Sebastian County approves budget, hears weapons complaint

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 82 views 

The Tuesday (Dec. 20) meeting of the Sebastian County Quorum Court had officially adjourned when citizen James Mitchell stood up to speak his peace to court members and Sebastian County Judge David Hudson.

“I want to ask the quorum court to consider an ordinance tonight for a safety belt around property, where guns are being fired within 500 feet,” Mitchell said. “These are assault weapons, and they’re being fired between 100 and 200 feet from my home.”

Mitchell, who owns Jamie Mitchell Photography in Fort Smith and lives in the County Ridge Estates area, was enraged that neighbor Dr. Charles Parker could legally target practice with “fifty caliber weapons,” and that the county had no ordinance in place against it.

“His Second Amendment right endangers my family. I lose one-third access to my property whenever he’s out there firing. It’s been a year since I’ve come to you with this, and I’ve been waiting patiently. I just want it addressed tonight.”

Hudson advised that an ordinance like the one Mitchell was requesting could not be undertaken until “research is complete,” noting that he is in the process of consulting with the prosecuting attorney to decide what the county’s options are.

“We have to be very clear about what regulations we impose regarding what people can do with their property in this area. We must be precise,” Hudson said, before advising Mitchell to seek an abatement in “dealing with the nuisance.”

“You can take action right now while this is being evaluated,” Hudson continued.

Hudson promised there would be status reports in upcoming meetings regarding where the county is in possibly administering such an ordinance, what repercussions there would be, and what the impact could be on staff. Current regulation allows the discharge of firearms in locations, such as County Ridge Estates, as long as it can be qualified as “target practice.” Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck confirmed his department has no legal recourse under the current situation.

During the meeting, county officials passed the $35.1 million 2012 Sebastian County budget. Notable line items include $6.4 million to the county’s road fund, $2.3 million to the assessor’s office, close to $1 million each for 911 and the county recorder, and almost $22 million to the general fund.

The budget excludes pay increase requests from Sheriff Hollenbeck for his department, which according to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), is “understaffed and underpaid,” with many of his employees not seeing merit increases “in eight to 10 years,” Hollenbeck said.

Quorum Court member Shawn Looper, who voted against the requested pay increases, said in an interview after meeting, “It was just a lot of money to be spending at this time with a $43,000 county-wide job survey coming up. I would have really liked something more scaled down, but the Sheriff was asking to bring the jailers to midpoint plus one percent for each year there hadn’t been a raise, all at once. I completely agree they’re underpaid, though, and I’m hoping to see this come up again in the spring following results of the survey.”

Quorum Court member Bob Schwartz added, “I think we as a court have done some great things with the Sheriff’s department and computer updates, and I want to do what’s right for the county. But sometimes you’ve got to take baby steps. In other words, we can’t do it all at once.”

According to Hollenbeck, the department boosted revenues and cut expenses to the tune of $1.3 million over the last year. The increases he was asking for totaled around $290,000.

Also, in a follow-up to the $1.8 million Enterprise Software project approval passed in November after initially receiving a frosty reception from court members.

“That is a lot of money and I am not a computer guru,” said Quorum Court member Phil Hicks when asked why he changed his vote and supported the computer system. “I knew all along how much we needed to get the county into the 21st Century, but I had concerns, those being which department would be the beneficiary of the new system; why were some departments paying a larger percentage, and would we be getting our money’s worth?”

Hicks continued: “Once I did more research, talked to people who know computer systems, and the percentages were adjusted, I felt more comfortable with the decision. I am very hesitant when something is put in front of me and an immediate decision is needed. I like to research and see where and what the tax dollar is being used for. We all work hard for our money and we want the biggest bang for our buck.”

Looper, who also changed his vote and supported the computer system, added, “What changed my mind concerning the Enterprise Software agreement was how the elected officials stood together in stating there was a need. It’s still an awful lot of money to be spending, but the consensus was the package was necessary in order for our employees to best perform their duties in serving the citizens of Sebastian County.”

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Sebastian County Quorum Court is slated for Jan. 24, 2012.