what the fair market price for the property is.

City figures showed the property to be worth as little as $1.5 million, while Club Properties has an appraisal showing the property is worth $5.5 million.

Club Properties, in its suit, has asked the court to grant them “specific performance of the real estate sales contract, as amended, on which the buyers defaulted and require the buyers to fully perform under such contract by paying the plaintiffs the sum of $5.1 million, plus interest from April 27, 2007, or the contractual costs for the delay in closing plus an award of their attorney fees and costs incurred,” according to the judge’s 18-page order.

Campbell and Marple wanted to be dismissed from the case, saying that they did not have “specific performance” in the case because the actions by the city prevented the sellers from giving them a clear title to the property.

The judge ruled that even though the city’s actions may have influenced the value of the property and its fitness for some intended use, that action, alone, did not make it impossible for the buyers to produce a proper title for the buyers and denied Campbell and Marple’s request to be excused from the lawsuit.

The city still has a motion before the judge asking that it be excused from the lawsuit because it did nothing wrong.
Cobb said the judge could rule on that before the trial starts, or he could just let the trial begin.

TOP STORY > >Outlying areas still in danger of floods

Leader staff writer

Last week’s heavy rains that led to the flooding that washed a house into the White River at Batesville and destroyed others at Des Arc is still causing problems for some White County residents.

In Georgetown, about 18 miles west of Kensett and a mile upstream from the point where the Little Red River and the White River converge, the residents who didn’t evacuate before Hwy. 36 East was closed Saturday are surrounded by water and have no way out except by boat.

“Most of the people in Georgetown have been there before and they knew to stock up with food before the flooding started,” said Tamara Jenkins, White County Office of Emergency Management director.

Jenkins said the locals are calling it the worst flood since 1982 when the river crested at Georgetown at 29.1 feet. This time the high point was measured at noon Monday at 30.18 feet. By 5 a.m. Tuesday it was down to 29.88 feet.

Although there is no flood water in the town, its 125 residents are without sewer service because the system is full of water from the river. Portable toilets have been brought in.

Tuesday morning, Jenkins was making arrangements to evacuate a couple with young children who had decided they need to stay elsewhere at least until the water has receded enough that the sewer system is operating again.

Fliers from the office of emergency management alerted residents that they would have to be out of Georgetown by noon Saturday if they intended to leave, Jenkins said. Those who decided to leave after the water covered the highway were assisted by the sheriff’s deputies in boats or by their neighbors with boats, she said.

Some stayed but are boating in and out to go to their jobs.

“Those people down there take care of their people,” Jenkins said.

The county’s emergency command center is set up at Georgetown. Three families evacuated from the town are housed at Camp Wildwood in Searcy, which was also used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Prairie County Monday, Hank Chaney watched a mobile home float down the rain-swollen White River. Chaney, county extension agent with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said other homeowners were watching water creep closer to their homes.

Some of the county’s farmers are upset and worried that if the water doesn’t come down fast enough, they’ll be in trouble on their wheat contract, Chaney said. “The price looks so good, and they were hoping to sell at that price, but if the water doesn’t come off soon enough, they’ll have trouble coming up with the wheat to fulfill their contract obligations.

“Last year, we had a freeze, and now we have flooding,” Chaney said.

Farmers along the Arkansas River, its tributaries and other rivers on the eastern side of the state are waiting nervously for the floodwater covering their wheat to drain away.

“They definitely didn’t need this,” said Dr. Jason Kelley, extension wheat agronomist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “I’m sure the acreage (flooded) numbers are much greater than we envisioned last week when the rain started – tens of thousands of acres I’m sure.”

He said the flooding will be an economic hardship on some farmers who had counted on the money. The flooding will likely reduce yields in some fields and may kill the crop in other fields, depending on how long the water stays on the fields.

Additionally, all the money farmers have invested in their crop could be lost.

Lamar James, Extension Service communications specialist with the UofA Division of Agriculture, contributed to this article.


Leader staff writer

The drainage problems that have plagued Cabot for years are not completely under control, but Mayor Eddie Joe Williams says heavy rain doesn’t cause the trouble it once did.

“The places that historically flooded badly are not too bad anymore,” Williams said.

Even though the Bayou Meto south of Jacksonville flooded last week well beyond its banks, the city had very few problems.

“We’ve worked hard to control drainage and flooding over the past couple of years,” said Jay Whisker, the city’s administrator.

