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Mountain Home City Council has approved another round of city funding with the North Arkansas Transportation Service (NATS) to provide a free bus service to residents living within the city’s limits.
Unlike its first contract with the city, this round of funding will cover NATS for the rest of the year. The funding will cost the city $1,250 a month.
“I think it’s a great thing,” said City Councilwoman Jennifer Baker. “It’s a great thing for the money. It’s a great thing for the community. I think we’re really lucky in Mountain Home that you all are doing this for us.”
In October, City Council entered an agreement with NATS to start a three-month pilot program that would allow the organization to provide free rides to residents within Mountain Home city limits.
In Mountain Home, NATS, which also operates its service in Harrison, has seven buses to provide transportation in Mountain Home along its scheduled route for $1. NATS also provides the Mountain Home area with a $3 “dial-a-ride” service where anyone can book a ride in advance to anywhere in Baxter County. Medicare will also reimburse travel costs for retirees who are using the service for medical purposes.
During its presentation to the council last year, NATS officials said the service had been mischaracterized as only providing transportation for medical appointments but noted that the service could be used for any transportation purposes.
NATS buses are ADA compliant, but officials said that users must be able to move and enter the vehicle under their own power as the organization does not have the training or the insurance needed to move people in and out of vehicles.
NATS drivers covered a distance of 3,000 miles from Jan. to August last year, at a cost of $7,000.
In November last year, City Council moved to approve a budget line item for NAT’s services. That motion passed, with a dissenting vote from City Councilwoman Paige Evans. Evans originally voted in favor of the service but decided to dissent after talking to some voters during her re-election campaign.
In March of this year, NATS officials returned to City Council with a request for an extension to see if the service numbers would uptick in Mountain Home. At the time, NATS officials said the service did relatively well during its initial test run, offering 1,328 trips to the public. There was little advertisement of the organization’s service during Christmas festivities, and the organization was lacking a full time driver. Those who did ride with NATS gave the it high praise, according to representatives attending the meeting.
Officials noted that the winter snowstorm that hit Mountain Home also resulted in lower numbers during the holiday season, raising some concerns about continuing to fund the service. City Council approved the extension to see if numbers would uptick.
And while there were some concerns, they appear to have been abated, with Evans voting in favor of funding the service through the end of this year. NATS saw an increase of 644 riders in March and 703 in April.
“I just have to say that I’ve been fortunate,” Evans said. “I was able to speak with Mr. Chism a couple of times over the last three months from the first contract six months ago. I was the lone no vote on this, and I was concerned mainly of being a good steward of our city sales tax, our city’s dollars. I was also concerned about some other businesses or people that provide this service already. That we might be competing with someone that actually makes this their business – I thought we also didn’t have the numbers to really show us that the need was here for this in our area. But I think over the last six months, and after speaking with Mr. Chism over the last three months that the need is definitely here and we can see it by the numbers.”
Other City Council News
In addition to approving NATS’s extended contract, City Council approved the hiring of Gregory Company, Inc. to oversee construction of the Sharp Family Fire Station. The new station will clock in between 8,500 to 10,000 square feet and will include three drive-through bays for its fire trucks. Costs for construction of the new station will come from the public safety tax that was approved by voters in 2017.
In addition to the station, City Council approved a measure in increase filing fees associated with petitions before the planning commission and city council regarding rezoning, annexing and special use variances. Fees have remained stagnant since 1990 despite rising costs over the last 30 years.
The new fees will see rezoning go from $75 to $200, special variances go from $75 to $200 and annexation filings go from $100 to $250.
City Council also granted permission to Mountain Home Mayor Hillrey Adams to sell surplus light poles to the city of Calico Rock, while also waiving competitive bidding on the purchase of a 2023 Ram 5500 truck. The purchase for the truck was already approved by City Council as apart the city’s 2023 budget.
The Council also discussed awarding half of former Mountain Home City Clerk Deborah House’s pension to her husband, Ronnie Pyle. Under the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System, past officials are currently not covered, and surviving family members cannot draw monthly income from the fund. The Council and Adams stated that they would need more information before attempting to give Pyle a portion of his wife’s pension. The issue is expected to be discussed again at the Council’s June 1 meeting.
Lastly, the Council approved a resolution to accept an ARDOT grant, and a Federal-Aid Recreation Trails Program Funds grant application to develop areas around McCabe Park’s trails. One grant is expected to allow the city to pave the park’s gravel parking lot, while the other is expected to help building a small, handicapped accessible bathroom and pier on Baker’s Lake in the park. Work is anticipated to begin in 2024.