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Mountain Home’s City Council had a busy debate filled session during last Thursday’s council meeting.
While the council was focused on moving forward with several of its outstanding city projects, they found themselves facing some push back from members of the Ozark Patriots, a relatively new political group in Baxter County that spun up after the political chaos of 2020.
The group, which leans heavily into the Trump side of the Republican party, states that its mission is to “to advance and foster the Constitution of the United States and the God-given rights of citizens in the Ozarks.”
The Ozark Patriots
Members of the Patriots have begun to show up at local government functions more frequently, while challenging office holders on their actions and plans for Baxter County and the local municipalities within it.
The group has run afoul of many establishment politicians throughout the county by putting a spotlight on topics like government spending and election integrity. The group has even attempted to take over various positions in Baxter County’s Republican Party. They may get their way if they win officer positions within the party during this month’s party vote for party officers.
Last year, the group put forth several candidates for public office, with a few winning seats long held by establishment Republican types.
The group’s track record is not without its problems though. While most of its members are good hearted people, their passion and lack of decorum at official government meetings makes them come off as rude interlopers to some officials and members of the public.
And the truth in those statements can be seen in action multiple times a month. The group is not afraid to interrupt meetings, ask questions and push back when they don’t agree on what’s happening with government spending.
Misinformation also occasionally flows from the group’s members. During Mountain Home’s special election to raise taxes to renovate major portions of Mountain Home High School, a subset of the group spread false information against Mountain Home Superintendent Dr. Jake Long and the district’s plans about its high school. Bob Chester, a school board candidate endorsed by the Patriots, changed his opinion after learning more about the high school’s needs. He and the Patriots parted ways with each other.
Beth Sandland, one of the higher profile members of leadership in the Patriots, said that misinformation was put out by some of its members and that the group was working to stop the practice.
Still, despite their flaws, the group has also done some good in the county by bringing attention to under reported stories. The group put its own spotlight on the lawsuit against Baxter county’s sheriff by a former jailer who alleges that she was wrongly terminated after complaining about being harassed and sexual assaulted by one of her superiors. The Patriots also put a spotlight on several election issues that sprang up last year, including members of the Republican party who looked at a race-deciding ballot in secret.
Most of those issues were ignored for the most part by local media outlets.
New city signage
The most debated topic of the night.
Arnold Knox, director of planning and engineering, gave a presentation on a bid review for the Mountain Home Wayfinding Program. During the presentation, Knox and the council were pressed by members of the Ozark Patriots on the cost surrounding this program.
The city has been exploring purchasing new signs to direct tourists and residents around the city. The proposed bid was set to run the city roughly $500,000. Several communities in Northern Arkansas have set up wayfinding programs to improve signage along their major highways.
Currently, the state is in charge of all signs running along highways. Because of that, the state requires cities to come up with a wayfinding program that has to be checked off by the state. The state then allows each city or municipality to purchase new signs after going through a bidding process.
In Mountain Home, most of the signage in town is older, too small, and in hard to see locations. City officials argue that the new signage will help tourists and locals get around town more efficiently and have been working to get approval to update the signs. Getting people into the city’s various parks was also listed as a reason for updating the signs.
Members of the Patriots in the crowd argued that the cost of the plan was too high. Members of the Council also expressed concerns about the use of the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce’s logo in the city’s official signage.
Knox was asked to look into changing the signs designs and the vote was scraped for the evening.
Other council business
The first order of business for City Council was a vote on the redistricting of residential property into commercial property on behalf of Kemp family, who no longer finds the property suitable for residential needs.
A notice of the petition to change the property from a residential one to a commercial property was listed in the Baxter Bulletin. Ted Sanders, a local Mountain Home attorney, presented the proposed change to City Council. There are currently no construction plans for the property at this time. The change was needed to prepare the property for sale.
Following the vote on redistricting, the council moved on to the last reading of its proposed noise ordinance. The new noise ordinance, which was created in response to complaints from residents about late night construction from local companies in town, is designed to let local business and residents know what exactly the rules are in regard to noise during nighttime hours.
Despite some pushback in past council meetings on the noise ordinance, the final reading passed without much fanfare.
Following that vote, the Council took an ordinance to allow the Mountain Home Police Department to take on a $5,000 one-time stipend for five of its officers from the Arkansas State Legislature, which passed a $50 million stipend package for officers statewide in its 2022 Fiscal Session.
Mountain Home Police Department will be receiving $26,915.50 of that stipend money for its officers and an additional $1,912.50 going towards social security payments.
Garver contract updates
In one of its biggest actions of the night, the Council took up some needed work with its contracts with Garver.
The city is preparing to enter Phase II of its construction project on its wastewater treatment plant. The city’s plan is to focus on getting its UV light filtration system installed and covered as quickly as possible. Alma Clark, treasurer for the city, stated in the meeting that supply chain issues were making it difficult to procure the chlorine needed to clean the city’s water supply. That issue has been added to by the rising costs of major chemicals throughout the country.
The contract changes were approved in a unanimous decision, allowing Garver to begin focusing on Phase II.
Lastly, Clark gave a presentation requesting authorization to enter a loan agreement with the Arkansas Natural Resources Council for the second phase of its wastewater treatment plant upgrade for an additional $7 million.
Rising costs have made an additional loan necessary to complete construction at the treatment plant.
The City of Mountain Home has been working to upgrade and update much of its water treatment systems and sewer systems over the past few years, with the city selling $10 million in bonds to fund the projects after receiving taxpayer approval.
Much of the city’s equipment is older, with some of its water pumps being 30 years old. Finding replacement parts for equipment has also become difficult over the years as much of the city’s tools and equipment are proprietary.
Costs for operating the plants have also gone up over the years. Currently, Mountain Home uses chlorine and sulfur dioxide gas to treat the water that citizens use in their daily lives. The gas has seen a spike in cost as the U.S. economy struggles with inflation.
The city’s sewer systems have also been running a deficit over the past few years. While the city has found ways to cover that deficit, the days of covering down are ending as the deficit is expected to climb to 50% by 2024, potentially driving up consumer rates.
To combat these difficulties, the city has begun to look at switching over to a new UV light system for its water treatment facilities and replacing much of its aging equipment. The move to the new system will lower costs for the city in the long run while also making the city less reliant on dangerous gas shipments coming in from chemical plants.
Once completed, the city expects to turn its deficit into a surplus over time. Money raised from the sale of the bonds is earmarked to be used to complete the city’s water facility projects and may not be used in a general manner.