Over the past three years the city has spent more than $100,000 on projects.

“We also make sure we clean out at least one big ditch a year,” Whisker said.

In the past two years, the city has cleared the ditch that runs from North First Street to Loop Road and Rocky Branch Creek
south of Sutherland’s.

“Not only do those areas look better, but it really makes a difference during big rain events,” Whisker said.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hill-man said her office did not receive a single call about flooding during the recent rains. “We survived pretty well,” she said.

Like Jacksonville, Sherwood has worked hard over recent years to try to fix areas that frequently flood and has spent about $100,000 over the past two years on flood and drainage projects.

In Ward, some of the streets filled with water during the heavy rain, but it reportedly drained away quickly. Deborah Staley, assistant to Mayor Art Brooke, said no one had reported any flooding in homes.

Beebe Mayor Mike Robertson also said the heavy rain did not cause any major flooding problems.

Last week, the ends of the culverts the Cabot Street Department installed so Locust Street could be widened were undermined by the runoff and washed out of the ground. But the mayor said the situation was not quite as bad as it appeared.

The city intends to overlay the street and add a center turn lane. To accommodate the additional width, the culverts that replaced the bridge are 10 feet wider than the existing pavement. The ends of the culverts that were not compacted from traffic were the ones that washed out, the mayor said.

Runoff also remains a problem on Mary Ann Circle behind Southside Elementary. Williams recalled that when he was on the council, he was one of the leaders in the effort to reroute water around the fire station on Hwy. 321 that flooded yards in that area. But changing the direction of the runoff did not eliminate the problem.

In places, driveway culverts are above the ditches, he said. In others, the culverts get smaller as the water runs down instead of larger as they need to be.

When Williams took office in January 2007, the city books were out of balance and there was little money to pay the bills. To correct the problem, he cut the city staff and told department heads they could not make any major purchases.

The city did have about $2 million in bond money, and an additional $20,000 a month revenue from the special census to be used for street improvements, but instead of starting overlay or widening projects, city street department employees were put to work cleaning ditches and jacking open culverts that were so badly bent that water couldn’t flow through them.

Among the workers who were laid off were the city engineer, the head of public works (who was also an engineer) and a computer-aided draftsman.

Williams said after the first deluge about six months into his first year, that all the experts he had laid off had not been able to do as much for the drainage problem as one street department employee who used a transit to shoot the grades in the ditches so that they could be dug out and make the water flow.

Leader staff writer Rick Kron also contributed to this report.

EDITORIAL >>Hanky-panky at the polls

One of the disgraces of Arkansas history is that our institutions, from the courts to the legislative branch, have always countenanced election fraud. Hanky-panky at the polls is the subject of jokes — vote early and often! — and it is considered just one of the unavoidable sideshows of democracy.

But the Committee on State Agencies and Public Affairs of the state Senate assembled this week to do something about at least the allegations of election fraud.

It is the first time in modern times, if ever, that an Arkansas legislative body has set out to settle whether one of its members was elected fraudulently.

The dispute over the election of a senator from east Arkansas, Jack Crumbly, has bounced around the courts for more than a year and the courts finally punted to the legislature.

The legislature is the arbiter of who is properly elected to its membership. The state Constitution has said so since 1874, but this is still new — “uncharted territory,” as the committee chairman, Sen. Steve Faris described it.

So the Senate, surprisingly but to its credit, accepted the role.

The committee began three days of hearings yesterday to weigh the evidence that a supporter of Crumbly, the county election chairman, stole the election from Rep. Arnell Willis, who was running for the Senate seat. It will recommend to the full Senate, which will convene Monday, whether Crumbly should be removed and replaced by Willis. Crumbly maintains that Willis’ accusations are baseless and that his 74-vote margin was legitimate.

The hearings are open and the public will get a chance to see whether the sacred right to vote can still be corrupted and how easily. More than that, we will learn whether the crime of election fraud can actually be rectified.

EDITORIAL >>We’re bullish on natural gas

Here is some helpful prologue to the special legislative session on the severance tax that Gov. Beebe will convene Monday: The second-biggest producer in the Fayetteville shale play announced yesterday that it would more than double the number of rigs drilling in the shale by early next year.

So much for the argument by Republican leaders that Beebe’s 5 percent severance tax will discourage exploration. Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City said it had ordered 13 more rigs and would have them operating in central Arkansas by the first of 2009. The other major exploration companies, Southwestern Energy and XTO Energy, are expected to follow.

