A newly minted highway sign will be unveiled today on U.S. 49 at the Arkansas Delta’s eastern edge, revealing the name “Helena-West Helena” and signaling a new start for a community beset by political infighting and saddled with a lifeless economy.

With its characteristic green and white, the sign serves not only as a physical marker of what has been accomplished by residents and civic leaders in bringing about a merger of two established cities, but also as a symbol of the work to come in building one new town from two old ones.

“It’s like a baby being born,” said Joe St. Columbia, one of 10 recently elected aldermen who will serve on the first governing council for Phillips County’s newest city, which officially came into being at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. City officials, however, are treating today as the city’s ceremonial beginning.

“We’re making history here in little ol’ Helena, Arkansas,” St. Columbia said, catching himself using an old name for a new town.

The birth was a long time in coming – the labor pains intense – but, residents hope the result will be a positive development for a community that desperately needs one.

The most recent U.S. Census figures rate Phillips County as one of the nation’s poorest, with 32 percent of its residents living below the poverty level. The unemployment rate for Phillips County in November was 7.2 percent, compared with 4.3 percent for Arkansas and 4.8 percent nationally. A steady population decline has reduced the county’s population from a high of 46,254 in 1950 to the most recent 2004 Census Bureau estimate of 24,309.

Considering the school district was taken over by the state in September for fiscal mismanagement, and the West Helena City Council has long been mired in conflict and questionable activities, locals say there haven’t been many positives in a long while.

“What I saw was the city going down,” said Trece Shepherd-Williams, the only female alderman on the new Helena-West Helena City Council, explaining why she supported consolidation and decided to run for alderman.

The merger is a chance for a new beginning, said James Valley, the new mayor for the consolidated city.

“It is an opportunity to put in place the best practices of the city,” Valley said. “People are motivated to work together to cross all divides.”

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Though not a first for Arkansas, the consolidation of Helena and West Helena is likely the largest combination of cities in state history, said Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League.

“I would rate this fairly high from a historical standpoint of two good-sized municipalities consolidating,” Zimmerman said.

“That’s very rare that you see that happen in Arkansas or anywhere else.” The new highway sign on U.S. 49 uses Census 2000 numbers, crediting the new city with a population of 15,012. That total would put it among the top 25 largest in the state. Census 2004 population estimates, however, show shrinkage in both towns – down to 5,748 in Helena and 7,932 in West Helena – for a total of 13,680.

Though the population of both cities has dwindled rapidly, Valley said he hopes the new city can make enough progress to reverse that trend.

“Hopefully, we can stop the decline and start growing in the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.

The key to growth is economic development, Valley said, defining the merger as critical to breathing new economic life into the community.

The greatest benefit of consolidation, supporters of the merger say, is that the new city will enjoy a larger presence in the eyes of businesses hunting for new locations. Separately, merger supporters say, the population of the two towns was not enough to register with business recruiters looking for a certainsize city, but, together, the combined population will make more of an impression.

Also, the two cities will no longer be competing with each other.Combining populations also will put the city in line to be considered for more government grants, said Phil Baldwin, president and chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp, a community development bank, which helped finance and develop a strategic plan for Phillips County.

“The other thing I think it does is to create, I hope, a more unified city government,” Baldwin said, referencing the recent strife among the West Helena City Council.

In 2005, the council chambers was a hotbed of conflict, including attempts by a group of five aldermen to unseat three other aldermen, abolish all city boards and commissions, reinstate a fired police chief, derail passage of a city budget and, most recently, attempt to award themselves $1,000 bonuses.

“Businesses are looking at 100 different cities, and every one of those wants them, so if you have one that is in turmoil, you just put an X by that name, and you go to the next one,” Baldwin said. “Political stability will be something that will help attract businesses.”

CONSTRUCTING A CITY

Baldwin described the merger as “a foundational event” that will provide a good base upon which other goals can be accomplished. But change won’t happen overnight, he said.

“It is not that all of the historical problems are going to magically disappear, so we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about it,” Baldwin said. “But it is, I think, something that is viewed positively.” After voters approved consolidation by a 2-1 margin in March, work began almost immediately planning the new city.

Starting in June, a seven-member transition team appointed by the mayors of both cities worked feverishly to develop recommendations to the new City Council on how best to unify municipal departments and services. The result was a list of 24 recommendations, ranging from making the mayor’s position full time, to creating a metropolitan police force that will serve both the new city and the county and answer to the Phillips County sheriff.

“I think the main thing we accomplished was at least identifying the issues that they are going to be faced with,” said Jim Frazier, chairman of the transition team. “What we tried to do is recommend what should be done and ignore the politics of it. Of course, we all understand that politics will always play a part.” Consolidation likely won’t save the new city any money, at least not at first, because the salaries of Helena employees will need to be brought up to the rate of West Helena city workers, Frazier said.

“I think the best thing [consolidation] can do is streamline the government,” he said. “I have never really thought about any savings, but maybe better service. It is a chance for them to sort of start over and try to get some qualified department heads in there and give the people better service.” The biggest challenge faced by the transition team, and likely facing the new City Council, is development of a budget, Frazier said. Ultimately, budget-making was impossible for the transition team to accomplish, because both cities kept such poor financial records – in some cases, Frazier said, only handwritten records on scrap sheets of paper.

