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Town in Delta marks 1st year of unification: Helena-W. Helena officials see more challenges ahead

Even a year later, the name Helena-West Helena doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Although the town’s name may not have caught on, city officials say residents are beginning to identify more with their unified Delta town as they continue to deal with the challenges and build on the accomplishments that marked its first 12 months.

“You will always have people say, ‘I live out in West Helena,’ or ‘I live in Helena,” Alderman Joe St. Columbia said last week. “People are always going to talk that talk. But they feel now that they are not just part of one city or the other.”

Voters of the then-adjacent cities approved coming together as one by a 2-1 ratio in a March 2005 election. The merger became official on New Year’s Day 2006, when a new City Council convened for the first time to plan how to make it work. Combined, the city has 13,680 residents, based on 2004 Census estimates.

Mayor James Valley said many of the merger’s nuts and bolts have been put in place. Most twin-city services have been consolidated, including the Police, Fire, Street and Sanitation departments. The exception is the Water Department, as officials await the results of a study to determine how best to equalize what had been the rates in separate towns and ensure that the resulting revenue stream will be enough to replace aging infrastructure, Valley said.

The Fire Department merger went the smoothest, he said. Coverage of the whole community is good, particularly after a third fire station opened closer to the center of town. The city hopes to qualify for a better Insurance Services Office rating, which could lead to lower homeowner-insurance rates, Valley said.

Combining the two police departments proved more difficult. The since-unified law enforcement agency moved into the former West Helena police station, because its facilities were in better condition, but that left people on the east side feeling abandoned, Valley said. So, the city opened a satellite office in what had been Helena, manned by a desk sergeant from 8 a.m. to midnight.

St. Columbia, who owns Pasquale’s Tamales, sees reorganization of the Police Department as a high priority for 2007.

“We still have a lot of kinks and things we have got to get worked out,” the alderman said, referring to the consolidation of all city departments. “But at least we have them together, and they are functioning.”

Another immediate City Council focus will be securing a new source of revenue, both Valley and St. Columbia said. Such an effort came up short in April 2006, when voters rejected a 2 percent city sales tax.

“They went for 2 percent, which was soundly defeated,” said Jim Frazier, who served as chairman of a transition team, which worked in the months before consolidation took effect to draft a plan to smooth the way.

“And they didn’t have a plan for [spending] the 2 percent,” observed Frazier, an engineer with Cline-Frazier Consulting Engineers.

In retrospect, the council should have asked voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax, St. Columbia said. Also, he added, the aldermen should have waited longer before asking for money, and given people an opportunity to see how the council was operating.

“You have to understand the lack of trust [in government] when all this began,” St. Columbia said, referring to strife among former West Helena city officials – seven of whom were charged with felony theft of property after paying themselves in advance for service in 2006, even though they would no longer hold office because their city would no longer exist.

“People want to see how you are going to run things, then they are more apt to have the confidence in giving you more money to spend,” St. Columbia said.

A sales tax remains an option for raising revenues, but the city will continue to consider alternative methods, including increasing fees or cutting department budgets, St. Columbia and Valley said.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS NOTED
Among the new city’s more significant accomplishments, reopening its landfill stood out. The state shuttered the site in January 2005 after Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality inspectors found exposed waste, waste in water, signs of erosion and other violations of department regulations.

City officials worked with state leaders to correct those problems, and the landfill, which was once owned by West Helena, reopened in November. With its opening comes the promise of new revenue for the city through usage fees, Valley said.

Other visible signs of progress include the tearing down of several dilapidated buildings, removing abandoned cars and enforcing code.

In addition, Southern Bancorp, a community-development bank that helped finance and develop a strategic plan for Phillips County, continues to work with the community. Cooperative projects include opening a local Boys and Girls Club, which serves 200 children a day; demolishing 130 abandoned or dilapidated structures; developing a public transportation system set to begin operating this year; marketing the city to help land a $350,000 grant from the Save America’s Treasures program for revitalization of the Centennial Baptist Church; and acquiring land downtown near the Knowledge Is Power Program: Delta College Preparatory Charter School, known as the KIPP charter school, to eventually help expand the school to serve students in grades kindergarten-12; it currently serves grades five through nine.

