Piggott City Council Amends Budget, Reviews Policies at Meeting

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Members of the Piggott City Council handled a fairly light agenda at Monday night's regular meeting. During the gathering at city hall, council approved a resolution to amend the 2017 budget; gave Mayor Jim Poole permission to have staff rework the city's policy on travel reimbursements and uniform allowances and reviewed an update of finances for the NEARK Solid Waste Management District.

Council also accepted the resignation of Brian Haley from his position as fire chief, although he will remain a member of the department. In turn, Jeff Benbrook was approved as the new chief.

With all members in attendance, along with key staff a handful of concerned citizens, Poole called the meeting to order. After dispensing with the usual minutes and clerk's reports, the mayor opened the floor to comments.

Stan Cook had several questions concerning the current electrical rates, and inquired about the plan which was discussed to have an engineering firm study them. He indicated his research showed the local rate was 23.66 percent higher than the state average, and noted low rates have attracted people to the city for decades.

Utilities Director Haley sought to clarify the matter, and informed Cook the council had chose to table the matter of having a study done at this time.

“The situation is much too complicated to explain in five minutes, but if you'd come by my office I'd be glad to try to,” Haley said. “I wanted to do the study to allow us to find out where we stood in general. Do we need to raise, or lower, any of the rates when compared to costs and such? It can work both ways. Council chose not to at this time.”

In response to a question concerning the possible sale of the utility to private interests Mayor Poole was adamant. “We've got control and we want to maintain control of our utilities,” he noted. “That's what we're going to do and we want the people to know that's where we stand.”

Also addressing the issue of electric rates, and the misconception they're somehow tied to financial issues involving Piggott Community Hospital, was local dentist Dr. Steve White.

“I am here because I am concerned about Piggott, I'm concerned about the future of Piggott,” he explained. White then reviewed information provided by PCH administrator James L. Magee concerning the hospital's recent issues with paying a late electric bill.

“The 21 similar hospitals in the state all average $1.1 million in community support while our hospital only receives about $360,000,” he explained. “And, they've been paying the usual residential rate for electricity. If they had been paying the industrial rate, and received the average community tax support, they would have broken even—and no other hospital in that category breaks even or makes a profit, even with the additional tax support and lower rates.”

He noted Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center in Kennett, a private pay hospital, pays nothing for electric. “Even so, a disproportionate number of Kennett residents come to the Piggott Hospital. Before I retired many of my out-of-town patients mentioned that they came to PCH due to the care they get there.”

White also pointed to the difficulties of dealing with Medicaid and Medicare payments, which he had experienced in his dental practice. “They're major income losers--payment is always below cost,” he added.

He also applauded the efforts by Magee to keep the facility viable despite the major issues. “What would you do if you were James Magee? You get only a third of the average tax benefits of other hospital and pay more for electric.”

White also noted the city had requested the hospital remain all-electric around the turn of the century, offering at that time a rebate. “That lasted only two years, but thanks to the hospital we all pay less for our electric now,” he offered. “And still, the hospital is blamed for residents higher rates? How would you feel?

He also pointed to Magee's status as one of the top hospital administrators in the state of Arkansas, noting he's served as president of the state association and has represented the four-state region which includes Arkansas at the national level. White also noted the many awards the hospital has received during his tenure.

“James Magee nor PCH is the problem with the city's high electric rates, actually PCH has been the most adversely affected by these rates. They've actually made the residential rates lower, not higher.”

White also noted the bad debt suffered by the hospital as one of the key financial issues.

“They absorb about a million dollars a year in bad debt, mostly through the ER, but they are required to treat those people,” he surmised. “In addition, the hospital provided about $275,000 in charity care in 2017. While I understand the desire and need for a projected profit and loss statement for the future, there are so many variables that I can see that this is difficult to do.”

The latter statement reflected demands by some members of the public, and council, for a detailed profit and loss report for the coming year by the hospital in reaction to the forgiveness of monies owed MLWS.

Turning their attention to old business, council then considered a resolution which amends the 2017 city budget. Mayor Poole indicated the resolution only served to shift funds from one department to another, and noted none of them went over-budget for the period.

The resolution was presented for consideration, and was approved on a vote of 4-0.

The council also discussed a letter received from NewWave Communications, rebutting a recent correspondence with the company concerning a rate increase. Mayor Poole indicated the letter sought to explain the increase in rates, which has been opposed by council. He noted there were a number issues in the letter which were incorrect, but conceded the complaints are falling on deaf ears.

Earlier in the year the council sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission reflecting their displeasure with the continued rate increases, although Poole noted there is actually very little council can do about the matter at this point.

Council members also voted to allow the city to re-work the system for uniform allowances and travel reimbursements. This was brought to light by auditors recently, and a new plan is currently being formulated. The councilmen voted to allow the process to continue, and will vote on the changes at a future meeting.

Council next voted to accept the resignation of Haley as Piggott Fire Chief.

With over 27 years in service to his credit, Haley noted he is rapidly reaching retirement age and wanted to step-aside from his duties as chief at this time to allow his successor a breaking-in period. He will remain with the department for the time being, as well as continuing his work with the city as utilities director.

Afterward, based on the recommendation of the members of the fire department, Benbrook was appointed as the new chief. After clarifying the appointment reflected the wishes of the firefighters, the council voted 3-0 to approve the appointment with Benbrook abstaining.

Mayor Poole then presented council with the financial update on the landfill. He noted the collective is “in good shape” and provided a brief review.

“We're doing good, we own our landfill—we're healthy financially and in good shape,” he explained. “It costs us about $900,000 to open a new seven acre cell, which will service us between two and two and one-half years. But, we could be like Baxter County. Their landfill had a $30 million dollar debt and went broke.”

In his update on the MLWS, Haley reported the electric, water and sewer departments are all in maintenance mode as they prepare for the coming summer months.

At this point Poole requested that council amend the agenda, and consider waiving yard sale fees for the upcoming city wide sale. The agenda was amended accordingly, and the council voted 4-0 to waive the fee for yard sales held on Saturday, April 7, in conjunction with the city wide sale.

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