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Quorum Court announces support for law enforcement tax break

Greene County’s legislative body has announced its support for a proposed tax break for law enforcement officers.

At its Nov. 15 meeting, the Quorum Court adopted a resolution to that effect.

The resolution expresses the court’s support for legislation recommended by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement to ease the state income tax burden on active full-time law enforcement officers. Senate Bill 304 in the 93rd General Assembly had proposed a $3,000 income tax credit for full-time officers, but the bill saw no action during the session.

“This is one that the state legislature talked about earlier this year,” said Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon, “and the sheriff was asking for our support on this one.”

As described in the resolution, Arkansas ranks next-to-last in average pay for such officers, the average pay of $40,750 being well below the average statewide wage of $42,690. In addition, the average entry-level pay for such officers is only $28,610, not appreciably more than the state’s $11-an-hour minimum wage.

The resolution also noted unprecedented revenue surpluses, as well as an expressed intent of Hutchinson to call a special legislative session to consider numerous tax credits. The sponsors of SB 304 have also expressed intent to file legislation, as noted in the resolution, along the same lines as the previous bill which received no action.

“Just to be transparent,” said District 4 Justice of the Peace (and finance committee chairman) Jonathon Davis, “this isn’t a Greene County tax, it’s not a Paragould tax, it’s not a tax that we have jurisdiction over.”

The resolution, which calls for a copy to be presented to state legislators representing Greene County, passed 10-0, District 1 Justice Dustin Rumsey being absent.

The Quorum Court adopted an ordnance establishing a Federal Grant Award Administration Policy for the county. The policy calls for a Program Director to be the person within the given department who will be responsible for the grant. The county judge is established as a “person with authority” for those grants requiring submission by such a “person with authority.”

The county judge is also to coordinate all grants requiring matching funds, and county budgets must reflect that such funds are available, either in the department’s budget or as the result of amendments to the budget. In all cases, expenditure of grant funds must follow all established procedures for purchases, bidding and paperwork.

With the adoption of an emergency clause, the ordinance became effective immediately upon passage.

The court adopted an amendment to its county budget appropriation ordinance. The amendment took advantage of the realignment of the county sheriff’s budget and the Jail Fund into the Law Enforcement Fund. The move has freed up $150,000 per month in the County General Fund ($600,000 total) to be moved into the Special Reserve Fund. “This is where we intend to pay off some Road Department equipment that we had some loans on,” said Davis. “It’s about the third time we’ve done this, and we expect we’ll do it at least once next year.”

Work completed on culvert replacement project in Greene County

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District held a ribbon cutting ceremony recently in Greene County to celebrated the completion of the Eight Mile Creek Levee Culvert Replacement project.

The $1.6 million contract awarded to contractor Graylee Construction and Demo replaced damaged culverts within the Eight Mile Creek Levee segment with an offset 36-inch, double barrel, reinforced concrete pipe with a flap gate.

Work on the project was completed on Nov. 12.

The replaced culverts were damaged by previous flood events and erosion limits increased to within five feet of the levee crown, which threatened the levee’s integrity and made the project vital. Maintaining the levee’s ability to provide protection, especially at such drainage pipe locations, is crucial to ensuring the entire system works and helps prevent flooding of areas behind the levee.

The non-federal partner working closely with the Memphis District on this successful project completion is the Eight Mile Drainage District of Greene County.

Fighting gas prices, US to release 50 million barrels of oil

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered 50 million barrels of oil released from America’s strategic reserve to help bring down energy costs, in coordination with other major energy consuming nations, including India, the United Kingdom and China.

The U.S. action is aimed at global energy markets, but also at helping Americans coping with higher inflation and rising prices ahead of Thanksgiving and winter holiday travel. Gasoline prices are at about $3.40 a gallon, more than 50 percent higher than a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.

“While our combined actions will not solve the problems of high gas prices overnight, it will make a difference,” Biden promised in remarks. “It will take time, but before long you should see the price of gas drop where you fill up your tank.”

The government will begin to move barrels into the market in mid- to late-December. Gasoline usually responds at a lag to changes in oil prices, and administration officials suggested this is one of several steps toward ultimately bringing down costs.

Oil prices had dropped in the days ahead of the announced withdrawals, a sign that investors were anticipating the moves that could bring a combined 70 million to 80 million barrels of oil onto global markets. But in Tuesday morning trading, prices shot up nearly 2 percent instead of falling.

The market was expecting the news, and traders may have been underwhelmed when they saw the details, said Claudio Galimberti, senior vice president for oil markets at Rystad Energy.

“The problem is that everybody knows that this measure is temporary,” Galimberti said. “So once it is stopped, then if demand continues to be above supply like it is right now, then you’re back to square one.”

Shortly after the U.S. announcement, India said it would release 5 million barrels from its strategic reserves. The British government confirmed it will release up to 1.5 million barrels from its stockpile. Japan and South Korea are also participating. U.S. officials say it’s the biggest coordinated release from global strategic reserves.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said it was “a sensible and measured step to support global markets” during the pandemic recovery. Blain added that British companies will be authorized but not compelled to participate in the release.

The actions by the U.S. and others also risk counter moves by Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia, and by Russia. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have made clear they intend to control supply to keep prices high for the time being.