The companies had factored in the little tax long ago and they are not slowing their activity. Why should they?

April gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange hovered at $9.47 a thousand cubic feet yesterday, and the forecasts for the gas market the next few years are bullish. The net effect of the severance tax, which Beebe should be able to sign into law by late next week, will be 3 percent of net profits after the companies have recovered their investment.

Vast wealth minus 3 percent is, well, vast wealth. No business with the resources will pass up such an opportunity.

The companies agreed to support the little tax, perhaps because they know that it is right for the public to reap some compensation for the harvesting of a finite resource but also because a 7 percent tax with no exemptions was almost a certainty otherwise. A 7 percent tax will be on the general-election ballot if the legislature fails to act. For the general public (voters) the tax is a free highway, road and street program. No motorist or taxpayer — other than mineral rights owners — will pay a dime of it.

But who is there still to persuade of the rightness of the cause?

The reports this week were that half or more of the Republican lawmakers intended to vote for the tax in spite of the pleas of the state Republican chairman, the party’s gubernatorial candidate in 2006 and the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees that Republicans take a stand as a matter of principle against taxes of any kind and for any purpose.

SPORTS >>Court savvy, sharp shooting earn Lady Panther guard top honors

Leader sportswriter

They say dynamite comes in small packages. That is certainly true of Cabot senior Leah Watts.

Watts, Cabot’s 5-foot, 6-inch point guard the past three seasons, helped lead the Lady Panthers basketball team into the quarterfinals of the 7A state playoffs earlier this month, and became the talk of the first round after knocking down five consecutive three-pointers in Cabot’s 69-57 first-round win over Bentonville.

For her clutch performance in that game and for her consistency throughout the season, Watts has been named the Leader Girls Player of the Year.

“Leah is exceptional,” Cabot head coach Carla Crowder said. “We were obviously pleased with her play on the court, but she’s an outstanding person as well. As a guard, she sees the floor very well, and she knows what’s going on at all times.

“She’s an excellent shooter and she grew every year as a point guard. She was a great leader for us.”

Those five three-pointers, by the way, came over a five-minute span in the first half and came on five attempts. She never missed from beyond the arc in the contest, and finished with 21 points in a game loaded with pressure. Yet Watts said nerves never entered into it.

“I never get nervous before a game,” she said. “I’ve been playing since I was little, and know what I’m capable of doing and not capable of if I just relax and play the best I can.

“Also, I’ve been playing AAU ball for a few years now. I’ve been in national tournaments and played in championship games.”

Watts played with the Arkansas Mavericks and the Belles in her AAU career.

The 17-year-old daughter of Jerry and Kim Watts is the youngest of three girls.

Crowder lists intelligence high among her attributes, as is borne out by Watts’ academic scholarship to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. She is considering walking on to the Lady Tiger basketball team.

Watts took on a lot of leadership responsibilities as one of two starting seniors. Watts, along with South Alabama signee Lauren Walker, passed the leadership test with flying colors.

“As a point guard, most of the teams I have played on have looked to me as a leader,” Watts said. “We had a lot on our shoulders this year, but we learned to deal with it, and it actually came kind of easy to us.”

That leadership came in for a real test when the team was decimated this season with injuries. The Lady Panthers lost more than half a dozen players.

Watts made a name for herself early on with great ball handling and impressive speed. It wasn’t until this year, however, that she became one of the Lady Panthers’ biggest scoring threats. She averaged 19.5 points this season, pulling down five rebounds and dishing out four assists per game, as well.

“I practiced shooting a lot,” Watts said. “My dad helped me out, and made sure I was using the right form. Once I got that down, it was pretty good from there.”

Watts has received a lot of support from family, but she said she will always remember her other family as well — the Lady Panthers basketball team.

“I will remember all the friendships I made,” Watts said. “We all really bonded through the years, and became like a family. We were very blessed to have the coaches we did. They were amazing. You always knew that anything they were saying, it was going to make you a better player.”

Crowder carried the family theme one step further.

“If you had a daughter,” she said, “you would be very fortunate if she turned out like Leah.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

EDITORIAL>>Beebe rounds up votes for session

Who can ever again underestimate Gov. Mike Beebe, who continues to reach every goal he sets? Beebe yesterday called a special session of the legislature for March 31 to enact a severance tax on natural gas. He called it because he had lined up every vote he needed in both legislative houses to pass the law in the minimum three days that are required to enact a law.

