The El Dorado Department of Public Works, as with other city departments, is still taking precautionary measures to provide essential services in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The El Dorado City Council previously agreed to exercise financial caution by freezing spending for non-essential city services.
As updated 2020 budget numbers roll in, city officials have learned that revenues are down but not as drastically as anticipated.
Though relieved by the news, Council Member Vance Williamson, chairman of the city’s Finance Committee, has stressed the need to continue to be conservative with the 2020 budget as the country braces for a second wave of COVID-19 cases that has been predicted for the fall.
Council Member Willie McGhee agreed, saying that he is glad that city finances are holding up as well as they are in the face of the public health crises.
McGhee said the city has been able to provide essential public services, including police, fire, water/wastewater and garbage collection, without having to lay off city employees.
One employee was laid off earlier this year at South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field but the position has since been refilled and the airport is back up to full staff with four employees.
Robert Edmonds, director of public works, said the city’s 2020 street overlay and drainage improvement plan has been bid out and is set to begin in August.
The annual budget, which averages $1.2 - $1.5 million, will be bolstered this year by a commitment from the El Dorado Works tax, a 1-cent sales tax that includes municipal infrastructure projects.
With $5 million that was approved by the El Dorado Works Board to be split pro-rata in 2020 and 2021, the city will be able to cover more streets with a budget of $1.5 million for each of the city’s four wards.
The city council has directed Edmonds to start with the $2.5 million allotment from the El Dorado Works tax before dipping into the street department budget.
Edmonds said the department of public works is working around challenges that have been presented by COVID-19 by taking steps to protect the public and city employees, who spend much of their workday out and about.
“We stay on our guys to practice social distancing. We’re providing them with masks, hand sanitizer and every precaution we can take to be able to work at a level where we can continue to provide the services we provide,” Edmonds said.
He said supervisors are directing crews to work in smaller groups, spend less time clustered in their designated areas, such as the city shop, and supplying employees with plenty of water for outdoor work.
Edmonds said one public works employee tested positive for the virus two weeks ago, noting that the employee had not exhibited any symptoms.
A couple of other employees were sent home for quarantine in May after supervisors learned the employees had potentially been exposed to others with the virus, he said.
“That was a couple of months ago and we had them tested and they were negative,” Edmonds said. “Everybody’s back to work and they’re not all hanging around each other in the break room and other places where they can cluster up. The supervisors are doing a good job with that.”
Some projects have slowed because of COVID-19 as crews tend to basic services, Edmonds said, adding that he hopes public works can go back to full scope when the public health crisis starts to subside.
For instance, he said the city has not razed any condemned properties this year, which is partly due to a lower budget.
“I don’t think we have but $20,000 in the budget and that doesn’t tear down many houses. For the past couple of years, the council budgeted $250,000 to $300,000 a year but this year they didn’t do that,” Edmonds when asked about the annual razing program.
Williamson noted that in 2018, the council pulled $300,000 from the city’s reserve coffers to expedite a backlog of properties that were on the city’s condemnation list.
“We were having a lot of complaints about illegal activities, including drug-dealing, prostitution and dog-fighting that was occurring in the condemned structures,” Williamson said.
The work was bid to Milam Construction and Williamson said the majority of the $300,000 was spent demolishing condemned structures in 2018 and 2019.
“There is still quite a few structures to be removed but we only have so many resources to draw from while continuing to keep a balanced budget,” he said in reference to the $20,000 budget.