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Justices Split on Economic Dev. Position


Tuesday night, the Mississippi County Quorum Court heard from Economic Developer Clif Chitwood and Great River Economic Development Foundation (GREDF) board member Lisa John-Adams on the hiring of a new position for $87,500 for external vice president and promoting Tamika Jenkins to internal vice president, which is a total of $150,000 for Great River Economic Development employee expenses.

The QC, however, split the vote 4-4 with three justices - Slyvester Belcher, Alvin Clay and Molly Jackson- not present.

The four justices to vote "no" were Justices Howard "Bubba" Norvell, Rick Ash, Betty Hepler, and JoAnne Henton. The four justices to vote "aye" were justices Neil Burge, Fred Fleeman, Michael White, and Bill Nelson.

Before the vote occurred Chitwood gave a presentation that lasted roughly 19 minutes.

He offered a rundown on the history of the GREDF and the 1/2-cent Economic Development tax, stating since its inception the county has invested roughly $34 million that created roughly 4,000 new jobs, with 3,600 still in existence.

According to Chitwood, they need to not only recruit the factories but also the workers.

Chitwood went on to say that the person hired for the external vice president position would help run small businesses and entrepreneurship programs with outreach programs, working with human resource people, building relationships, attracting people to the county, etc.

Chitwood said he and Judge John Alan Nelson went down to Tupelo, Miss., which has an external vice president, and they say it has helped small businesses grow.

Judge Nelson stated that he was impressed by what Tupelo has done since hiring that position.

Jenkins would then have more time to pursue more grants.

Jenkins has been underpaid for several years as she has obtained professional stature and education, according to Chitwood.

Henton then stated while campaigning for re-election people have asked her about the proposed position and why they should vote for the Economic Development tax that is set to sunset in the next few years.

"Mr. Chitwood, as you know this is election season, and I am out there campaigning trying to retain my seat and when you are out there campaigning you do have a tendency to listen to the public," said Henton. "With the judge's permission, if he'd allow me to address three concerns that the public has asked me. The first concern is (paying) a person at the rate of ($87,500) when that is supposed to be what you are doing. I'm going to address all three of them at one time so it doesn't take too much time. The second thing they said is we use millions of dollars from a sales tax and that purpose is not being profiled. The third thing people are saying and feel that you are the problem."

Chitwood responded that his job is to "primarily bring in industries," saying he hopes his record "justifies that." He said since 2003, the county has spent $34 million and it has brought in a $1.5 billion, which is a 5000 percent on the investment.

He added that he wouldn't disagree with the second question and that is why he'd like to hire a new person. Chitwood mentioned they created the jobs but people didn't come.

Henton then asked what would happen if the sales tax didn't pass?

Chitwood responded, "If the people don't believe in the sales tax, if they don't believe in renewal, then we are in trouble."

He added he'd be "obligated to resign" and Mississippi County can see its future without the tax by driving to Helena and Marianna.

Norvell then spoke up and stated he'd vote "no" for the ordinance.

"I think (Chitwood) has done a great job. I think your board has done a great job. But I am going to go ahead and point out that I am going to vote no on this," explained Norvell. "I'm going to tell you right now that one reason is I cannot justify giving somebody a $ 30,000-year raise. I cannot justify to the taxpayers of Mississippi County hiring somebody at $87,500... Very few people, nobody in county government makes $87,500 except for one, but anyways. There is no way I will vote for this I will tell you right now. The judge doesn't make that and we should not guarantee that salary. We should not promise that salary. Nobody should be able to come here and say I want this salary and I won't come if you don't and that's where we are at on this."

Norvell added that if someone wants to work they should come and negotiate the salary.

Norvell continued, " But if I am a voter when the tax comes up again, the economic development tax comes up again, and I knew that this court gives somebody a $30,000 raise in one year and hired somebody at 87.5 when everybody else in the county government makes way, way less than that, I'd not vote on the economic tax. So that's where I'm standing because I want the tax to pass again. Like I said you've done a good job. Your board's done a good job. You've brought a lot of jobs to Mississippi County and a lot more people are living in Mississippi County now. I know our population has declined some but that's because kids graduate and go and don't come back. That's where we need to work at too."