That is not a miracle, but it is extraordinary. The state’s nearly invisible severance tax on gas has been raised only once in the 60 years since it was put on the books after World War II. That increase was a decade later when the legislature raised it slightly more than a penny on every 10,000 cubic feet of gas. Every governor since then has recognized the embarrassment of being the only state in America that gave away a vanishing natural resource without recouping much of anything for the public domain. Gov. Bill Clinton, at the peak of his command, could not get the three-fourths vote in both houses to raise the tax to fuel education reform.

Beebe’s legendary prowess as a vote-getter, compromiser and dealmaker, developed over more than two decades in the state Senate, only partly accounts for his success. He chooses his fights carefully. This is one where he held all the cards of logic. The tax — 5 percent of the market value of gas — will not affect Arkansas consumers. No one’s heating and air-conditioning bills will be affected. The big producers who will remit the taxes, who are headquartered mainly in Texas and Oklahoma, agreed that the tax was reasonable and that it would not depress development of the vast, rich Fayetteville shale in Arkansas.

But the decisive political wisdom was Beebe’s choice of highways, roads and streets as the primary beneficiary of the tax. Legislators have no history of turning down taxes dedicated to highways, even when the taxes are imposed directly on consumers. Highways are politically irresistible.

Arkansas’ small band of Republicans in the legislature could block the tax, as the party leadership wants, but they will not. The bloc of eight in the Senate, along with Democratic leader Bob Johnson, who votes for the special interests even when they don’t ask him to, could stop the tax. But at least half of them told Beebe they would support him.

Republican leaders, steamed that the party had lost its low-tax patina under Gov. Mike Huckabee, who raised nearly every tax on the books, hoped its lawmakers would stand united against a tax, even if the tax made perfect sense, to make the point that Republicans were just flatly against taxes.

If the tax and the road and street work become as popular as we think they will be, the Republicans may want to reverse course and claim credit. Their few votes will have been critical in passing it, and the father of the tax has to be Sheffield Nelson, the former Republican chairman and standard-bearer whose initiative proposal for a 7 percent tax forced Beebe’s hand and gave him the leverage to reach a deal with producers.
—Ernie Dumas

EDITORIAL>>Good Dustin chases lenders

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, is not going to stand for this unlawful behavior any longer! Nine years of it apparently is enough!

He was talking about the payday check cashers, who set up in 1999 to exploit the poor and desperate. While the state Constitution says you can’t charge consumers more than 17 percent interest on loans, the check cashers charge 300, even 500 percent. They have got away with it in spite of the Constitution and 50 years of precedents in which the Arkansas Supreme Court said that the Constitution actually meant exactly what it said.

The legislature and Gov. Mike Huckabee, of course, were complicit when they enacted a law that pretended that the Constitution was not serious and that you could charge poor people anything you could get away with, up to and including highway robbery. Needy people were trapped into taking out loan after loan after loan after loan because they could never catch up.

McDaniel was suddenly emboldened by two Supreme Court decisions this winter, each saying flatly that any fees that a lender tacked on to a loan was, in fact, interest. That is what the Supreme Court said a half-century ago and has continued to say every time the issue has confronted it squarely. The two decisions this winter were tangential to the issue — they involved surety bonds backing the lenders — but both signaled what the court would do if the check cashers act reached them directly on its merits. That case will go before the court later this year, perhaps by summer.

But McDaniel said Tuesday that he was not waiting. He said the check cashers should close immediately unless they decide that they can make loans at a simple rate of 17 percent or less. They must waive all outstanding debts and operate immediately by the Constitution. Otherwise, he said, he will file lawsuits to shut them down.

In Arkansas alone, consumers paid an estimated $25 million in fees and excess interest.

Payday lending is big business—so big that at least some companies, like Advance America, are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. And they hire lawyers to stay in business and sweet talkers to convince lawmakers and the public that they are providing a service.

Well, carjackers provide a service. So do mobbed-up loan sharks and pimps, but we have laws and lawmen protecting us from those service providers.

And finally we have a lawman working to protect us from the payday lenders.

How much better it would have been if Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) Mark Pryor had done that in 1999. Or his successor, Mike Beebe, who had four years. Or General McDaniel, who has had 14 months. Justice does grind oh so slowly.