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Editorial: As West Fork Turns


June 22, 2011 by wcobserver

They say the popularity of TV soap operas is waning; two long-running shows were recently canceled. Some suggest the decline is due to a rise in popularity of facebook games while others say it is due to the end of the middle class which means fewer stay-at-home moms – they’re all at work.

We have another spin: The demise of soaps could be blamed on the rise of weekly community newspapers all across the country. Using West Fork as an example, these small-town papers may be pulling soap viewers away from TV fiction to read about the real-life episodic drama unfolding at the nearest city hall. (We’re making this up.)
But city hall offers quality drama with real characters and it seems like every week provides the reader with new twists, turns and turmoil. It’s easy to get confused, particularly because of the interweaving timelines and overlapping characters.

Maybe this will help:

There are two main plots to follow at West Fork City Hall (scores of subplots), the city audits and the financial crisis with the water department. The audit story actually began years ago when the auditor for the city became ill and the council tried to put the audits off until he recovered. In 2007, the State told the city to get the audits caught up, but after four years, the city remains five years in arrears on a mandatory financial audit.  Last year, to their credit, the city council had two years of audits completed with a private CPA firm, but that only got the city through 2005.
In Dec. 2010, Mr. “B”(city business manager at the time) signed a contract with the same firm to perform audits for 2007-2010 worth $28,000 without a budget adjustment.  The contract somehow never came up in conversation and the new mayor and her city council didn’t know about the contract for months.  Never mind that the city ordinances call for a $10,000 limit on what the business manager can contract for.

Meanwhile in January, the council authorized the city’s new Mayor Hime to get five years of audits done free by the State, but apparently they never took the task on because they learned of the CPA contract before the mayor or the council.  Last week, the state’s auditing committee sent certified letters to the mayor and council members telling them to come to Little Rock for a little talk. To get ready for that meeting, the council held a special meeting last week and decided they were caught between a rock and a hard place and should just honor the contract at $28,000.  They had to authorize the use of reserve funds to fund the cost since only $9,000 was ever budgeted for audits this year.

​It’s hard to know when the water story begins.  What is known is that the utility had $225,000 when 2006 began and somehow over the past five years, ​went through all of that and siphoned off money from two bond reserves to fund operations.  They were spending more than they were taking in, but the council never knew.  The three member water commission didn’t even meet for 18 months between 2009 and the summer of 2010. Seems that in addition to a leaky budget, the utility has also battled unaccounted water loss, which averaged 30.5 percent in 2010 and topped 42 percent in February of this year.  Add to that a recession and you can see where this is headed.
Then came Friday the 13th, May 13, 2011 when there was no money in the bank account for pay day. That’s when $10,000 was transferred from the general fund to the water department and here’s the kicker.  Neither t​he mayor, nor the council knew or approved the transfer.  The money was transferred by City Treasurer /Water Dept. Secretary Kristie Drymon after she was directed to do so by Mr. “B” (yes, the same one). Their lawyer said the transfer wasn’t legal, but when the council held a special meeting to retroactively approve the transfer, they also got hit up for an additional $15,000 loan and said a 14 percent rate increase would be needed to fix the mess.  Did we mention that neither Drymon or Bartholomew thought to bring up the looming financial crisis just three days before when making their monthly reports at the monthly city council meeting?

As in any good soap, new cast members are emerging.  Former West Fork mayor, Virgil Blackmon was appointed just days before the Friday the 13th transfer.  His first meeting was a special water commission meeting which saw him championing a rate increase.  Ironically, the only guy who’s spent any time on the commission, Greg Tabor, tried to put the brakes on the rate increase and wanted to address the utility’s expenses.  Considering $200,000 in salaries for two part time and two full time employees, he might be on to something.

There was a public meeting scheduled prior to the regular council meeting.

The over-arching theme in all this revolves around the same old suspects – lack of accountability, lack of transparency in government, disregard for the rule of law, and plain old fiduciary neglect by a lot of people. Somebody was asleep at the switch and nobody noticed. This could be a train wreck. ​

Like any serial drama, each week leaves us wondering what will happen next.

Will anybody be held accountable for anything? Will there be a big surprise for the council at Little Rock? Will the water commission have the guts to make some tough choices before asking its water customers to cough up 14 percent more each month?  Will any new policies and procedures come out of ​these messes?  Does somebody know something nobody else knows about something?

Whatever happens the Washington County Observer will be there reporting the news.

​Stay tuned; details every Thursday.



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