The Fulton County Quorum Court met Wednesday, Feb. 17 to discuss a list of appropriations, including $4,000 to replace vandalized county street signs which are required for 9-1-1. "Someone keeps stealing or breaking the signs off," said Fulton County Judge Charles Willett. "We have placed cameras up throughout the county, but so far have missed whoever is stealing them. We're going to have to do something because this is really getting expensive."
Vandals have struck throughout the county, stealing the entire sign in some cases, just breaking off the signs in other places, and even pushing over the signs and dumping them into area ditches and stream beds. Willett said the county will continue to use the cameras to try and catch the vandal or vandals who are costing the county valuable tax dollars.
In other business, the court appropriated $21,000 of the sports complex's own money to construct fencing around the area just north of the hospital. The court appropriated $2,603.50 to the small tool account to cover the costs of a new tire machine for the shop, and also appropriated funds for a grant from the Office of Emergency Management. "We received a grant from the OEM office to buy lights and generators for our emergency trailers that we have set up across the county," said Willett.
Judge Willett also passed on news regarding the Union-Baxter road. "I got a letter from the state aid department," said Willett. "This year we'll be bidding the Union-Baxter road on March 10, to finish the 1.7 miles to surface that to connect it to Highway 223. We need to appropriate $7,183 to make up the difference." The plan is for the county to bid the project in March with an expected start date in May.
With that, Judge Willett opened the floor for local resident, Mary Rivera to address the court. To begin with, Ms. Rivera handed each of the Quorum Court members a copy of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Handbook, and directed them to the passage regarding executive sessions.
"According to the freedom of information act, an executive session can only be entered into for the specific purpose of considering 'employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any public officer or employee'," said Rivera. According to a copy of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook, obtained from the Attorney General's office, "an executive session to consider general salary matters, an across the board pay increase, or the overall performance of employees as a group is not permissible." Rivera made the point that the executive session entered into last month by the Quorum Court was in violation of the FOIA, and wanted the court to be aware of the law, so as not to violate it in the future. The handbook states that "a person who negligently violates the Freedom of Information Act is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor."
Rivera then took up the topic of grants, and the necessity for the court to do their due diligence when applying for grant funds. "In December, the North Little Rock airport took over all buildings built on the airport property, even though they were built by private individuals," said Rivera. "This airport has gotten a grant through the FAA, and now, they are taking away the hangars that people built with their own private funds. This is an example of what can happen when you go after grants. You really need to understand what is behind grants, before you accept them. Just one sentence in these grants can get you into a whole lot of trouble."
Rivera also pointed out that in her opinion, the entities within Fulton County who passed the Hazard Mitigation Plan that the Quorum Court voted down, including the cities of Viola, Salem and Mammoth Spring, approved the plan without going through due process. "A public meeting must be held at least two weeks before the plan is voted on by the governing body, and the public must be notified, and that was not done," said Rivera. "It was not done by the county or by the cities, or by the school district."
Rivera then brought up that the current government site listing adoptees of the Hazard Mitigation Plan includes Fulton County, and wanted to know why that was so. "Fulton County's plan has been adopted by the cities and school districts, so that is why it is shown as adopted," said Willett. "We voted ours down, and that's it -- we're done with that. So we don't qualify for any money. And I want to clarify that it's not just 5 percent but 15 percent of the cost of the road is what you can get for repairs and replacement if you have a hazard mitigation plan. And you can also get bridges replaced, and it's not 5 percent, it's 75 percent and 12.5%, just like the Smith Ford bridge that needs to be replaced which is going to cost us over $300,000 and we're not going to get anything for it. That's how it works, and I've been working with FEMA for over three years on projects like this. Since we don't have that plan now, we aren't eligible for this assistance; we're out of it now."
Rivera then stated that if Fulton County were the only county to not pass a hazard mitigation plan, "then we should be proud." "Getting into grants is not just a matter of taking money, because there are always strings attached," said Rivera. "You need to be aware of what the hidden costs are, especially when it seems to be free. Once you have given away our rights, we can never get them back."
Judge Willett then asked the court if they wanted him to continue pursuing grants for the county, at which point several members responded that the judge should continue doing "what he has always done."
"We have a $1.3 million dollar budget," said Willett. "We have $40,000 a year for gravel. Do you know how long that will last if we don't have a grant to supplement it? We have 596 roads, and that allows me to only put three-quarters of a mile of rock on each road for the whole year. That's what we have to operate on. If we don't receive grants and assistance, we don't repair anything. That's our budget. We read every grant we fill out. The only thing I've seen is when it's a matching grant. It could be a 50-50 match, or could be an 80-20 or a full 100 percent grant. We put the lift in the courthouse with grants; we have put roofs on with grants. We don't owe anyone anything and we don't have to pay anything back. I don't know what strings are supposed to be attached to them."
Rivera then re-directed the discussion to future grants, and her concerns that the county may inadvertently put property owner's rights at risk. "I'm not against grants, I just want to know what the ramifications are for these grants that we are applying for," said Rivera.
With that, the discussion was ended, and the judge called for an adjournment of the meeting. The next Quorum Court meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on March 8 on the second floor of the courthouse.