John-Adams then addressed the QC saying that at Nucor they employ people making anywhere from $85K- $100K and on skilled labor $150K, and they "cannot get people here" - not to live in Mississippi County but just to work at Nucor.

"We pay now or we pay later," according to John-Adams.

She also said the QC can't stay "so narrow-minded".

Johns-Adams said, "Don't be so narrow and say that we are not going to open up to what economic development has brought Mississippi County and our future by talking about how we don't want to pay somebody 80-something thousands of dollars because the rest of the county doesn't pay that salary. That is very narrow-minded and I urge you. I really, really urge you to broaden that out because we are going to continue to be in this spiral."

She added that Nucor is wanting to do more in the community and get other businesses to participate.

"I don't want to go back tomorrow and say that I went to a very narrow- minded meeting with the same problems that we face where we are paying people twice that amount and still can't get them here," John-Adams explained.

She added, " I can see what this community is supposed to be but it's not where it is supposed to be because of narrow-minded people. Thank you, Judge."

Norvell quickly responded, " First of all, I just want to say that I am not narrow-minded."

John-Adams answered, " Yes, you are."

"No, I'm open to a lot of suggestions," Norvell responded.

He also mentioned to post the position and see different applicants saying the best applicant may be the lowest salary.

Henton added, " I don't consider my self narrow- minded either."

John-Adams stated that folks need to start making investments in the community and that she isn't calling people narrow- minded, that she is saying that it is a narrow-minded decision.

Later in the meeting County Clerk Janice Currie read Appropriation Ordinance No. O-2020-5.

The ordinance stated it would "appropriations/ modify" the 2020 budget to put $150,000 in the Great River Economic Development Employee expenses.

White made the motion and Fleeman seconded.

White stated, "Judge, I'd really like to see this court give this a chance for success. A vote tonight of no shuts it down from the get-go. If it doesn't work, we try for a year and it doesn't work we can make that through an appropriation. We can take it back out of their contract, but I think we have to give it a chance to give Mississippi County a chance."

Burge and Fleeman also spoke for the appropriation.

Ash, however, spoke against the ordinance.

"I'm going to add my two cents in. I understand we need to do something different but what I have heard here tonight, what concerns me is we are recruiting management, what about the workers," Ash said. "I'm not sure that's the right approach. I think we are on the right track of starting something but I think you've got to look at it from a different point of view. You can't just worry about bringing in the managers, because there is only one manager in the plant, and they employ about 2,000 people... I think we've got to court more than just managers, and that's what I've heard every time I've heard this presentation. We are going to send somebody to talk to the managers. What about the rest of the people? I'm not against it but I can't vote for this because I don't feel that this is addressing everyone. It's addressing upper management."

The QC, however, did pass a resolution that set the current employment positions and job descriptions in the Financial Management office. Those positions are: Comptroller/ Financial Director, Payroll/ Human Services, Insurance Coordinator and Accounts Payable Coordinator.

The QC also unanimously passed four ordinances.

The first ordinance was an appropriation for development and maintenance to the Mississippi County website.

The Ordinance reads, "WHEREAS, it has been recommended by TadZo Consulting that the Mississippi County, Arkansas Internet website be updated through certain development and maintenance procedures for the purpose of furthering economic development."

The amount appropriated was $51,115.00.

The second ordinance passed was for economic development in the Nucor Paint Project Commitment for $675,000.

The third ordinance eliminates one part-time employment position in the office of financial management and there was an increase in annual hours for the Finance Directors, "necessitating an increase in annual salary and related expenses."

The fourth ordinance eliminated an employment position titled "Assistant Scale House Operator" at the landfill.

County Treasurer Peggy Meatte also made justices aware that the County General fund is at $2,594,425.44 and the County General CD fund is at $3,360, 199.31.