By Randal Curtman
EL DORADO — The Union County Quorum Court members voted against spending $5,250 for an appraisal of three county-owned properties during Thursday’s regular February meeting, held in the Union County Courthouse in El Dorado.
The appraisal was recommended by the county properties committee as a way for the county to discover if the rent the county collects on the three properties is sufficient to cover the properties expenses of insurance and taxes.
The three properties include the Byrd Marine property, the Mid-States Pipe property and the El Dorado Foundry property, said County Judge Mike Loftin.
Justice of the Peace Carolyn Jones asked how many jobs were provided by the businesses renting space from the county.
Loftin said the businesses that occupy the county properties provide around 22 jobs.
“I’m all for jobs,” said JP Dean Storey, “but I don’t think the county needs to provide subsidies on businesses, and that’s what this boils down to.”
Jones said the intention of the quorum court in purchasing the properties back in 2006 and 2008 was to bring jobs to Union County.
“I would be interested in finding out what the total payroll numbers are,” she said.
“I’m for finding out what the properties are worth,” said JP William Crowder.
“It’s not out of bounds for us to figure out what we have and what it’s worth,” JP Cliff Preston added.
“I would like to at least see a letter of intent from someone interested in purchasing the property before considering an appraisal,” said JP Greg Harrison.
JP Cecil Polk agreed.
“That is a good point,” Polk said. “I would like to see a letter of intent before we spend $5,200 of the taxpayers’ money. If we are just going to spend money, then I have a problem with that.”
Jones asked if selling the property could result in people being put out of work. “If people are working, then they are paying taxes, and that is good for the county,” she said.
Loftin said that the county would have to follow the standard bidding process if it sought to sell the properties, even if there were a letter of interest from a potential property buyer.
“We can set a minimum bid amount,” Loftin said, “and I would say we need a letter of intent signed by someone who is willing to buy it.”
“I think the first step would be an appraisal to find out what the property is worth,” Crowder said.
“If we don’t see to the taxpayers’ money then we aren’t doing a good job,” Storey said.
“I beg to differ,” Jones said. “I think we do a very good job watching over the taxpayers’ money.” She added that the investment in the properties had paid off by creating jobs for county residents.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with jobs, this is just about wanting to know what our property is worth,” Crowder said. “It’s a beginning step.”
A motion was made to proceed with an appraisal, but the motion was defeated 7-4.
“What I told them when they had their properties committee meeting was that I don’t have a problem with an appraisal, if you’re going to sell the property then you need to know what it is worth,” Loftin said after the meeting. “But if you are just going to do an appraisal for good measure, why spend that $5,250? We’re not going to raise the rents, and take the chance of running off a business and losing jobs.”
In other business, the Public Service Committee recommended the quorum court renew the county’s health insurance for the 2017-18 year, which begins in April.
“We had a seven-percent decrease in the health insurance, and that is unheard of,” Polk said.
The cost of health benefits for county employees will remain unchanged in the coming year.
The JPs also heard an impromptu explanation from Tax Collector Paula Beard and deputy tax collector Conor Gleason about the need for new software in the tax collector’s office.
Jim Mock of Conway, Ark., creator of Union County’s current computer network, which was installed in 1985, gave the JPs a history lesson in the system he created for the county and which has been in use for over 30 years.
After Mock’s presentation, Beard said she hadn’t been prepared to talk about the computers but wanted to say a few words about the current system.
“We have got to get in the 21st Century,” Beard said. “Things that take us an hour to do could be done in 10 minutes with an upgrade, and I have been studying the upgrade idea since November last year.”
Beard said Union County was one of only two counties in Arkansas still using the IBM 400 computer system, with Howard County being the other county.
“Howard County is a small county, and we’re one of the biggest counties in the state,” Beard said.
All the other county tax collectors offices use either the program Tax Pro or Apprentice.
“We still use dot matrix printers, do you know how old those are?” Beard asked the Justices of the Peace. She said the current program also is incapable of taking debit or credit card payments or partial payments at the window.
“When those customers can’t pay, they leave, and sometimes they don’t come back,” Gleason said. “That is lost revenue for the county.”
“When collectors find out what system we’re on, they’re shocked,” Beard said. “I don’t doubt the old system’s reliability, but the upgrade is going to have to happen, sooner or later.”
Beard did not have an estimate amount the upgrade would cost, but she said her office has the money available for the new computer program.
“If it costs $100,000, then that is $10,000 a year for 10 years,” Gleason said.
Mock said his 1985 program could do all the things Beard wanted done, including printing on laser printers.
Beard was unconvinced, however. “We need to go from rotary phones to iPhones,” she said. “I’m driving a Lincoln, but I want to be driving a Land Rover.”
The discussion was tabled until an unspecified later date.
The Union County treasurer’s office is already on Apprentice software, Beard said.
“I have invited the JPs to come down and see what we are operating on, and two or three have come by,” Beard said after the meeting. “I have the money in an automation fund and that is generated by commissions on collections — so I have got the money, but I only budgeted $50,000 for the upgrade. As a courtesy I wanted the quorum court to know what we are doing down here and what we would like to do. It’s time to move into the future.”
“If you have 73 out of 75 counties using some other software, that tells you it is time to move on,” Beard said.
Randal Curtman is the managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times and may be reached at 870-862-6611 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.