“Each city has been poorly managed in my opinion,” Frazier said. “We are a poor [community], all of the people are poor and the government is poor because of the tax base, and there is not room for inefficiencies and waste, and there has been some of that.” Valley has already presented to the City Council his preliminary budget proposal, which calls for all employees of both cities to keep their jobs and attempts to bring into parity the pay of department heads. The council must pass a final budget by Feb. 1, according to state law.

SALARIES AND TAXES

Tough decisions will still need to be made about the organizational structure of the new city, and pay scales in particular are an immediate concern, Valley said. “I don’t think we can ethically ask two captains to work side by side being paid at two different levels,” he said, referring to the disparity in the salaries in Helena and West Helena.

The council also intends to immediately pass a new code of ordinances for the new city. Under state consolidation law, Helena’s ordinances become void with the merger and the laws of the largest of the two cities, in this case West Helena, become the law for both cities.

This creates a problem, because some of Helena’s laws differ from those of West Helena. For example, Helena levied a sales tax on hotel and restaurant receipts and allowed for liquor by the drink, while West Helena did neither. The City Council was expected to hold a meeting at 8 p.m. Saturday to adopt a code of ordinances, and resolve differences between the two cities’ laws.

During a conference with the new council Wednesday, representatives of the Arkansas Municipal League presented aldermen with a model code of laws the city can use.

“It’s a bare-bones collection of ordinances,” said Cliff Sward, an attorney with the Municipal League, who spent the past two months developing the new code. “It’s enough to get you through the beginning.” The new council expects over time to make some unpopular decisions, such as pushing for a citywide sales tax, which Valley called absolutely necessary.

Aldermen on Wednesday appeared united behind the idea of a sales tax, noting that a 1 percent levy could bring in as much as $1.4 million a year.

“To have a new sales tax, it is not going to be popular,” St. Columbia said. “But it is going to be the salvation of this community.” The decision to push for a new tax will be especially difficult, politically, given that all members of the new City Council will be up for re-election next year to bring the city elections in line with other Arkansas municipalities. But Shepherd-Williams said it must happen.

“My goal is not to get in office and stay in office. My goal is to make a difference,” she said. “I’m optimistic that it is going to be done. I’m not saying it is going to be us that will get it all done, but at least we can get the critical stuff done.” The work ahead leaves little time for sadness about the loss of identity of the two towns, one of which, Helena, incorporated in 1833, was among the oldest in the state, Shepherd-Williams said.

B. Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas system and a native of Helena, agreed, saying he didn’t regret the loss of the Helena name or the separate identities of the two towns. Sugg joked that he and his wife, Jenny, who is from West Helena, crossed city lines successfully long ago.

“I think this represents a fresh opportunity,” Sugg said, speaking of the formation of a new town. “I think it is an opportunity for [Helena-West Helena] to be a model for all cities.”

BLUEPRINT FOR A NEW CITY

Recommendations of the Helena-West Helena Transition Team to the Helena-West Helena City Council.

1. Adopt a model code of city ordinances developed by the Arkansas Municipal League.

2. If the model code is not adopted, enact an ordinance declaring that all existing ordinances in Helena and West Helena will remain in effect until no later than April 15.

3. Retain boards and commissions of both cities, with the same membership, until no later than April 15.

4. Make the mayor’s position full time.

5. Develop job descriptions for all employees in administrative or service positions by no later than March 1.

6. Reimburse aldermen only for meetings they attend.

7. Require anyone appointed to committees, commissions and task forces to attend meetings regularly, with dismissal possible after missing three sequential meetings without an appropriate reason.

8. Broadcast council meetings on public-access television, and possibly radio, and post minutes on an Internet Web site.

9. Keep employees of both cities in their former jobs to perform their respective duties until no later than April 15.

10. Decrease management and increase direct-line service staff in service departments.

11. Give preference, as much as possible, to employees of the city of Helena at the time
of unification as new positions are filled in the newly reorganized service departments of the new city.

12. Create a metropolitan police force to serve Helena-West Helena and Phillips County.

13. Expand the West Helena Water Commission to include Helena, with the understanding that revenues will be used for maintaining and improving the system with annual allotments made to the general fund.

14. Create a new Water-Sanitation Commission to review water and sewer rates and establish a uniform rate for water and sewer for the community as a whole, with a plan for equalizing rates in not less than 18 months.

15. Operate on a budget that consists of the 2005 budgets of Helena and West Helena until no later than April 15.

16. Require quarterly reports providing financial information on accounts receivable and accounts payable.

17. Contract with a certified public accountant for a fixed period of time to conduct an audit to serve as a starting point for the new city.

18. Develop a request for a general sales tax for specific needs to be voted on by city residents.

19. Set franchise taxes at an appropriate rate to raise additional city revenue.

20. Lend mayor and City Council endorsement and assistance to implementation of a strategic community plan for Phillips County, developed with the help of Southern Bancorp.

21. Apply the 1 percent tax on hotel-motel and restaurant receipts now collected only in Helena.

22. Consider the purchase of property for construction of a new City Hall.

23. Request a study on how to help eliminate duplicate, nonconnected street names in both cities.

24. Create a computerized database for each service area, and for the city as a whole, containing information on all city-owned property in excess of $500.