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Joe Black, vice president and director of programs for Southern Bancorp, praised area leaders on the three proposals that cover municipal software, countywide clean up and an economic development master plan.

“We now have three proposals that are close to being ready to go and one which is ready to submit. All three should be finished and ready to submit to our funders by early to mid-June, so let me commend all of you who have worked so hard to make these projects a success. In saying that, one thing that we need to make sure of is that we want to be very accountable and transparent in what these funds are for,” said Black.

A summary of the three proposals would see a request for $76,315.01 submitted for the municipal software, with $44,229 for the software and support and an additional $32,086.01 for hardware. A second proposal is for $277,000 for the countywide cleanup, and the third is for $165,000 for the development of a comprehensive economic development blueprint and implementation plan for the entire county.

According to Michael Bloom with Southern Bancorp, officials have met with municipal leaders in Caldwell, Colt, Hughes, Madison, Palestine, Wheatley and Widener to discuss the proposal, which will upgrade each of the cities accounting and utility billing software. Bloom also serves as the Helena-West Helena city treasurer and said that software would make accounting easier.

“The mayors and some of our staff met with officials from Computer Systems of Arkansas and they presented the software during that meeting. The mayors really liked what they saw. CSA then went out and met with each of the individual cities to find out what their exact needs are. They would then format the software to fit that individual city’s needs. This program is tailored to each municipality and is very user friendly. It assists the mayor and council members with providing better records for their constituents and also assists the mayor with making better financial decisions by providing accurate information,” said Bloom.

While the software proposal is complete, there is still some tweaking to be done to the clean up and economic development requests. The clean up request would allocate $30,000 to hiring a county code enforcement officer, $200,000 for the abatement and inspection of 100 properties across the county, $15,000 for an administrative assistant; $25,000 for maintenance of lots and $2,000 for supplies, reports and indirect costs. Bloom told the group that the same project had been done in Helena-West Helena for $50,000.
“One of the first projects that we did was to demolish about 50 homes, and we were hoping to do the same here. One of the things that you will have to look at is once those properties are abated, what is going to be done to make sure that those lots are kept clean,” said Bloom.

“Everyone needs to understand that each of these proposals has to have deliverable measurable outcomes for the community, and we have to apply that formula to every proposal we see,” said Black. “If nothing changes in the community, then what exactly will that funding deliver? This may mean that by receiving this funding communities that didn’t work together in the past are now working in a coordinated effort, or it may be an overall improvement in the appearance of an area. You have to look at how you can fund this and a lower level and how this project will be sustained once the funding runs out,” said Black.

Black told the group that examples of lowering the costs and keeping the project sustainable could include using municipal or county equipment and workers for some of the projects, or by taking an existing city code enforcement officer and using the grant funding to complement that person’s pay to make them a county code enforcement officer. He also said that in Helena-West Helena, the group focused on finding ways to lower the price paid to contractors for their work by offering them multiple homes to demolish and by allowing salvage companies to begin work, leaving only a shell of a home for contractors.

Bloom also told the group that city codes were used to assist in keeping vacant lots clean by placing a lien or fine on property owners who did not comply with weed ordinances.
Black also said there are rewards for being efficient with grant funding.

“There are rewards for being efficient in the process. Believe me, it’s noted who gets the job done, who produces and who doesn’t. When grant funds are used the right way and used to produce, funding agencies notice that, but they also notice when everything is used just because you received the requested amount. These proposals are very detailed and spell out how the funding will be used. Just remember that when you are efficient it does help you in other areas along the way,” said Black.

Black said the $165,000 for the economic development blueprint appeared on paper like a considerable sum to request, but then pointed out that the plan also gives timelines for completion of projects and how the funding will be spent.

According to the summary, the project would be divided into six phases which would be completed over a six-month period. The phases would include project scoping and planning, community assessment, labor assessment, target industry sector study, a marketing and communications plan and prospect team training. The phases would begin in August, with completion set for February or March of next year.

“One possible concern is that the funding level is at $165,000, and that is a decent amount of money for planning, but the fact that the implementation process has also been included here is a positive. It demonstrates the willpower that has gone into this and the desire of this community to make this happen. This may still need some tweaking, and you have to make sure that these plans aren’t just going to sit on a shelf somewhere. But, it does show that this community is willing to work at this,” said Black.

One area not covered in the initial proposals is education, and Black said he would suggest that some work go into that component.

“Y’all have a pretty good superintendent here. I’ve met him, and he’s willing to put in the work. I’ve been in school districts where that was not the case. It appears you have some good leadership in the county, and that’s a plus other areas don’t have, so you need to take advantage of it,” said Black.

Forrest City School District Superintendent Dr. Jerry Woods told the group that area education leaders had met, and Catherine Coleman with East Arkansas Community College told the group of progress the education group had made.

“The major topics of discussion are with the issues of discipline we’re facing in our school districts and with transitioning adult education towards career pathways programs. We also want to work to have a better grow your own program which would bring students back to this area to teach after they’ve received their education. We might provide them with a scholarship which would basically be a loan that might be forgiven when they return to teach or something to that effect,” said Coleman.

Officials with Southern Bancorp agreed to meet with the education contingent in July to begin work on a proposal that could be presented at the August quarterly meeting of the group.

“When we first met, we came together with a goal of having two or three proposals ready to submit by the end of the year. We’re half way through the year, and y’all are well on your way to having three proposals submitted by June and beginning discussion of a new proposal. Once again, your hard work is to be commended,” said Black.

The next quarterly meeting of the group is set for Aug. 25 at the St. Francis County Courthouse.