As word spread in recent days of a coming joint release from U.S. and other countries’ reserves, there were warnings from OPEC interests that those countries may respond in turn, reneging on promises to increase supplies in coming months.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso was among Republicans who criticized Biden’s announcement. The No. 3 Senate Republican said the underlying issue is restrictions on domestic production by the Biden administration.

“Begging OPEC and Russia to increase production and now using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are desperate attempts to address a Biden-caused disaster,” Barrasso said. “They’re not substitutes for American energy production.”

Biden has scrambled to reshape much of his economic agenda around the issue of inflation, saying that his recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure package will reduce price pressures by making it more efficient and cheaper to transport goods.

Republican lawmakers have hammered the administration for inflation hitting a 31-year high in October. The consumer price index soared 6.2 percent from a year ago – the biggest 12-month jump since 1990.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.

The Biden administration argues that the reserve is the right tool to help ease the supply problem. Americans used an average of 20.7 million barrels a day during September, according to the Energy Information Administration. That means that the release nearly equals about two-and-a-half days of additional supply.

“Right now, I will do what needs to be done to reduce the price you pay at the pump,” Biden said. “From the middle class, and working families that are spending much too much and it’s a strain ... you’re the reason I was sent here to look out for you.”

Biden said the White House was looking into potential price gouging by gas companies squeezing customers while making money off the lowered oil costs.

The coronavirus pandemic roiled energy markets. As closures began in April, 2020, demand collapsed and oil futures prices turned negative. Energy traders did not want to get stuck with crude that they could not store. But as the economy recovered, prices jumped to a seven-year high in October.

U.S. production has not recovered. Energy Information Administration figures indicate that domestic production is averaging roughly 11 million barrels daily, down from 12.8 million before the pandemic started.

Republicans have also seized on Biden’s efforts to minimize drilling and support renewable energy as a reason for the decreased production, though there are multiple market dynamics at play as fossil fuel prices are higher around the world.

Biden and administration officials insist that tapping more oil from the reserve does not conflict with the president’s long-term climate goals, because this short-term fix meets a specific problem, while climate policies are a long-term answer over decades.

They argue that the administration’s push to boost renewable energy will eventually mean less dependence in the U.S. on fossil fuels. But that’s a politically convenient argument – in simple terms, higher prices reduce usage, and significantly higher gasoline prices could force Americans into less reliance on fossil fuels.

“The only long term solution to rising gas prices is to continue our march to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels and create a robust green energy economy,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in support of the release.

The White House decision comes after weeks of diplomatic negotiations. Biden and President Xi Jinping of China talked over steps to counter tight petroleum supplies in their virtual meeting earlier this month and “discussed the importance of taking measures to address global energy supplies,” according to the White House.

The Department of Energy will make the oil available from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in two ways; 32 million barrels will be released in the next few months and will return to the reserve in the years ahead, the White House said. Another 18 million barrels will be part of a sale of oil that Congress authorized.

District gets clean audit; landfill to open Nov. 26

It’s always a good sign when an audit report says: “no findings.”

That was the word from Melissa Harrison of the Jonesboro accounting firm Thomas, Speight and Noble, CPAs to the board of the Northeast Arkansas Solid Waste Management District (NEARSWMD) at its Nov. 16 meeting.

The results of the audit had been of concern to some board members given the turbulence at top management that saw the arrest May 6 and dismissal May 7 of then-executive director Jason Wolfenbarger. “Did you look at the early part of this year?” asked Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp. Harrison replied the audit had covered all of 2020 up through the end of April 2021.

According to the report, there was no evidence of any financial irregularities during the report period. “In our opinion, the financial statements [during the period covered by the report] present fairly, in all material respects, the respective financial position of [NEARSWMD] ... in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America,” read the report.

Harrison actually clarified her comments to note a single finding. “It’s the segregation of duties,” she said, “and with an organization as small as yours, you’re going to see it every year.” As noted in the report, the district management “did not segregate accounting duties including initiating, receipting, depositing, disbursing and recording transactions amongst employees” to reduce the risks of fraud and error.

The audit report recommended that such financial accounting duties be segregated to reduce the chances of such fraud or error. But in her comments, Harrison acknowledged that in an organization with a staff as small as NEARSWMD, segregation of such duties is not practical.

The board accepted the audit report unanimously.

The district also heard from executive director Joe Pence that in recognition of the need to receive trash from member cities and counties on Friday, Nov. 26, the district landfill would remain open all day. The landfill will be running a full and a partial crew that day.

It will be closed on Nov. 25, Thanksgiving Day.

Trial on Arkansas mask-mandate ban wraps up with no ruling

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — An Arkansas judge is considering whether to strike down a state law he’s temporarily blocked that bans mask mandates by schools and other governmental entities.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox heard arguments Monday over the law, which has been on hold since August when Fox issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing the mask ban.

On Monday, state health officials said that schools that did not require masks had a 25 percent higher rate of virus transmission than schools that did, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Fox did not issue a ruling Monday and set a Dec. 10 deadline for both sides to submit final written arguments.

In August, Fox ruled the law violates Arkansas’ constitution, saying it discriminates between public and private school students. He said it also infringes on the governor’s emergency powers, as well as the authority of county officials and the state Supreme Court.

More than 100 school districts and public charter schools approved mask mandates following Fox’s order, though many lifted or relaxed them as the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases decreased.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the ban into law in April, but he has since said he regretted that decision and agreed with Fox’s ruling against it.