A full house met with the Quorum Court on Monday, November 9, to discuss the county's Hazard Mitigation Plan. The plan, backed by the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and FEMA, provided for additional grant funds to mitigate natural disasters, but included a property acquisition clause that gave a lot of local residents pause.
"There is a lot to hazard mitigation planning," said concerned citizen Mary Rivera. "I will tell you that if you have not read these FEMA manuals, you cannot understand where we are going if you adopt this plan. This is not a grant plan. This is a program to put restrictions on land owners."
Rivera pointed out that the plan would be in effect forever, and that decisions made now by the court would be in force for the resident's children, and grandchildren and beyond. "38 counties have not joined the program, out of 75 counties in Arkansas," said Rivera. "We are actually in the majority. The implementation of the hazard mitigation plan in Fulton County will bring incremental but dramatic change in the way we are allowed to conduct every aspect of our lives. It is impossible for me to go into detail, exactly where the dots start and end, but the picture is control: Control of our land. It's obvious that the greatest emphasis is on acquisition and control of how we use our land. I don't need the government doing that for me. This is not just a government grant program -- it is a choice of rights and liberty for ourselves and future generations. I am asking you not to sell our rights, and the future generations' rights, just for grant money."
County Judge Charles Willett pointed out to the assembled group that any acquisition of land under the plan would be voluntary, not mandatory. "This plan right here, says that despite what your citizens may think, any buyout done with hazardous mitigation funds is strictly voluntary," said Willett. "What they're saying is, if your house or your property is on a river and you lose it once to a natural disaster, they're only going to pay you one time. They aren't going to do repetitive insurance claims for you. They won't keep paying you to rebuild a house in the same area time and time again. That's what they're looking at. "
Darrell Zimmer of the County's Emergency Management office reiterated the fact that it would be up to the homeowner to decide to accept a federal buyout or not to rebuild. "It's up to the homeowner if they want to accept the payment or not," said Zimmer. "As a federal program there are restrictions. If you decide that you're going to sell to FEMA, you can't rebuild there. It has to become green space. This is to prevent them from having to pay time and time again for the same piece of property. The advantages to this funding are we get funds that help put in safe rooms for schools for tornadoes. Since I've been doing this job, there's been over 30 households in the county that have put storm shelters in their yard, and they help pay for that. You get half of your money up to $1,000 back."
Concerned citizen Lori Benedict expressed her doubt about the lack of community input on the plan. "It says that you must have considerable input from the entire community for this plan," said Benedict. "Would it not be a good idea to open up another meeting, to discuss this plan, and get further input on what it means?"
Zimmer explained that the county officials originally met with the company who drafted the 108-page plan in 2004, and spent time going over the most likely disasters to affect the county, and ideas on how to mitigate the damage from those disasters.
"In the plan, if you have a trailer park here in Salem that blows away every time there's a tornado, and they currently come in and give you money to put that back every year - they want to mitigate it so that they don't have to repay over and over," said Zimmer. "It's just like if you have a car and are constantly getting into accidents, your insurance company is going to drop you. They won't cover you anymore. That's the same concept here. They're only going to pay you once to replace your home, and then they are going to mitigate against having to pay you again, should another disaster hit."
Another concerned citizen brought up a reason that resonated with many in the crowd -- the eventual ownership of county lands by outside agencies through the property acquisition piece of the plan. "It just makes common sense, if you've got a house or business that washes away, if you acquire that land, you plant trees and grass -- when it floods again, all it hurts is trees and grass. If it's in the middle of nowhere, it's no big deal. If it's in the middle of your town, that's a problem. The bottom line is someone outside of the county owns the property, and that's a problem."
Others in the crowd pointed out that it was the land owner's responsibility to be aware of where they were buying property and take personal responsibility for it, and not expect the government to swoop in and help them recover damage costs after a disaster. "If you live in a flood zone, it's your responsibility to take care of your property," said county resident Bob Wood. "You can't expect the government to pay for it. If you choose to live there, it's your personal responsibility to handle what happens to your property."
At this point, after more than an hour of discussion on the topic, Judge Willett thanked the crowd for attending and sharing their concerns about the plan and called for a vote. The court unanimously voted to not enact the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Next up on the agenda, the court passed the taxes for the 2010 budget year and talked with Chief Deputy Tom Hanselman about the Sheriff Department's budget for 2010. In January, the Quorum Court had approved two part time and one full time position for the department, with the proviso that they would review the need for those positions at the end of the year.
"Currently, we've got coverage from seven am to three am at night, and from three to seven there are two officers on call," said Hanselman. "Most of these officers work 10, 11, 12 hours a day and never ask for any overtime. These are guys with young families and mortgages that want to work for Fulton County. They live here, and they know they can cross over the county line and make $3,500 more a year, but they want to stay here. "
Several Court members questioned the need for the extra positions and if the county was getting the most out of them. "These boys love being here," said Hanselman. "There are some that are young, that don't have the experience of talking with people. But I know they give 100%, even more. They go to every free class that's offered. They're hard working guys. They could leave for a higher paying job, but they want to live here."
Hanselman also explained that the department is working to collect on the hundreds of thousands of unpaid fines for the county, and on other cost saving measures, including having sex offenders pay for their own drug testing.
The court requested that Hanselman get with the Sheriff and present a revised plan for the department at the next Quorum Court meeting. After that, the court adjourned.