“My impression is that there is generally a positive spirit in Helena-West Helena [since consolidation],” Phillip Baldwin, president and chief executive officer of Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp, said in an interview last week.

The city also has made some strides in economic development, the prospect of which was one of the most highly touted benefits of consolidation during the campaign leading up to the merger vote in March. City leaders theorized that a larger community would create a bigger presence in the eyes of businesses hunting for new locations.

“To some extent that has happened,” Baldwin said.

“I think they are now on radar screens that they didn’t used to be on,” he said “Before, the two cities were actually competing against each other for business. Now, they don’t have to do that anymore.”

Tangible signs of economic progress are visible in a new biodiesel plant and a sweet potato storage and distribution facility under construction in Helena-West Helena, Baldwin said.

The $2 million sweet-potato operation, expected to open in the spring, will dry, cure and store up to 110,000 bushels of sweet potatoes in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. The 40-milliongallon-per-year biodiesel plant expects to produce biodiesel from various materials, including soybean oil. Both projects complement the area’s agricultural foundation and will help encourage diversification of crops, Baldwin said.

In addition to these projects, the Helena-West Helena Port Authority has fielded several inquiries about ethanol plants and other projects for the harbor area, Mayor Valley said.

“What I believe is that people are giving us a second look since we took it on ourselves to remake ourselves,” he said.
Not to say Helena-West Helena hasn’t experienced some rough sledding.

ELECTION RANCOR
A bitter election in November – a little more than 10 months after the inaugural City Council was sworn into office – caused tension among some aldermen and other city officials. Ultimately, voters reelected the council members, with the exception of Kenneth Harman, who opted not to run again. Voters also returned to office the city’s four elected officials: the mayor, city clerk, city attorney and treasurer.

“The way I look at it is a mixed review,” Valley said of the election results. “In part, they thought we had done well enough, and the other part is that we did not really have an opportunity to prove ourselves.”

St. Columbia said he believed that council members can and will work together.

“Everybody has different ideas in how they want things done,” he said. “The difficulty in part was communication and getting everybody to understand what the biggest needs were and how to work together towards those goals.”

Frazier, of the transition team, said he had been somewhat disappointed in the new city government – particularly its decision to largely ignore the work of the transition team.

“All seven of us [team members] spent lots and lots of time, and we had the advice and counsel from the university [of Arkansas] system and the [Arkansas] Municipal League,” he said. “We didn’t take it lightly.”

The team forwarded a list of 24 recommendations for operation of the new city, but the council rejected most of them.

For example, Frazier said, the transition team recommended a metropolitan police force to serve Helena-West Helena and Phillips County. That didn’t happen, crime has gone up, and the Police Department can’t handle the increase, he said.

Frazier also expressed concern about a letter Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Todd Murray sent in early November to Police Chief Vincent Bell complaining that information on 79 felony cases was never forwarded to the prosecutor’s office from the Police Department, meaning those cases never went to court.

“Maybe [crime] is just getting worse period, but it has been worse,” Frazier said. “I think that is obvious.”

Valley said the City Council appreciated the transition team’s work, but noted that some of the recommendations weren’t feasible and added that the council had to decide on its own how best to proceed.

Ultimately, Baldwin said, consolidation was a wise move, because it was necessary for the future of Helena-West Helena.

“Without it, I don’t think the basis for substantial improvement would be there,” he said. “With the merger of the cities, you have the basis for fundamental change. You have a cohesive municipal government, and I think that is extremely important.”

St. Columbia concurred.

“There is still a mountain of work to do, but we are getting it done,” he said. “I think the people are generally pleased with what we are doing. … Rome was not built in a day, and we are not going to put Helena-West Helena in fine tune in one day either.”

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